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Hardy and a defensive analysis

Hardy and a defensive analysis

When you think of today's best defensive shortstops, what names come to mind? For me, I think of Rafael Furcal and Cesar Izturius first, then Omar Vizquel, Neifi Perez, Alex Gonzalez, Jack Wilson and Adam Everett. Those seven in my mind make up today's best defensive shortstops. They all have great range, and excellent arms. Furcal, Gonzalez and Izturius routinely make highlight-caliber plays showcasing their athleticism. From our perspective as baseball fans, great range, excellent hands, a strong arm, quickness, athleticism and great instincts are clearly, and intuitively, the makeup of a great defensive shortstop. So let's try two things here, to see how well quantifying these qualities works, and to see where, if at all, J.J. Hardy fits in.

It's clear, at least to Brewer's scouts, fans and announcers, that Hardy is an excellent major league shortstop. I'm in this camp as well. I believe, truly, that Hardy will reach that second tier, and that his will be a name that comes to mind when talking best defensive shortstops. He has the hands, the instincts and an excellent arm.

Let's see if we can't bend some stats to prove this. :)

More after the jump

Fielding Percentage
One of the simplest stats we have for quantifying defensive ability is fielding percentage. It measures how many outs you make as a percentage of how many chances you have.

FPCT = (PO+A) / (PO+A+E)

That says Fielding Percentage equals Putouts plus Assists divided by Putouts plus Assists plus Errors. Ok? Yeah, on to the numbers as of 8/7/05:

Omar Vizquel, SF     .991
Orlando Cabrera, LAA .989
Michael Young, Tex   .984
Neifi Perez, ChC     .983
Jack Wilson, Pit     .982
Cesar Izturis, LAD   .981
Jimmy Rollins, Phi   .980
Adam Everett, Hou    .980
Rafael Furcal, Atl   .979
Royce Clayton, Ari   .978
David Eckstein, StL  .978
Derek Jeter, NYY     .978
Alex Gonzalez, Fla   .976
Jose Reyes, NYM      .976
Juan Uribe, CWS      .975
Miguel Tejada, Bal   .975
Cristian Guzman, Was .974
Khalil Greene, SD    .974
J.J. Hardy, Mil      .971
Felipe Lopez, Cin    .971
Jhonny Peralta, Cle  .971
Angel Berroa, KC     .971
Julio Lugo, TB       .966
Edgar Renteria, Bos  .954
Russ Adams, Tor      .948

That tells us that Vizquel is the best defensive shortstop. Ok, not bad, he's on my list. But, I definitely don't think that Cabrera and Young are better than Perez, Izturius, Furcal and Gonzalez. You know what else? Hardy doesn't belong with the group at the bottom of the list. That's just wrong. There must be something wrong with that stat.

There is. Here's two problems with Fielding Percentage as a measurement of defensive skills. First, it relies almost exclusively on errors, and errors are subject to the official scorer's judgement. Hardly the hard fact we want to use. Second, it tells us nothing about the balls the shortstop didn't get to. If they have a slow first step or are way out of position and don't even get to the ball, it's not recorded in this statistic. For example: If a shortstop gets to 100 balls, makes 90 outs and commits 10 errors, he still has contributed more to his team than the shortstop who has no errors but only makes 80 outs. If Hardy boots an easy out but makes two outs that no other shortstop can get to, I'd still take him on my team, and most of you would too, I suspect. What else do we have then?

Range Factor
Range factor is a neat, and relatively speaking, new stat. Basically, it measures the number of outs you make per inning.

RF = (PO+A) / Innings

This, at first, seems better. We've removed the subjective aspect of errors and we're taking into account the number of outs a player makes per inning, two factors that address the major flaws of fielding percentage. Let's see how the MLB shortstops shake out with this stat:

Rafael Furcal, Atl   5.53
Jack Wilson, Pit     5.16
Alex Gonzalez, Fla   5.13
Julio Lugo, TB       4.96
David Eckstein, StL  4.86
Derek Jeter, NYY     4.73
Miguel Tejada, Bal   4.69
Neifi Perez, ChC     4.67
Omar Vizquel, SF     4.66
Cesar Izturis, LAD   4.59
Juan Uribe, CWS      4.56
Royce Clayton, Ari   4.53
Jhonny Peralta, Cle  4.48
Angel Berroa, KC     4.42
Felipe Lopez, Cin    4.39
Russ Adams, Tor      4.37
Jimmy Rollins, Phi   4.35
Adam Everett, Hou    4.33
Edgar Renteria, Bos  4.31
Cristian Guzman, Was 4.26
Michael Young, Tex   4.25
Orlando Cabrera, LAA 4.19
Jose Reyes, NYM      4.12
Khalil Greene, SD    4.03
J.J. Hardy, Mil      3.75

Looks better at first; Furcal, Wilson, and Gonzalez up at the top of the list. But so are two of the less-skilled shortstops, Eckstein and Jeter. But hey, whoa, Hardy's definitely not the worst shortstop in baseball, is he? In my mind he's better than at least 15 of those other guys on that list. What happened? Must be something wrong with the stat. Let's bend it. Range Factor as part of its component has innings. That means if you play nine innings and don't make a single out, your range factor is 0.00. That could happen if you have great pitching, or a combination flyball/strikeout-type pitching staff. That will severely reduce your chances at making an out. Let's look at two pitching staffs to see if it could be an influence.

Team    K/9   FB/GB
Braves  5.65  0.775
Brewers 7.06  1.079

Sure enough, the Braves get fewer outs by strikeout and flyball than the Brewers do, thereby giving Rafael Furcal more chances than Hardy per inning and giving him an advantage in the Range Factor category. Also, with great pickoff artists, and excellent arms in the outfield, I wouldn't be surprised if the Brewers were among the leaders in those non-ground-out categories. So your range factor can only be as good as your total chances per inning and Hardy clearly is at a disadvantage. We are starting to see the difficulty in separating defense from pitching.

Zone Rating
I've got one more stat for you. Zone Rating. This is an even newer stat using data not available to everyone. Zone Rating was developed by STATS Inc. They use hitting charts to calculate the location of every batted ball and the percentage of the balls hit into a player's zone that are converted to outs. The numbers:

Jack Wilson, Pit     .885
Neifi Perez, ChC     .882
Omar Vizquel, SF     .879
Khalil Greene, SD    .871
Adam Everett, Hou    .868
Jhonny Peralta, Cle  .866
Alex Gonzalez, Fla   .863
Rafael Furcal, Atl   .863
Jimmy Rollins, Phi   .859
Cesar Izturis, LAD   .855
Juan Uribe, CWS      .851
Orlando Cabrera, LAA .847
Felipe Lopez, Cin    .844
Angel Berroa, KC     .840
J.J. Hardy, Mil      .839
Julio Lugo, TB       .826
Edgar Renteria, Bos  .819
Cristian Guzman, Was .817
Derek Jeter, NYY     .814
David Eckstein, StL  .812
Michael Young, Tex   .810
Miguel Tejada, Bal   .809
Jose Reyes, NYM      .808
Royce Clayton, Ari   .793
Russ Adams, Tor      .765

Well, that looks even better still. I really want Hardy to be even higher, up above Uribe near Rollins but I'm nearly out of stat-bending techniques. 15th out of 25th is less than I expected, but this stat seems pretty good. My top seven shortstops are all in the top 10. The only surprise for me really is Peralta.

As always, I have a couple of bones to pick with this measurement. I can't be sure, but I suspect that the "Alien Defense" Rich Dauer employs (dramatic infield shifts) plays a part in Hardy's zone rating. If Branyan is making plays in the SS zone while Hardy is behind second bag, I suspect it damages his zone rating, whereas when he's turning double plays from the secon-base side, it probably doesn't help his zone rating.

Anyway, if one thing is clear, it's that defense is far harder to measure than hitting. I think our new stat zone rating does a good job, and Michael Litman's Ultimate Zone Rating goes even a step further. The sabermetric community is getting closer to having an excellent quantification of defensive skills. For now, I'm going to rely on my own eyes, and zone rating. Hardy makes difficult plays look easy. Plays that other players can only make with fantastic leaps and twirls, Hardy makes with great instincts, good footwork and a cannon for an arm.

Some Interesting Articles
Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Part 1 by Michael Litman
Defensive Stats 101 by Baseball Almanac
Thoughts on Zone Rating by John-Charles Bradbury
Hit Location Diagram by Retrosheet
Pitchers and Defense by Voros McCracken