If there are two somewhat separate skills when it comes to defense — getting to balls and converting the chances you can get to — we all know which one gets more attention. The leapers and divers get the oohs and ahs while those watching the ball all the way into the glove gets golf claps at best. It’s time to appreciate the guys that make the plays they are supposed to.
The All Sure-Handed Team.
Using the new Inside Edge leaderboards, we can find out fairly quickly which players made the plays they were supposed to last year. Only nine players made every single play that 60%+ of baseball ‘should’ have made: David Murphy, Buster Posey, Denard Span, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Reddick, Brandon Barnes, Jayson Werth, Marlon Byrd and Dexter Fowler.
Maybe Andrew McCutchen doesn’t deserve to be here. He makes all kinds of plays. In fact, our older advanced defensive metrics liked most of these guys last year. Most of them had above-average Ultimate Zone Rating numbers — Murphy (+15.5 UZR/150), and Reddick (+22.3 UZR/150) were superlative even.
Maybe we’d like to use this team to spotlight the guys that didn’t do well with our other numbers. Someone like Jayson Werth (-4.1 UZR/150) is probably perfect for the team. So let’s try to get the best mix of sure-handedness and mediocre overall numbers for our lineup. The percentage here is the percentage of plays the player made that 60-100% of baseball should have made.
Hello, Indians’ infield. Maybe this has something to do with why the Indians had a negative team UZR/150 (-4.5) last year, huh? And if you’d like to see something about the relative value of sure-handedness, notice that the Indians were eighth-worst in batting average on balls in play allowed, 11th-worst in errors, and fifth-worst in team UZR/150. But at least few of their players can make the play if you hit the ball right at them.
You may notice something weird about third base and left field immediately. I had to look in the 96% guys to get a negatively-rated left fielder in Holliday. Among the guys that made 97+% of their ‘easy’ plays, only Alfonso Soriano was worse than a +10 UZR/150 guy, and UZR liked him last year (+7.3). And I couldn’t find a negatively-rated third baseman with sure hands.
A possible theory: those aren’t positions that are normally associated with range, so if you have sure hands and make the plays you are supposed to make, you’ll do fine in left field and third base by any defensive metric. The fact that most of Nick Swisher‘s negative numbers came from time in the outfield supports this theory, to an extent. There wasn’t another negatively-rated first baseman that made most of his plays.
But for the other positions, range is important. And you’d take a guy that could get to more balls at shortstop than Asdrubal Cabrera, for sure. If you watch Adam Jones and think he’s a good defender because you don’t see him make mistakes, his inclusion on this roster might open your eyes to his flaws even as it’s meant to laud him for being steady.
Guys like Brandon Crawford, who made five plays that fewer than 10% of baseball could make last year (best in baseball), are obviously better defenders. Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, and Carlos Gomez made three of those plays and you’d rather have them on your team.
You may hear some negativity about the gloves on our All Sure-Handed Team this year. There will be a reason for that. And yet, there’s also at least one reason these guys haven’t been moved off their positions quite yet. They make the plays they are supposed to, at least.
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