Sam Fuld and the Value of Defense

According to Internet: Sam Fuld once caught a cold and then set it free. Sam Fuld once threw himself out at home just to see what it was like. Superman wears Sam Fuld pajamas to bed. When Sam Fuld shaves, his razor begs for mercy.

Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays seem to have serendipitously acquired themselves a Legend. The 29-year-old outfielder, traded to the Rays in the Matt Garza deal this offseason, has earned himself a nifty Twitter hash-tag (#LegendOfSamFuld) in which Tweetors pine away about the preposterous magnificence of the base-pilfering, run-saving highlight-reel machine. In an uncanny show of heroics, Fuld has made two stupendous diving catches, hit a near-cycle (he was too fast for the necessary single), and seemingly won the left field job — all in the Rays’ first 11 games.

But this brings us to a most difficult quandary: Is Sam Fuld a legitimate starting option? The Rays, despite their loathsome start, sit a mere four games behind the division-leading Baltimore Orioles. The Rays certainly have the talent to fight for the division, but should Fuld be a part of that fight?

Fuld has three distinct strengths: patience, running, and fielding.

Through the minors, Fuld exhibited not only relatively neutral platoon splits (as he demonstrated to Jon Lester last night, getting a single and a steal off the transcendent left-hander), but he also showed a knack for getting on base. One can only imagine this proved particularly useless while he wasted away in the Cubs minor-league system.

In his major-league time — altogether a total of 190 plate appearances — he has proved deft in that same way, cobbling together a respectable .264/.368/.393 slash. The .368 on-base percentage (OBP) also appears not-unlike his minor-league numbers, which teetered at or around .370.

The second Discipline of the Fuld is his baserunning. In a combined 810 Triple-A plate appearences (from 2009 through 2010), Fuld absconded with 44 stolen bases at a success rate of ~76%. While he will not mystify the world with his blurry legs and 10-steal games, Fuld’s responsible and effective baserunning no doubt has a perfect match in manager Joe Maddon’s aggressive strategies.

Much of Sam Fuld’s value rests in his defense — his amazing catches and slides. We sabermagicians must realize, though, that this is an area where we fall short. Our best present efforts (which include, in my humble opinion, UZR and TZL) require copious amounts of data for legitimate estimates. On the other hand, Father Tango’s Fan Scouting Report, which combines eye-ball guessonometrics and good-ol-fashioned linear weights, basically amounts to a crowd-sourced return to square one.

Here’s the rub: Sam Fuld’s greatest asset is a complete unknown (at least until Field F/X comes and blows our minds). We know it’s positive — he certainly seems more “rangey” than dive-tastic Nate McLouth — but we cannot be sure exactly how valuable he is.

Let’s say, for instance, the Rays make him their starting left fielder and he puts up around a .330 wOBA (something to the tune of .340/.400 for OBP/SLG). Then, let’s imagine what kind of defense he can put up: Will he be Shin-Soo Choo (perfectly average)? Will he be Juan Pierre (eh, like above average)? Or can he dare to attain Carl Crawfordness (we’re talking: Buh-BLAM!)?

Well, let’s imagine what 500 PAs of Sam Fuld would look like in these situations. The following chart does not include baserunning, but rather combines Fuld’s possible offensive production (we’re assuming average-ish) with his potential run-prevention values. We put those two possibilities into a WAR calculator — beep bop boop beep — and then we can see how many wins Fuld might be worth:

Remember, this assumes Fuld to be a neutral baserunner, which seems unlikely. Still, the contingency chart above shows he would have to strain to muster only a 1.0 WAR season. In all likelihood, Fuld could be worth ~2.0 wins, depending on how much his defense is worth — and 2 WAR is about what we expect from a typical starter at the major league level.

Can the Rays still contend will Fuld in left? Certainly. He may not be a long-term solution (and with Desmond Jennings incubating in Triple-A, the Rays don’t need him for the long term), but he can certainly tow his end.

In fact, Sam Fuld can tow all ends — simultaneously. #legendofsamfuld

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

64 Responses to “Sam Fuld and the Value of Defense”

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  1. MikeS says:

    I just saw the guy play four games in Chicago. In that limited sample size he seemed more like a fast outfielder than a good outfielder. He got to a lot of balls quickly, saved some bases and made that one spectacular catch to save at least three runs but he took some bad routes on flies then made up for it with his speed, misplayed some other balls (some quite badly) to allow extra bases and flat out dropped one for good measure. Was it just a bad series or are the rumors of his defensive prowess Griffey-esque?

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    • I think he’s definitely had some miscues along the way. But the reports on him in the minors and his stint in Chicago (with the Cubs) have all produced reports of plus defense. He certainly seems to have good speed and diving instincts, which makes it hard to be sure whether he’s actually a great fielder, or just making up for bad jumps all the time.

      Still, even during that Chicago series, I recall him cutting off a Konerko hit and getting the ball in quickly enough for the relay to hit him at second. I feel like (having watched literally every one of his plays this year) he’s in the 5-10 runs saved range — but who knows?

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      • Preston says:

        His presence and Manny’s absence means Johnny Damon’s not playing left. So while Fuld many only save 5-10 runs more than an average defender he’ll probably save 10-20 more runs than the aging, water pistol arm Damon.

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      • @Preston: Excellent point. The man he’s replacing is not necessarily league average defensively. Now we’re talking comparative advantages.

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  2. Rick says:

    Fuld sounds a lot like Chris Dickerson, but grittier (begin short and white and all….)

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  3. DavidCEisen says:

    Why does 20% of the internet write in the same juvenile style? It’s not only unfunny but unoriginal. Maybe next time you can work in the phrase ‘epic win.’

    -22 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Oh no, David C. Eisen, the Internet didn’t write this; I did. Buh-BLAM!

      But seriously, I’m sorry you didn’t like my writing style. Nonetheless, I hope a fine gentleman such as yourself can forgive my childish prose and evaluate my work more on the merits of my argument and not the dearth of my maturity.

      +12 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • B N says:

        Calm it down there. Emeril is going to sue you for trademark infringement. That’s okay though, I think this article was DY-NO-MITE!

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        It’s hard to get to the merits when I need to wade through a paragraph of Chuck Norris-esque jokes that stopped being funny three years ago.

        You’re writing style is completely ubiquitous to the Internet. It reads like an internet meme madlib; it is completely banal. Come on, put some effort into it!

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      • joe says:

        As opposed to being “partially” ubiquitous? Perhaps you may want to hold off on the writing tips….buh-BLAM

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      • ML says:

        @DavidCEisen – Chuck Norris jokes will never stop being funny. — Chuck Norris once walked down the street with a full erection… there were no survivors. — You just can’t compete with that.

        @Bradley Woodrum – Good article. The arguments show solid, relevant thinking, and there’s nothing wrong with an anecdote about popular perception.

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    • Mario Mendoza says:

      And why don’t people write letters anymore? Nothing like getting a nice letter.

      +17 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Ian says:

        I just asked the same thing of Marge, the operator, when she was connecting my call over to the General Store.

        +13 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • JB says:

      I agree. I think the author was going for humor here, but it just came off ham-fisted and lame. The content is fine, but as with a few other pieces I have read by this author it just seems like it’s trying to hard to be well-written and witty, rather than just being well-written and witty.

      Does FanGraphs have an editorial process? If so, I think it might serve this author well.

      -9 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • I’m with these guys! This writer’s a bum!

        I happen to know he himself is a professional editor. Perhaps he should hire himself out to critique his own pieces!

        HAHA! Take that, “author.”

        Consider: “…a respectable .264/.368/.393 slash.”


        Also this: “Let’s say, for instance, the Rays make him their starting left fielder and he puts up around a .330 wOBA (something to the tune of .340/.400 for OBP/SLG).”

        Look, author, I know you’re trying to be funny here, but just stop. IT’S. NOT. WORKING.

        Maybe he should stick to writing fanciful entries in his journal instead of putting his “work” out here on the Internet, where we keep only the best writing.

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      • ofMontreal says:

        Oh bs on you jb. Quit yer cryin’. All of you. Things would be pretty dry around here without people like Bradley Headstone. Plus I would argue that it’s more than appropriate to approach the greatness of the Fuld in such a manner. It would certainly be bizarre that out of nowhere and at the age of 29 he plays superstar for a year.

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      • ngrimson says:

        I criticized someone on the internet today!

        +10 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • B N says:

        @Bradley: Awesome. If you can’t beat em, join em- sounds good to me.

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    • Truth McGee says:

      David C Eisen is a personification of one of those hipster music blogs that doesn’t like any music whatsoever. He contributes nothing and criticizes everything. Ignore him and enjoy your life while he slowly, angrily dies.

      +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Charlotte says:

        Do those sites exist anywhere outside of your angry imagination?

        The guy doesn’t like Chuck Norris jokes. They’re a pretty old joke formula, whether you liked the article or not. Chill out.

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    • Larry Yocum says:

      You don’t see that it is funny that Sam Fuld has achieved legend status? Get over yourself.

      There is nothing wrong with discussing it to open the article. It sure beats jumping right into the question of whether or not Sam Fuld is a player that we should be targeting.

      Let’s try and make it as dry and boring as possible though right?

      Are you a professional writer David? Do you know how hard it is to come up with fresh material on a regular basis? It’s always the critics that really have no clue what it’s like to crank out regular pieces. You have to go after a target audience. Most guys like juvenile humor. It’s the only way I can describe the existence of Brad Evans on the internet.

      By the way, The Red Sox check under their bed at night to make sure Sam Fuld isn’t hiding under there.

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      • Dan G says:

        “By the way, The Red Sox check under their bed at night to make sure Sam Fuld isn’t hiding under there.”

        I don’t know if the Red Sox do, but this Red Sox fan does. Looks like a very good player. Plus he is from New Hampshire and grew up a Sox fan. The Rays seem to have better luck with New England born players than the Sox do – Rocco Baldelli was another.

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  4. LionoftheSenate says:

    He is no Peter Bourjos with the glove. Bourjos is the best defensive baseball player (period).

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  5. danny woytek says:

    Uh oh, you are entering Cistulliville with the comments section. Don’t take that the wrong way

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  6. Wraithpk says:

    Any word yet on when UZR will be posted?

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  7. fly eli says:

    Woodrum without humor would be like 2008 Jose Reyes- he was still quite good, but didn’t have the swagger and wasn’t as much fun to watch.

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  8. Since when is 75% success rate stealing in the minors considered a good steal rate? That should go down with better pitchers able to keep runners close and better catchers able to gun down stealers in the majors, shouldn’t it?

    Personally, that seems more like it is closer to the breakeven point of stealing vs. the potential of making an out.

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    • Hmm… I’m not sure what the average success rate in the minors is — or how that translates into the majors. I kind of feel like it could go either way: The minors has a collection of both terrible-hitting catchers who FIELD like pros and terrible-fielding catchers who HIT like pros.

      Still, that’s an excellent objection and one worth examining.

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      • Adam W says:

        Anecdotally, it seems like guys do become more selective when stealing at the major league level. Or, perhaps, coaches become more selective – I think minor league coaches are more interested in seeing what a guy can do and less invested in the outcome of the game.

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      • gabriel says:

        I was definitely under the impression that the non-prospect catchers in the minors are of the no-hit, good-catch variety. The good hitters, poor defensive catchers don’t last long – they tend to graduate to the majors or are moved to another position. There aren’t that many Monteros around.

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      • @gabriel: Yeah, I can — off-hand — think of a number of catchers who field well but can’t hit any better than a backup catcher. Strong hitters tend to find the big leagues one way or other, but they still do exist in some forms at the various levels of the minors.

        It’s an interesting topic, one well worth further investigation.

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      • Larry Yocum says:

        Much much easier to steal in the minor leagues.

        Guys that swipe 40 in the minors are often hard pressed to get 15 in the majors.

        Not only are the catchers better, but major league pitchers are 10 times better at keeping guys close to the base. It is one of the last talents that pitchers usually refine is their ability to keep guys close. Bases are usually stolen on the pitcher. In the minors, most of those guys don’t have a clue on how to hold guys on.

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  9. Evan says:

    Great article, really enjoyed it. Fun writing style, fun subject, fun to read the indignant comments from people with no business criticizing writing ability.

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  10. Colin says:


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  11. Sandy Kazmir says:

    Careful guys he has an English degree. And tact. Nice read Woody.

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  12. pft says:

    Sam Fuld has gotten off to a better start than Carl Crawford and is a heck of a lot cheaper. If this continues, and I am not predicting it will, the Rays have caught lightining in a bottle again.

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    • They certainly will have. Although, unlike their last bottled-lighting (Carlos Pena), this one doesn’t really have a huge track record of minor league success.

      I think Fuld may eventually go on to be an everyday starter on a lesser team, but he can easily be a strong contributor to this one.

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      • pft says:

        He had speed, defense and a high OBP in the minors, and that’s what he is bringing to the table now. But pitchers will adjust and it will be interesting to see if he can continue this.

        Manny’s retirement may be a blesssing since they can DH Damon and keep Fuld in LF.

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  13. Douglas says:

    I could go without ever seeing a Chuck Norris joke ever again in my life.

    An article about Sam Fuld is something I wanted to read but the beginning just kiiiiilled my enthusiasm. Just cut the lazy internet meme shit from 2006 and you’d have a good article. It’s more disappointing to me that the opening was staler than stale than stale and the rest an enjoyable read than if the whole thing was a piece of crap.

    I like your writing and lord knows fangraphs needs to take the stick out of its ass on in a while but seriously you are better than Chuck Norris jokes.

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    • JaxRaysGirl says:

      Well, now you’ve earned a roundhouse kick in the head.

      With all the fanatical “seriousness” of most fangraph articles, this one stands out simply because it started with a little humor. I appreciate the research and time that went into the article, as well as the intention to make it readable instead of boring. The reason it’s an article and not just a list of statistics is so that everyone from the casual fan to the fanatic can read and understand.

      Good job!

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    • Sorry if the tired Chuck Norris jokes bothered you Douglas. If it makes it any better, they’re actually from Twitter and they in fact represent pretty much the only first-hand research I did for this article. :/

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  14. theflash141 says:

    Thanks for the article, Bradley. Enjoyed it thoroughly, especially the WAR calculator.

    I think my favorite thing about Sam Fuld is that he is one of those gritty, intangible guys that old timers adore but is actually incredibly SABR-savvy himself.

    Would love to hear an interview where they ask him about his “heart” and “drive”, and he starts talking about his UZR and fWAR.

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  15. ToddM says:

    If Maddon survives in the long haul, Fuld is going to end up as one of his bench coaches. I’m sure he’ll have other offers, but Fuld will feel indebted to the Rays — the manager and team that finally gave him a chance to play.

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  16. Greg says:

    He’s not the one who made the #LegendofSamFuld meme you tightwads, he’s just informing you all about it. I’m sorry some of you are boorish, humorless monsters.

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  17. Bryce says:

    I for one have no criticism of the first paragraph. Actually… to be clear, Sam Fuld was a trending topic on Twitter. Yes, a Twitter meme… and yes that makes it NEWSWORTHY. If Brad wants to start an article with current NEWS about a player and then gives a statistical analysis as to WHY Sam Fuld was trending on Twitter, then in my opinion, he has done his job (and actually put all of this in context that might be grasped by a more ‘general’ public).
    Why is it that ‘number-crunching nerds, who live in their mother’s basement and eat Cheetos all day long, all of a sudden become writing critics when the ‘Holy Numbers’ are given a pop culture frame of reference?
    By the way, hope Sam could sprinkle some of his gritty magic on Reid and Shawn so that maybe they will start to see the ball-hit the ball (instead of just see the ball).

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  18. JDD says:

    I don’t care if Sam Fuld goes on to be an outstanding everyday OF or not. The fact is I picked him up for $1 Sunday night, and in those 2 games since he’s outproduced Ichiro and Ellsbury, probably combined. As long as he produces, he’ll find his spot in my lineup. As soon as he fizzles, he’ll be shipped right off to the trash heap whence he came. He’s damn fun to watch IRL, though. I’m rooting for him…
    Nice article, BTW. I enjoyed the WAR computers Beeps and Boops, regardless of some others opinions. Some people should just be taken out back and shot.

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  19. Tony says:

    As a Cubs fan, I was frustrated that Fuld never got the chance. It isn’t that I expect a lot out of Fuld (I think he’s a capable starter for a few years, but long run, a depth OF) – it’s that, one of the Cubs big problems in recent years was a patient hitter with speed to put at the top of the lineup. Maybe he’s only there a year or two before someone else steps in, but that would’ve made the lineup work a lot better the last 2 years. The reason he never got the chance was because the Cubs, according to writers, felt that he hadn’t shown enough to merit it. Well … if he doesn’t get the opportunity, how the heck is he going to show enough?

    Nice to see him doing well.

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  20. harryddunn says:

    (disclaimer: Cubs fan)
    I’m really intrigued at the possibility of Fuld being sort of this year’s Andres Torres.

    The Fans projection for Torres called for a .269/.343/.419 line and +12 runs value in the field, all good for a tidy 4 wins. Fuld being a LF rather than CF obviously loses a win, but I really can see him having fantastic UZR scores to make up some of that loss.

    I really don’t think it’s unforeseeable to see Fuld closely mirror the Torres projection, though trimming a little bit of the slg in favor of defense and obp.

    I’m glad he’s getting a chance somewhere, but hate that we cast him off, just to later sign the decrepit, useless Reed Johnson to use in the spare OF role.

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