Saturday, October 25, 2014

Defense & Baserunning

Matt Williams came in as a rookie manager with a decided focus on two items: defense and base running. How did he do?

The Nats came into the 2014 season having put the defensive shift on a mere 42 times in 2013, good for dead last in MLB. I don't have the complete data set for shifts in 2014 (Inside Edge had the Nats at 258 at the start of September, saved from last place only by the Rockies), and while the Nats shifted a lot more this year, they are still in the bottom third of the league. The Nationals were middle of the pack for BABIP allowed (Batting Average on Balls In Play) at .294, and there is certainly a lot of noise in BABIP numbers, but that number seems like it could go lower with the athletes on the infield for the Nationals. The Nats don’t have a particularly groundball prone pitching staff, however. The league average ground ball percent (GB%) was 44.8%. Here is how the starting 5 rate out:

Jordan Zimmermann
Stephen Strasburg
Gio Gonzalez
Tanner Roark
Doug Fister

No surprise to see Doug Fister far and away the leader in GB%, but even he is only 4 percentage points above average. Compare that to Felix Herndandez, the proud owner of a 56.2% GB%. Overall, the Nat’s infield defense was roughly average, but shifting could add a few extra outs per game.

The outlook on the outfield defense isn’t so good. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) is an estimate of a player’s defensive ability. It’s a long calculation, but to simplify things, it takes a defensive play and determines the percent of times that particular type of hit gets turned into an out. Make a play that’s only an out a small percent of the time, you get more credit for making the play. The reverse holds true as players get docked for not making plays that the average player would make. These plays are judged by human score keepers, so there is definitely an error margin and in a one year time frame, small sample size issues can apply, but it’s useful to see directionally how teams stack up. Keeping that in mind, the Nats came in at -11 DSR as an outfield in 2014, all the way back in 21st in the Majors. The Royals, no surprise after all the great outfield plays this playoffs, ranked first at +46. Given the subjectivity of DRS, it’s helpful have other stats to compare to, so lets take a look at Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), another metric judging defense. It’s not as straightforward to explain as DRS, but essentially it aims to add a run value to every ball hit or play made. Again, a lot of subjectivity, but useful for comparison purposes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the Nationals outfield either as they come in 20th place at -9.6 (not nearly as bad as last place Cleveland at -39.9, but a far cry from the Royals who again check in at first place at 59.8). This really shouldn’t be all the surprising. For all the accolades Denard Span gets for his work in CF, he doesn’t have a good arm and is covering ground for the corner outfields he plays with. Werth is getting up there in age and clearly doesn’t move as well as he used to. The remainder of the usual outfielders (McClouth aside) consist of a converted catcher (Harper who is learning the outfield on the fly after playing catcher until he got drafted), and converted infielders (Zimmerman and Frandsen). The starting 3 of Harper, Span, Werth is set for 2015 (I’m assuming here that Span’s option gets picked up which looks all but certain at this point), so the Nationals are going to have to work harder on their defensive analysis and shift these guys around more aggressively to put them in a better place to make a play.

With the amount of information available to teams (even more than is publicly available), coming up with more shifts, both infield and outfield, should be a focus for 2015. 

Controlling the running game was an area that the Nationals did improve dramatically in during 2014. In 2013, Nationals threw out only 17% of baserunners. Most of that was due to the limited playing time for Wilson Ramos (usually mid 30% of caught stealing), and lots of playing time for Kurt Suzuki (a whopping 10% caught stealing). 2014 saw the Nats catch potential base stealers 38% of the time compared to the league average of 28%. Controlling the running game actually falls more on the pitcher than the catcher and no one does it better than Fister who didn’t allow a stolen base all season. Strasburg has struggled to control the running game early on in his career, but made some progress in 2014 as runners were caught stealing 32% of the time. 

So by my estimation, the Nats were 1 for 3 in defensive improvements. They did a better job keeping runners moving station to station, but will need to work on their defensive analysis to better shift their infielders and outfielders around.


It’s a common misconception that sabermetrics is anti-stealing. As with everything else, it’s all about context. In general, an out is worth more than an extra base, so you have to weigh the risk of giving up that out with the gain of the advanced base. The breakeven point where that risk is worth the reward is about 70%. So if you have a runner who has a 70% chance or greater of taking that stolen base, it is usually worth the risk of giving up the out. The Nationals and Matt Williams were pretty successful base stealers in 2014 with a success rate of 81.5%. They also did a good job of taking advantage of stolen base opportunities as measured by Weighted Stolen Base Runs (wSB), a weighted measure of the runs contributed via the stolen base. The Nationals were 4th in the majors with a wSB of 5.9, trailing the first place Royals who checked in at 11.5, and an improvement over 2013 when their wSB was 2.0. So not only were the Nationals successful when they tried to steal, they also picked opportune times to do so.

There is more to baserunning than stealing bases though. Teams can add a lot of value by having smart baserunners who know how to take an extra base. Godd baserunners don’t necessarily have to be fast base runners as evidenced by Jayson Werth, who can’t move like he used to but is excellent at reading the ball off the bat and knowing when to take advantage of the defense. Ultimate Base Running (UBR) measures the value added on the basepaths. The Nationals were 5th in the majors with a UBR score of 7, much improved over their 2013 score of -0.9. 

While the Nats did a good job of running the bases aggressively and successfully, it doesn’t mean they didn’t have some brain farts. They still had their fair share of “Thrown Out On The Basepaths Like A Nincompoop” (TOOTBLAN), everyone's new favorite stat.

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