Why We Undervalue Defense

During the latter part of this week, Dave has discussed defensive metrics and how they are, or should be, treated moreso as inferential statistics than descriptive; that the results should be treated as data points as opposed to concrete and isolated performance indicators. As odd as it sounds, defense is still undervalued today. And when I say undervalued, imagine me putting a ton of emphasis to really hammer home the point that defense just is not considered as important as offense. If I were to compare Manny Ramirez and Carl Crawford (as I will below), those who do not really consider defense to be valuable with scoff at the results.

Here are Crawford’s and Ramirez’s runs projections for 2009:

Manny Ramirez: +30 batting, -7.5 adjustment, +20 replacement, -15 defense
Carl Crawford: + 3 batting, -7.5 adjustment, +20 replacement, +10 defense

Put together, this puts Ramirez at +27.5 runs and Crawford at +25.5 runs. Converted to wins, that is a mere 2.75 to 2.55 advantage for ManRam, and that isn’t even including baserunning metrics such as BP’s equivalent baserunning runs. Now, for a second, imagine if I were to go on air at ESPN and discuss how Crawford in 2009 is almost just as valuable, all told, as Ramirez: can you imagine the type of criticism I would receive? In fact, I expect to get some here as well, even though our fanbase tends to value defense a bit more.

Even in my own head it sounds odd that Manny’s production is only two runs higher than Crawford. I hate resorting to arguments centering around how the media shapes our views of events, but this is definitely a big part of why fans focus moreso on offense, or consider offense as worth much more than defense. Only when a player is considered a defensive wiz is the run prevention with the glove deemed important, and in cases like that, people almost go too far, saying that offense doesn’t matter at all because of how solid the player’s glove looks.

Shows like SportsCenter only show the spectacular plays, and this is why our views on the defensive resumes of certain players (See: Derek Jeter) are warped. He has made some fantastic plays in his career, and we have seen them over and over again, but he is not a good fielding shortstop in any sense of the word. This doesn’t show up in the form of errors or fielding percentage, though. Even though innate flaws exist in new age defensive metrics and our perceptions of their usage, we can all agree that fielding percentage is awful. Jeter won’t make errors on certain plays, primarily because his range prevents him from making these plays.

Watching a game, we tend to evaluate defense solely on whether or not the play was made, not if the player had enough range to reach said ball. If Chase Utley bobbles a ball at second base, even though he showed more range to get to the ball than any other second baseman in the league, many fans would think of it as a poor play. Was it? I personally feel it would be a great sign because he was able to reach the ball, which boils down to a big point: fans are spoiled, and defense is honestly one aspect of a game where watching a game hurts our opinions and evaluations.

Shane Victorino has terrific range in centerfield, but because he scurries to a Flyball A and Carlos Beltran is able to glide to Flyball A, many people would consider Shane the better fielder. Beltran made the play look easy, and therefore it becomes expected. He is expected to make that play and those viewing the games get spoiled into considering this normal, when in fact it is insanely impressive fielding. When we see enough of something, it gradually establishes the norm in our minds, and everything is treated relative to that norm as opposed to the average for the league. This is why many fans will consider an average or slightly above average defender miraculous with the glove simply because his predecessor had awful range and displayed poor defensive abilities.

Even with all of the defensive metrics available today, this is an area that still isn’t concrete from an evaluative standpoint. This fact makes it tough to justify defensive importance when statheads like us are under intense scrutiny to mathematically and logically prove our points. I’m not sure how fans, myself included, can get past being spoiled or falling into a comfort zone with what we watch as opposed to how the average performer would perform, but until we reach that point, comparisons like Ramirez-Crawford from above will continue to look ridiculous. After all, how could Crawford’s defense and baserunning come even close to what Manny can do with the bat? Perhaps if a defensive metric comes out that leverages the importance level of the situation we could begin to show this, or one that, with very educated estimates, shows what hit would have been recorded had the ball not been fielded (as in, factoring in the run values of what would have occurred had the play not been fielded), but this is still a tough analytical facet to sell.

Defense is very important, but how important is still uncertain in the eyes of many fans, primarily because of how we value errors, and how we get spoiled watching certain players.



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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.


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