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Curtis Granderson’s Defense and His MVP Prospects

As expected, the campaign has begun in New York. Even prior to his inside the park home run on Sunday, Yankees scribes have started penning the case for their hometown man, Curtis Granderson, to win the AL MVP Award. The case makes plenty of sense from an old school perspective. Granderson is the best player on a playoff-bound team, and has generally outproduced his fellow playoff-bound peers at the plate. With 35 homers he trails only Jose Bautista, who won’t sniff the postseason. That he leads the league in runs and RBI furthers his case among those who actually vote for the award.

The statistically inclined audience tends to ignore most of the above factors. There are plenty of other issues at stake, such as how many runs the player created irrespective of his teammates. There’s also defense. That’s why WAR is often the place a statistically inclined fan will start the MVP conversation. Granderson doesn’t fare as well here, ranking fifth in the AL with 6.1 WAR. Worse, he trails four players in his own division. But WAR does contain a one-year sample of UZR, and we know that one year of UZR can provide misleading results. Is this the case for Granderson?

In The Wall Street Journal today (subscription required), Dan Barbarisi writes about the Yankees’ stellar outfield. It focuses mostly on Brett Gardner, whose UZR, currently 19.0, leads all competitors by a significant margin. Nick Swisher has dramatically improved in terms of UZR this year, producing more defensive runs above average in 2011 than he has in his entire career to this point. Granderson, however, has suffered at the hands of UZR. While he has fared well enough in the past, this year he has dropped all the way to -9.2, his worst mark since 2008.

The nearly one-win ding on defense has certainly cost Granderson on the WAR leader boards. As The Star-Ledger’s Marc Carig wrote later in the morning, no player in the AL MVP race has been more adversely affected than Granderson when it comes to defense. Carig removed defense from the equation entirely, while preserving the other WAR factors: hitting and base running, plus the positional and replacement level adjustments. With defense flattened, Granderson sits behind only Bautista and leads the other contenders by a significant margin.

Why would anyone want to cut defense out of the equation? After all, it plays a role in a player’s overall value, so it seems a folly to omit it from MVP considerations. For starters, there is the sampling issue of UZR. If, as the maxim goes, we need three years of UZR data to properly evaluate a player, then why do we include single-year UZR in WAR? The other issue relates to Granderson’s actual value on defense. While many scouts and observers will confirm the poor defensive abilities of other UZR trailers, such as Raul Ibanez and Lance Berkman, fewer, if any, will find significant flaws with Granderson’s defense. He might not be the best center fielder in the league, but he’s also not the worst, as 2011 UZR tells it. This comes both from the eye test and from multi-year UZR.

One interesting issue Barbarisi raises is that of positioning. The following paragraph is particularly telling.

The way Gardner covers ground allows the Yankees to use different defensive alignments, shifting Granderson more toward right field in some situations because they assume Gardner can cover all of left-center.

Despite the shift, Granderson is responsible for the same zones as all other center fielders. While it’s true that he’s not debited for plays that Gardner makes in Granderson’s zones, Granderson also does not get the credit for those plays. Since UZR compares players on a positional basis, Granderson’s low UZR might simply be the product of him not making the same number of plays as his fellow center fielders. Since poor left fielders flank many of them, they have more opportunities to improve their UZR scores by making plays in the left fielder’s zone. Granderson has no such opportunity. Gardner is responsible for those zones, and he typically makes the plays.

This issue cropped up in the recent past with Andrew McCutchen. When John Russell managed the Pirates he positioned the Pirates in a way that would take away the bigger part of the ballpark. It’s debatable whether this odd shift was effective on the whole, but it certainly took a toll on the outfielders’ UZR scores. This was particularly perplexing when it came to McCutchen, who, by way of every scouting report ever written about him, was a superb defender in center field. Yet in his first two years in the majors he produced negative UZR scores: -1.3 and -13.7. The Pirates replaced Russell with Clint Hurdle this off-season, who presumably ceased the shift. The result: McCutchen has produced a 7.0 UZR this year, which is a bit more in line with expectations.

If positioning does play into Granderson’s heavily negative UZR, then how should that be handled in terms of WAR? Should we actually penalize him for an effective team strategy? After all, the Yankees’ outfield ranks third in the majors in UZR, trailing only the Diamondbacks and the Red Sox. Shouldn’t there be some way of adjusting for this, especially as WAR plays an increasing role among MVP voters?

The truth is that no single stat can perfectly relate a player’s on-field value. While the WAR framework is strong, it’s only as good as the inputs. If UZR is inaccurately assessing Granderson, due to unique positioning, then it won’t properly rate him among his peers. As with every player evaluation issue, we should look beyond the surface and find the truth in every area we can. And who knows: maybe UZR does have it right on Granderson. Maybe he has declined precipitously this year. But with all the questions surrounding that assessment, including observations to the contrary and Granderson’s superb flanker, it’s likely that we have to look beyond WAR to get at true grasp of Granderson’s place in the MVP conversation.

(That said, Jose Bautista, at this moment in time, is the AL MVP. Just to make that clear.)