While it’s technically true that both the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies are Major League Baseball teams, their 2015 seasons were different in a number of non-superficial ways. Yes, they both employed Ben Revere last season, but it’s difficult to find other substantive similarities between the 93-69 AL East champion Blue Jays and the 63-99 cellar-dwelling Phillies.
The Blue Jays had a 117 wRC+, while the Phillies registered a meager 86. The Blue Jays had an average, or slightly better, pitching staff (93 ERA-, 100 FIP-) and the Phillies were among the worst (120 ERA-, 111 FIP-) in the league. On defense, the Blue Jays sported a +15 DRS and +1 UZR while the Phillies delivered a -92 DRS and -31.1 UZR. The Blue Jays were good and the Phillies were not. That comes as a surprise to no one, even as we pause to note that the Phillies took steps to put their franchise on the right track during the same period.
These two very dissimilar clubs, however, did have one pretty interesting similarity during the 2015 season. They both flanked excellent center fielders with horrible defenders in the corners.
While it’s perfectly reasonable to view defensive metrics with some skepticism, I don’t think the general argument here is particularly controversial no matter your opinion of the statistics themselves. The numbers presented here are merely illustrative and needn’t be as exact measurements for the point to stand.
My original interest was in determining the distribution of value across the three outfield positions for the 30 major league teams. To do so, I grabbed team DRS and UZR by position and lined them up side by side. Then I carved up the numbers into six categories: < -10.1, -10 to -5.1, -5 to -0.1, 0 to +5, +5.1 to +10, and > +10.1.
If you prefer words, you can think of the buckets as terrible, bad, below average, above average, good, and awesome. The categories are somewhat arbitrary, but they communicate the right idea. There is no discernible difference between a +4.9 and a +5.2 right fielder, but you’ll see that it won’t prove to be a problem for this specific analysis. Keep in mind, we’re just looking at the 2015 results relative to average at each position. We’re not trying to discern true talent or anything like that.
Of all 30 teams, the Blue Jays and the Phillies were the only clubs to feature one outfielder classified as good/awesome by this measure and two who were terrible/bad according to both DRS and UZR. In other words, both systems agreed that these are the only teams to fill one spot with great fielders and two with pretty rough ones. Honorable mention goes to the Marlins, but DRS liked their left fielders too much to make the cut.
What does this look like in concrete terms? I’ve created a color-coded Google Doc featuring all 30 teams, but the Jays and Phillies break down like this:
|Team||DRS RF||DRS CF||DRS LF||UZR RF||UZR CF||UZR LF|
Both clubs had terrific defense in center field and poor defense in the corners. There’s nothing remarkable about two teams finishing the season with such an arrangement, but it is interesting that the teams were otherwise so different.
It’s also interesting because of the way the “ball hog” problem might manifest itself on such a team. If a ball is hit between a very good center fielder and a very good left fielder, and both men arrive in time to catch it, only one player gets credit for saving whatever runs are able to be saved. The metrics are smart enough not to dock the other fielder, but they also aren’t able to credit him, either. If a selfish center fielder gets enough of these balls, he’s limiting the left fielder’s chances to add to his defensive numbers (even though the left fielder isn’t getting any negative credit either).
For this reason, it’s possible that a great left fielder might not shine statistically as much if he’s flanked by a great center fielder. I’m not sure how many chances fall into this category every year, but some do. Yet on the Jays and Phillies, the opposite is probably true. Kevin Pillar and Odubel Herrera probably caught a lot of balls in the gap that would have fallen if the teams employed lesser center fielders, and had those balls fallen, the corner guys would have been dinged even more. Granted, this probably isn’t a 10-run difference or anything, but it’s interesting nonetheless because it’s not the way we normally view that phenomenon.
Pillar got and held the Jays’ center-field job largely due to his elite defense, while Jose Bautista‘s aging glove didn’t cost him playing time because he’s an extraordinary hitter. In left field, they tried anyone and everyone, including Danny Valencia, Chris Colabello, Ezequiel Carrera, and Ben Revere. Of that group, only Revere has flashed any kind of defensive chops in his career, but the Jays were thinking about scoring runs en route to the postseason and were willing to tolerate unremarkable fielding.
The Phillies, without a Bautista-like anchor in one corner, simply rotated their troops through at both positions while running out the clock on the season. Jeff Francoeur, Domonic Brown, Grady Sizemore, and Brian Bogusevic led the way in right field, providing nothing defensively that impressed the metrics. In left, it was Cody Asche, Ben Revere, Aaron Altherr, Darin Ruf, and Jeff Francoeur again.
The teams perfectly encapsulate the two primary paths to this shared place. The Jays wound up with bad defense in the corners because they were searching for offense and were willing to accept the trade off. The Phillies would up with bad defense in the corners because they didn’t have any good players.
It appears as if the 2016 Phillies intend not to renew their membership in this exclusive club, adding Peter Bourjos to the ranks and likely offering more playing time to Aaron Altherr, who was one of the better performers for them in left last season.
The Jays have learned the opposite lesson, choosing to double down on the strategy that worked so well the first time. The superlative Pillar will remain in center for his glove, Bautista will remain in right for his bat, and they are just going to try some stuff in left:
LF Blue Jays
The projections aren’t pessimistic about their defense, but defensive projections are to be taken with a salt lick. Fielding numbers are noisy and the projections are pretty heavily regressed, so you’re hardly ever going to see a projection for -10 or -15 runs.
The true heroes of the story are Pillar and Herrera. For them, the 2015 season was not unlike a play in which Meryl Streep co-stars with two reality-show afterthoughts. All three would technically be employed as actors — just as all six of the Blue Jays’ and Phillies’ outfielders were technically employed as outfielders — but it’s pretty clear, in each case, that only one of group has a grasp on what they’re supposed to be doing out there.
There’s a compelling question running beneath the surface, too. It’s one that we can’t answer at the moment, but hopefully will be able to address in the not-too-distant future. We have a clear sense that offensive value isn’t totally linear at the team level. That is, adding a good hitter adds more runs to a good lineup than that same hitter might add to a lesser team.
So, might it be the case that the opposite is true on defense? Could having Pillar, Herrera, or someone like Kevin Kiermaier actually decrease the value of defense in the corners? You probably don’t want to surround him with -10 fielders, but if the choice is between paying for +5 runs of (context neutral) left-field defense or +5 runs of (context neutral) offense, a team with Pillar in center would seem more willing to target the hitter if the cost were the same. Fielders can cover for each other, but only one guy gets to hit at a time.
We could probably work out a rudimentary answer with our second-generation metrics, but this is the kind of question, like so many others, that screams out for Statcast.
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