This weekend I received enough e-mails about Mark Teixeira and his 2009 UZR of -0.8, that I thought it was worth discussing in a public post instead of answering each e-mail individually. I can only believe that this debate was spurred by a blog post on the New York Times website by Tyler Kepner:
[...] and his defense has been off the charts.
I say off the charts because I’m convinced there is no chart that accurately measures defense. The attempt is a noble one; defense is easily the most underrated ingredient in how games are won. But I don’t fully accept it.
People often cite Ultimate Zone Rating, a metric that tries to measure range and errors and how they affect runs allowed or prevented. But how can that statistic be valid when it says Teixeria has had a negative defensive impact?
Teixeira makes tremendous plays every game. He smothers everything near him, and his throwing arm is fantastic. Maybe he seems better than he is because the previous Yankees first baseman, Jason Giambi, was so adventurous in the field. But it would be hard to overstate the importance of Teixeira’s defense.
Kepner is quick to dismiss everything about UZR on what amounts to his own observations on one player. Then he leaves himself an opening in saying the equivalent of “maybe I’m biased because I’m not used to watching a good first baseman?”
What does UZR have to say about Jason Giambi then? He’s been -24 runs below average since joining the Yankees in 2002 (including his 2009 with the Athletics so far). Not a good defender. And what about Teixeira since 2002? He’s been +14.4 runs above average.
Well that’s strange. UZR agrees with what Kepner is absolutely sure he is seeing. That Teixeira is at the very least better than Giambi. And UZR actually thinks he’s considerably better than Giambi. I wonder what Kepner would say about that?
The quote that Teixeira has a negative defensive impact is a bit misleading too, considering he has a -0.8 UZR on the season so far. In my book, that’s pretty much average. He never even bothers to mention how negative it is and with the way he’s discrediting UZR, you’d think he was rated the very worst first-baseman out there.
In truth, Teixeira over the 2008 and 2009 seasons has been rated the #2 first-baseman by UZR at +9.8, so UZR has actually liked the guy a whole lot the past two seasons. But, I don’t want the point of this post to be for me to try and validate UZR.
Advanced baseball stats often paint a contrarian picture of baseball. Whether it be a player’s value or a player’s skill level, they often do not agree with popular and mainstream thinking. On the other hand, sometimes they do agree with mainstream thinking, but just because they don’t doesn’t mean anything is wrong with the statistic.
Imagine trying to gauge a player’s offensive value without using any stats. Do you think you’d remember all 600 plate appearances the guy had during the season? You probably wouldn’t. You might remember the big hits or the times he really screwed up and your opinion of the player would be biased based on a small sampling of what you could remember.
This is pretty much the same point I’m going to make with the state of fielding statistics. There is no way you remember every single play Teixeira or anyone else has made during the course of the entire season and you might only remember the big plays, or you might only remember the plays that killed your team. It’s also possible that Teixeira makes the easy plays look difficult and you’re just not realizing it. There’s really a number of areas where your memory of what Teixeira has actually done could fail you.
But this is not to say that what you see is completely useless. Studies like the Fan’s Scouting Report (by Tangotiger) have shown that through the wisdom of the crowds (many eyes and not just yours), you can get a good read on how a player is defensively.
If everyone out there agrees that Teixeira has been the absolute best first-baseman out there this season, then that’s fine, and there’s definitely value in that. The underlying data in UZR isn’t perfect and with time the imperfections get sanded out, but it’s perfectly reasonable to put some error bars on the 4 months of data used to calculated Teixeira’s -0.8 UZR on the year.
It’s also worth noting that UZR is not the only stat that thinks Teixeira has been basically average. John Dewan’s +/- (Fielding Bible) has him at +1 runs above average (also basically average in my book) and for those of you still holding onto Range Factor, he’s the 3rd worst qualified first-baseman.
In any event, when looking at these advanced fielding statistics, please use your brain and don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions just because your eyes tell you differently.
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