or Part III of ‘Things Aren’t Always as They Appear”.
How is it that Derek Jeter can win three consecutive Gold Glove awards (2004-2006) for being the best defensive shortstop in the American League, but virtually every saber fielding metric rates him among the worst?
The image of a fielder standing over a muffed grounder as the batter crosses first is easily burned into our memory. It’s the avoidance of not only the errors but also infield hits that have impressed us as to who the Golden Glovers should be. Over past six seasons (2003-2008), the most recent period for which RetroSheet has complete batted ball information, Jeter is third at 91.7% among major league shortstops in “sure handedness”, the percentage on infield grounders where an out is recorded. The top spot is held by Omar Vizquel at 92.2%, and Vizquel has won two Gold Gloves during that period, and nine more earlier in his career. Second is Alex Rodriguez at 91.9%, with two Gold Gloves, and fourth is Cesar Izturis at 91.2%, with one award. Eight of the last twelve Gold Gloves at shortstop have gone to the four players with the highest rate of converting ground balls.
However, making outs on the balls you get to is not nearly the total measure of an infielder’s range. While it is easy to remember the booted grounder, it seems that we don’t mentally catalogue how many extra grounders make their way to the outfield for a hit. This is where Jeter falls down.
I counted the number ground ball hits to each outfield position, along with the fielder at each of the four infield spots and the handedness of the batter. I assigned which infielder was responsible for each hit based on the ratio of infield grounders to each position, based on bat hand. It’s an estimate, and it can be improved by adding vector data that is available from GameDay, but even the preliminary results match very well to who is expected to be in the top, middle and bottom.
The player with the highest rate of grounders kept in the infield is Adam Everett at 83.5%, while the worst is Ramon Vazquez at 76.5%. Jeter is next to last at 77.3%. No other shortstop today has such a wide divergence of the highly visible “hands” and the nearly invisible “range” as Jeter.
Let’s say we are designing a table top baseball game (that’s what we played before PCs were invented), and then let’s rate the shortstops on their range. 76.5% of groundballs to short are always outs, 16.5% are always hits. That leaves 7.0% to be contested. For those, we have to roll a 20-sided die. Vazquez is a 0, Everett is a 20, Jeter is a 2. If we roll a 1 or a 2, Jeter gets to the ball – anything from 3 to 20, it goes to the outfield. The difference from best to worst, over a full season, is about 40 hits.
There’s another problem. 6 of the top 11 in “hands” are also in the bottom 16 in “range”. If a player doesn’t get to that many balls, the ones he does get to are likely closer and thus easier to field. This is a bias in the “hands” rating, as those players with less range will have a higher expected value on the balls they do get to. Therefore, players with a high “hands” rating combined with low “range” (Jeter, A-Rod, Keppinger, Betancourt) likely don’t really rate as high, because their expected rate is likely closer to their observed. I will account for this when I process the GameDay vector data.
What really counts is when the ball is hit, does the fielder make an out? That’s the definition of Defense Efficiency Rating (DER) on a team level. Whether it’s by range, throwing arm or good hands, it’s the out that counts. With 1000 or more ground balls, the bottom five at shortstop are Angel Berroa 71.1%, Michael Young 71.0%, Jeter 70.9%, Felipe Lopez 70.2% and Carlos Guillen 69.8%. At the top are Adam Everett 75.7%, Omar Vizquel 74.9%, Troy Tulowitzki 74.3%, Julio Lugo 74.1% and Khalil Greene 74.1%.
Don’t let your eyes fool you.