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UZR you serious?

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  February 25, 2010 03:58 PM

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300youk.jpgFORT MYERS, Fla. -- More than any other sport, baseball is a game ruled by numbers. Those statistics have become more and more esoteric as the game has evolved to be evaluated less through the lens of a pair of binoculars and more by Bill James and binary code.

Technology has made us slaves to WiFi and DVR and it's rebooted how we follow our national pastime thanks to stats like OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) and VORP (value over replacement player). Sorry, if you just got used to OPS there is a new "it" acronym -- UZR.

UZR looks like the abbreviation for some breakaway Russian republic that you'd see as an Olympic medal count went rolling across the screen, or the measure of how much protection your sunscreen is giving you.

It stands for Ultimate Zone Rating, a complicated and calculated way to quantify defensive prowess, which is the final frontier of Sabermetrics.

UZR has been wrongly cited as the guiding force in the defensive-minded construction of the 2010 Red Sox. The team doesn't even use UZR. It has its own in-house defensive measurement.

While UZR might be all the rage in some fan and media baseball circles it's still a very foreign subject in the clubhouse of the Red Sox. I thought it might be fun to ask a few Sox players if they knew what UZR was while being upfront and telling them this reporter doesn't understand it.

Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis is a Gold Glover, the traditional standard of defensive excellence. What does he think of UZR?

"I don't even know what it is," he said. "Hopefully, my UZR is sick."

Actually, Youk it is. According to fangraphs.com, Youkilis's 5.7 UZR was the third highest in the majors among first basemen with 500 innings or more of play, meaning he is considered 5.7 percent better than an average first baseman.

New Sox center fielder Mike Cameron, a three-time Gold Glover, knows a thing or two about defense. The 37-year-old Cameron is the poster child for the Sox' run prevention philosophy. He has been in the big leagues since 1995, when most of us were still using dial-up Internet.

UZR, Mike?

"Whatever it is. I know I had a pretty good one. It's got to be pretty good," said Cameron.

Cameron is right. Last season, he had the fourth-highest UZR of any major league center fielder who played at least 500 innings (10.0).

Even if you don't understand the methodology behind the defensive metric madness, it does have some merit. We all noticed that Mike Lowell's hip reduced his range at third base last season.

According to fangraphs.com, of the 33 players who played at least 500 innings last season at third base, Mike Lowell tied David Wright of the Mets for the worst UZR at minus-10.4. The best third-base UZR belonged to American League Gold Glover Evan Longoria (18.5). The second was Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, who won the National League Gold Glove (18.1).

There was some surprise when it was announced that Cameron would take over for Jacoby Ellsbury in center field, but the numbers back up the decision too.

Ellsbury had a minus-18.6 UZR, the lowest among 31 major league center fielders with 500 innings. Still, it's hard to believe a guy who stole home can't cover enough ground in center.

"I still don't really know what it is," said Ellsbury of UZR. What he does know is that he is not sure computer calculations can measure defensive ability.

"I think baseball people can tell who is a good defensive player, who has range," said Ellsbury. "You ask players in the league and they'll tell you. I think it's people that know the game and watch on a consistent basis that can tell."

Youkilis agreed.

"My personal opinion is everything in this world has gotten so technologically savvy. You can break down the game of baseball on a computer 100 times, but the bottom line is people got to go out there and play the game," Youkilis said. "Things are going to happen in games. There is still a human element. There is a human element to everything. Somebody can mess up on one play. There is Mother Nature too, the sun or a rainy day, or a guy slips. There is so much different stuff that you have to put in there, so I don't really go off of those UZRs. Is it UZRs?"

Yes, Youk it is.

Ah, what happened to the simpler days of baseball card stats? Youkilis had some fun with the argot of alphabet soup stats that are now in the game. "My OBPOSTR," he said.

"There are too many stats," said Youk. "I don't know. How do they do defense? If you make an error, you make an error. If you get to a ball, you get to a ball. What if you have a bad hamstring that day, and you can't get to that ball down the line that day? I don't know what they evaluate, but a good ball player is a good ball player. That's all I know."

Don't worry. The Sox know how to use computer calculations and trends without becoming beholden to them. Manager Terry Francona said defensive metrics are "more of a tool to evaluate in the winter. It doesn't come into play in the 7th inning."

That's a relief. The last things fans need is one more reason to second-guess a Sox manager.

Besides, there is really only one stat Sox players are concerned with this season.

"I guess the biggest stat is just wins and losses," said Ellsbury. "We look at at the end of the day do we win or lose."  

That's still easy to measure.
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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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