Royals skipper Trey Hillman recently spoke about the defense of his new first baseman, Mike Jacobs, subtly hinting that the numbers deeming him poor are not entirely accurate. Jacobs, according to Hillman, is very good at handling the 3-1 plays in which the first baseman lobs the ball to the pitcher covering the base, which apparently makes him much more of a solid fielder than meets the eye. Whenever I read quotes like this, or stories about players discussing the shortcomings of defensive metrics, I get a bit annoyed because it seems that those doing the talking have a complete lack of understanding of how the metrics work. Hillman may be an innocent bystander in all of this, but his words, for whatever reason, tipped me over the top.
Mike Jacobs, over the last three seasons, has the following UZR numbers: -3.2, -4.1, -11.1. His Dewan + – numbers further confirm the fielding ineptitude. But when managers or players hear numbers like this, they automatically assume it refers to errors made, which is utterly incorrect. Let’s look further at Jacobs, shall we? Thankfully, UZR breaks down where the runs saved/allowed come from, and a more granular analysis at Jacobs shows that he is quite adept in certain areas and equally awful in others.
Jacobs’ double play stats averaged around -0.4 runs/season, placing him right around average. His error runs, which show the runs saved via not making errors relative to the average player at the position, average out to +0.5 runs/season. Essentially, those defending Jacobs because he does not make many errors are correct, but not making errors does not automatically result in a solid fielder. The issue with Mike Jacobs is range, and the fact that he, well, does not have any. Over the last three years, his range has cost the team an average of -6.0 runs.
Put everything together and a player with an average -6.1 runs/season on defense emerges. Certainly not the worst fielder in the history of the sport, but by no means an effective one. Jacobs looks solid in terms of double plays and limiting errors, but his lack of range prevents him from reaching balls that other first basemen can glove. So, just because Jacobs has the reputation of being a poor fielder does not necessarily mean he stinks in every aspect of fielding, and along similar lines, the areas in which he performs well, though important to the mainstream, are not the sole barometers for defensive prowess.
Jacobs’ former teammate, Hanley Ramirez, is another interesting defensive case study, as HanRam has the reputation for being a Jeter-esque fielder despite two league average or slightly worse seasons out of three in the big leagues. That’s right, in 2006 and 2008, Hanley the Manly put up UZR marks of -5.5 and -0.3, respectively, which are much better than the numbers posted by Jacobs given the difficulty of the position. Via positional adjustments, remember that, assuming 162 games for each player, an SS with a -7.5 run defensive mark is equal in overall fielding value to a first baseman with a +12.5 defensive mark, because 1B is very easy to play relative to captaining the infield.
What earned Ramirez the reputation was his -19 run performance in 2007, but getting granular once more shows an interesting tell. Ramirez has been above average in ability to turn double plays in all three of his seasons, and his error runs are not necessarily the ultimate cause of his defensive downfall either, as the -7.3 ErrR in 2007 was not significantly higher than the -5.8 ErrR in 2006. Look at his range runs, though: -1.1, -13.3, +2.5.
In both 2006 and 2008, Ramirez was virtually league average in terms of range, but he lost everything in 2007. The three years may not be a large enough sample from which to draw any conclusions, but my gut instinct tells me that the 2007 season is more fluky than indicative of his true talent level. We have two players here, one of whom is a poor fielder that elicits defense from fans based on an ignorance of what actually goes into evaluating fielding, and another who has garnered a reputation in the mainstream for one really bad year that may very well go down as a fluke among flukes. The bottom line is that more goes into fielding valuations than simply the “ability” to not make errors, and understanding these components is a must in order to ever have intellectual discourse regarding the subject.