Is Zimmerman a Better Fielder than Longoria?

Like many wannabe saberdorks, I love Joe Posnanski’s work. It’s not just because he’s so much better than, say, [horrible-and-inexplicably-award-winning columnist for major newspaper] or [rumor-mongering baseball reporter prone to bouts of self-righteousness]. This isn’t a Posnanski tribute, but in short: Posnanski is great because he tells an engaging story and incorporates good baseball analysis without confusing one for the other.

This doesn’t mean that I always agree with Poz.* I disagree with many things written by sportswriters. In Posnanski’s case, I think highly enough of him that it’s worth quibbling over minor points, unlike, say, with [arrogant breaker of stories for your dad’s favorite sports magazine that we would have found out about anyway], who is only worth refuting because of his [alleged] influence. I hold Posnanski to a higher standard (not that he knows I exist).

*Or “JoPo”; has a sports journalist ever had so many different nicknames?

Which brings us to today’s Poz post on likely future Hall-of-Famers currently under 30. It’s an entertaining (if unsurprising) read. One claim in particular caught my eye. Posnanski writes that Ryan Zimmerman is “probably better defensively” than Evan Longoria. Now, Longoria didn’t qualify for the list (hasn’t played 500 major-league games), so while I do think he is the better player, that isn’t the point here. The issue is whether Zimmerman is “probably better defensively” than Longoria, as Posnanski claims.

Although he doesn’t cite specific defensive numbers in this piece, Posnanski has used Dewan’s plus/minus system in the past (although he has increasingly cited UZR). Here are the Dewan numbers for Zimmerman and Longoria in seasons in which they’ve both played (2008 and 2009):

Plus/Minus 2008:
Zimmerman: +10 plays (+11 runs) in 910.2 innings
Longoria: +11 plays (+9 runs) in 1045.2 innings

Plus/Minus 2009:
Zimmerman: +28 (+22 runs) in 1337.2 innings
Longoria: +21 (+17 runs) in 1302.2 innings

Over the last two seasons, Zimmerman has been 7 runs better in about 100 fewer innings according to plus/minus. Seven runs is seven runs, but given everything that is rightly said about the large error bars on defensive metrics, the gap isn’t as significant as it looks.

Given the various issues with defensive metrics, looking at other systems will give us a more perspicuous overview. Here at FanGraphs, UZR is used to measure fielding. I’m not qualified to argue which metric is the best; I’m simply using them as separate data points. UZR has a helpful “rate stat” version, UZR/150 (runs above/below average per 150 games). I’ve included the “non-rate” runs in parentheses.

UZR/150 2008:
Zimmerman: +3.4 (+2.1)
Longoria: +20.1 (18.5)

UZR/150 2009:
Zimmerman: +20.1 (+18.1)
Longoria: +19.2 (+14.9)

Suddenly things are less obvious. While 2009 was practically even, in 2008 UZR has Longoria almost two wins better. Their career UZR/150s: +12 for Zimmerman, +19.6 for Longoria. It’s a smaller sample for Longoria, but if you check Jeff Zimmerman’s regressed and age-adjusted 2010 UZR/150 projections, Zimmerman is at +10, and Longoria +12.

Defensive stats are obviously important, but when estimating fielding skill, in particular, we need to weight visual evidence — scouting — heavily. I’m not a professional scout, and unlike Posnanski, I don’t have access to them. Perhaps legendary scout Art Stewart, who told Poz “You will remember this day for the rest of your life” after Royals great Chris Lubanski‘s first batting session at Kauffman Stadium, thinks Zimmerman is way better than Longoria. Jokes aside, scouting is essential for estimating defensive ability.

While most of us don’t have access to professional scouts, we do have access to the
Fans Scouting Report. In both 2008 and 2009 Longoria was rated as (slightly) better than Zimmerman.

Given that plus/minus seems to “prefer” Zimmerman — and UZR, Longoria — does this make the Fans Scouting Report a tiebreaker in Longoria’s favor? No. Given the relative closeness of the rating, neither the numbers nor the testimony of observers has the degree of reliability for us to make that kind of call. However, contra Posnanski, I do not think we can say that either player is “probably better defensively” than the other.

Molehill converted to mountain? Check. Happy American Thanksgiving, everyone!

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

36 Responses to “Is Zimmerman a Better Fielder than Longoria?”

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  1. pm says:

    Watch the games. Zimmerman is clearly the best defensive 3B in decades. Go ask all of the great 3B who they prefer, and they probably unanimously prefer Zimmerman.

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    • Michael says:

      I mean, I think Matt’s right that we’re making a big deal out of nothing, but what? How can you be so definitive? Did you yourself ask the great 3B who they prefer? Is this a joke? Who am I?

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    • Nik says:

      Sorry but that would involve watching a baseball team based in Washington, DC, and I can’t bring myself to that.

      Really you want to ask the great 3B who they prefer, have you learned nothing from say, oh, Joe Morgan?

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    • AInquisition says:

      Robin Ventura says hi.

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  2. Matt B. says:

    Good read, both are great.

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  3. longgandhi says:

    Did you take into account that Zimmerman was playing through a chest injury for most of 2008?

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Thanks for the comment. This is an important issue that comes up now and then and is worth addressing, briefly, as best I can.

      I know he was hurt, and I know that this is something that intuitively seems to be important. Still, there are reasons not to tweak things any more than they are.

      How do we determine how much Zimmerman was effected by the injury? After all, while UZR seemed to “reflect” that injury, his +/- numbers weren’t effected. Should we only apply it to his UZR numbers, or assume that he was “really” a +40 3B accordingn to plus/minus numbers? See what I’m getting at? How do we “convert” the injury thing into something helpful for this comparison? Was he also “playing hurt” when he posted a 4.7 UZR/150 in 2006?

      The Fans don’t seem to think it effected him too much, seeing him as one of the best defenders in baseball during 2008.

      When you start making these sorts of adjustments based on assumptions, you run into dangerous territory. Here’s a helpful quote from MGL about injuries and projections:

      “He may have been injured, but to just decide to “toss out” an injury-plagued year? First of all, what a player does is part of his performance history, injured or not! Players get injured. Part of a projection includes the chance that he gets and plays injured in the future. If we only use and project “perfect health” data, well…. And who is to say what data gets tossed and what data doesn’t? That’s easy, right. If we want a rosy projection, we’ll just toss out all the bad data when we “think” that a player was playing injured. If we want a poor projection, we’ll just keep that data.”


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      • Dave R says:

        It absolutely matters.

        Take a look at Zimmerman’s 2007. It’s nearly as good as his 2009.

        Clearly the 2008 season was marred by his injury.

        Longoria is good, but he’s not Zimmerman good.

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      • FanGraphs Supporting Member

        Read my reply again. I did not say it did not matter, I said it’s not clear how to incorporate it. Also look at his 2006 UZR, as well as all the other statistical and observational evidence I cite, and tell me how you would make the adjustments. I’m not being snarky here, I really would like to know how you would do it. Do you “just know” he’s better?

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      • vivaelpujols says:

        DF, I applaud your patience. However, FanGraphs commenters will continue to eat away at you until you just stop replying all together – or turn into Dave Cameron.

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      • TCQ says:

        Yeah, we’re an evil, evil bunch.

        Also occasionally inane.

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      • B N says:

        “Read my reply again. I did not say it did not matter, I said it’s not clear how to incorporate it.”

        (Head scratch) … It is clear how to incorporate it, it’s just not easy or necessarily linear to incorporate it. I think it’s pretty clear that if the will was there, a database of “known injuries” could be maintained over time. Sounds like a grab bag of discrete variables to me. From there, they just need to be incorporated into a non-linear model (or heck, a linear one might even work).

        We could call it IZRD, Injury Zone Rating of Defense. And it would be glorious, except for its high variance from year to year.

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    • td32 says:

      And was Longoria’s HAMSTRING injury taken into account? I would imagine that would make a significant impact on a players range. Having watched Longoria as much as anyone, it was obvious he was far less agile in 2009 after he came off the DL.

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  4. JH says:

    It’s really tough to compare relative degrees of awesome. Both Longoria and Zimmerman could probably handle shortstop if they needed to. They’re absolutely sick.

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member


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    • JCA says:

      Which begs the question – If you are Washington, and you want to improve your defense with a competent bat, do you get into the bidding on Beltre or Figgins with the thought that Zimmerman can move to SS and Guzman to 2d?

      They are supposed to looking at SS to move Guzman. Other then Scutaro, all are low OBP guys. They may not want to shift Zimmerman because Espinosa and Desmond look good in the minors, but they might be able to shift to 2d after Guzman is gone.

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  5. Jesus says:

    Good article, Matt.

    One issue, though. Aren’t we supposed to take a year’s worth of UZR with a grain of salt?

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      very much so. that’s why I “triangulate” multiple years, career UZR, Jeff’s projections, and the Fans Scouting Report

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    • Scottwood says:

      I think MGL said that you should look at 3 years worth of data to get a clearer picture. Over the course of the last 3 seasons, Zimmerman does have a higher UZR/150, but it is only a slim margin. Is he a better defender? I have no idea. They are both great defenders and the difference between them is very slim.

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  6. Ryan M says:

    Coming up, Zimmerman was immediately seen as a tremendous defender. Longoria was seen more as a guy who was pretty good, but not someone who would one day belong in gold glove discussions. So, long memory?

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  7. Chris says:

    The other wrinkle is that part of the reason (I suspect) Zimmerman’s defensive numbers were so poor in 2008 has less to do with range and more to do with errors. He made a ton of throwing errors, and even this season, that was a weakness.

    But that’s where having a competent 1B comes into play. In 2008, Dmitri Young, the short-armed Raffy Belliard and Paul LoDuca played about half the starts at 1B and none of them were capable of reducing throwing errors. This year, half the starts went to Nick Johnson (who has a decent defensive rep) and half to Adam Dunn, who for whatever his faults in LF are, is certainly capable of stretching and saving plays. (Even as he himself makes a ton of errors and shows limited range).

    Combine that with the injuries, and the 2008 stats are basically junk for Zimmerman — as the fan scouting reports and his 07/09 UZR stats show.

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    • TCQ says:

      The relative sizes of the first baseman is a really interesting thought…as with injury data, not easily accounted for, but the effect is there. Defensive data is still(and may always be) a little rough around the edges, is the reminder I’m getting here – even as much as I may love using ’em, which is a lot.

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    • vivaelpujols says:

      Zimmermann’s ErrR, which measures runs gained or lost due to a players errors, was 1.4 runs in 2008. He was better than the average third baseman at not making errors in 2008.

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  8. Big Oil says:

    As a Nats fan, I have no problem with this article. Zim is certainly nasty, but when we’ve got the triangulation of evidence presented here, and the ultimate conclusion based on this evidence, it’s silly to (if in fact we were to as GMs) reach a definitive conclusion one way or another based exclusively on what we’ve seen.

    I’ll turn it around on Nats fans: even if, in light of Zim’s ’08 injury, doesn’t that give you all the more reason to believe he may be superior? In other words, if the author here comes to the conclusion that they merit the same level of regard in light of the fact Zimmerman was hurt, it stands to reason his ability will more properly be evaluated several years down the line. Remember what MK is talking about here: based on what we’ve seen, is Zimmerman “probably” (i.e. greater than 50%) better than Longo?

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  9. NEPP says:

    Zimmerman is the best 3B since Michael Jack. Longoria is very very good as well but Zim has an edge on him and anyone else at the hot corner.

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  10. walkoffblast says:

    2008 is also the first year in a new ballpark for Zimmerman. I never really got the full picture if something like that might matter or not for an infielder when looking at a possible UZR bias.

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  11. Logan says:

    I like the use of the asterisk. Nice little allusion.

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  12. CH says:

    I have both of these guys in my long-term keeper league, meaning I don’t ever have to get rid of either of them. I also have the MLB Extra Innings package, which allows me to watch both of them as much as I want. I understand this doesn’t really add anything to the discussion, but I felt it was appropriate to mention on Thanksgiving Day.

    If you can’t be thankful for the ability to watch 2 young players this talented, you need to throw your television out the window right now, because it has nothing better to offer you.

    Enjoy your day, everyone.

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  13. CircleChange11 says:

    I like that JPoz said “probably”.

    I use words like “can”, “may”, “likely”, “seemingly”, “perhaps” quite a bit when talking of things that are heavily based on perceptions, preferences, and interpretations … since we will likely never “know”. At least not “know” past a certain degree of confidence or probability.

    In terms of Zimmerman & Longoria, it doesn;t matter to me. They’re both outstanding fielders and players. I don’t NEED to know which one is “better” based on whatever metrics we try to piece together and weight to come up with a ‘definitive’. Now, I will say that I appreciate that someone (you) would try to compare them to see who’s “better”.

    Most of all I wanted to post and compliment JoeP (I used to live in KC from 95-01) for saying “probably”.

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  14. Colin says:

    Inge was better than both until he lost the use of both his knees halfway through the season.

    He was pretty terrible after that, reducing his value to 0, or possibly a large negative number.

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  15. Justin says:

    What about the fact that Longo plays on turf at home? I can image that would vary his numbers.

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  16. Cody says:

    I like wha poz did because although Longoria is a great defender, Zimmerman gets over looked as a defender far too often. By saying that Zimmerman is “probably better defensively” he brought Zimmerman’s reputation up to uber-defender, in the same class as Longoria.

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  17. Ryan Sullivan says:

    Don’t want to judge Longoria’s defense as I do not watch him enough, but as a diehard Nationals fan, I have watched Zimmerman since he arrived: he is easily the best defensive player I have ever witnessed in my 30+years as a baseball fan. He makes more plays and makes them look so easy.

    Watch him charge a bunt, it is a thing of beauty.

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  18. Deacon Drake says:

    The biggest knock on Zimmerman’s defense right now is his inability to finish the easy play. Having watched too many Nationals’ games, I can report that the vast majority of his throwing errors occur on sharply hit balls that a routine throw will beat the runner by more than ten feet. It is frustrating to watch, but nothing panic over.

    The detractors who attribute the low 2008 numbers to injury are only partially correct. It should be better explained as to how the injury affected his defense and how that impact shows up in his numbers.

    Healthy Zimmerman is a freak of nature. He gets such a good jump on balls hit to his left that his range extends across the SS position. This combined with his arm strength allows him to guard the line better than most 3Bs. The injury really hurt his ability to bring his glove hand to his body to transfer the ball to his throwing hand. The psychological effects are probably as damning as the physical. It also forced him to play more shallow and wide of the line.

    When he is healthy, Zimmerman is the most graceful third baseman of our generation. Evan Longoria is the mechanic: he makes every play in his zone confidently and quietly, then let’s his bat do the talking. Zimmerman is the innovator, using every ounce of his physical ability to make every play possible, making a few more “wow” plays in the process.

    Longoria is Montana, Zimmerman is Favre… there is no right answer as to who is “better” defensively. Both have far superior physical tools than their peers and apply them prominently for 27 outs each game. Both will be Gold Glove defenders for a long time. Poz isn’t arguing that Zimmerman is better, or that the UZR numbers are wrong; he is theorizing that Zimmerman’s abilities could make him a better defender, and a player that will be recognized more for his defense than offense.

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  19. JDub says:

    As an O’s fan, I see alot of both. Zimmerman is the better fielder. OTOH, until the second half of last year, Zim’s throwing was horrible at times.

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