Identifying top defensive outfields no easy task

Identifying top defensive outfields no easy task

The Angels turned heads when they handed rookie Peter Bourjos the keys to center field last August, relegating nine-time Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter to right. They turned more heads when they traded for three-time Gold Glove center fielder Vernon Wells and told him he'd be moving to left.

This bold rearrangement proved three things: One, the Angels think very highly of Bourjos' defensive abilities. Two, they think very highly of their projected overall outfield defense for 2011. Three, outfield defense is considered hugely important in baseball these days.

"If Peter is in center with those two guys on the wings, it's hard to imagine a better defensive outfield than that," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said the day of the Wells trade. "With a guy like Vernon Wells, we have great flexibility. We're a better team today than we were at any time last season."

But do baseball experts agree with Scioscia?

That's up for serious debate, especially after the changing pieces of an active winter have remodeled quite a few outfields -- and when the evaluation of defense remains one of baseball's most underdeveloped and therefore mysterious areas of quantification.

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For example, according to two of the more respected new defensive statistics -- Defensive Runs Saved, developed by The Fielding Bible's John Dewan, and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), a number that's growing in popularity -- the Angels not only aren't even close to having the best defensive outfield, they might rank last in their own division.

Huh?

"Looking at these two former great center fielders playing in the corners, the assumption is that if they played great center field at one point, they'll play great in the corners," Dewan said.

"And it's not a great assumption because they're older and getting slower and both showed significant decline playing center field. I'm sure they're looking pretty decent in left and right this spring, but it is clear that they have declined dramatically in center."

According to Dewan's company, Baseball Info Solutions, the best defensive outfield will belong to the Seattle Mariners, featuring Gold Glovers Franklin Gutierrez in center and Ichiro Suzuki in right and left field potentially manned by a combination of veteran Milton Bradley and young Michael Saunders.

Dewan's projections for 2011 have the Mariners at 29 runs saved, far and away the best over runner-up Texas (22), defending World Series-champion San Francisco (20) and the Yankees (20). The top 10 is rounded out by Houston (18), Arizona (18), Detroit (17), Washington (15), Cincinnati (14) and Kansas City (14).

And to answer the common question of how on earth he came up with these seemingly arbitrary projections, Dewan employs "scouts" who pore over video of every game played in the course of a 162-game MLB season and track each batted ball.

They are tasked with analyzing how hard balls are hit, how close or far they are from the fielders deemed to be responsible for making the plays, and the result of those plays. The company comes up with a number, plus or minus, of how many runs per season a fielder "saves" or "costs" his team.

As Dewan's assistant, Ben Jedlovec, explained, Runs Saved measures eight components of defensive play: the three relevant to outfielders are Plus/Minus Runs Saved (measuring the ability to cover ground on fly balls and line drives), Outfield Arm Runs Saved (measuring how often a fielder throws out an opposing baserunner or intimidates him from attempting to advance), and Home-Run-Saving-Catch Runs Saved (quantifying the value of robbing a home run).

Austin Jackson of the Tigers was rated as the top defensive outfielder last year, with 23 Runs Saved, and Carlos Quentin of the White Sox was ranked last, with minus-20 Runs Saved. 

Dewan said he was a bit surprised to see the Yankees ranked so highly until he took a good look at the numbers from the past two years.

"We've got Brett Gardner in left field with a plus-9, a plus-7 in right with Nick Swisher and a plus-4 in center with Curtis Granderson," Dewan said. "That's a pretty solid outfield."

But not as good as that of archrival Boston, according to the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) rankings published by FanGraphs.com.

While Dewan's metrics have Boston's new-look outfield -- big-ticket free-agent signee Carl Crawford in left, Jacoby Ellsbury in center and J.D. Drew in right -- at a middle-of-the-road 11 Runs Saved for 2011, FanGraphs has the Red Sox at No. 1 based on individual outfielder scores from 2008-10 on UZR/150.

In layman's terms, UZR, which was developed by Mitchel Lichtman, quantifies the number of runs a fielder is above or below average, according to FanGraphs, by combining "range runs" -- "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity" -- and "error runs," defined as "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by the number of errors he makes as compared to an average fielder at that position given the same distribution of balls in play."

UZR/150 numbers simply translate to "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games."

Boston's refurbished outfield checks in atop the UZR/150 projections for 2011 at +37.4, with Crawford's +20.4 leading the way. Seattle is next at +30.4, followed by Tampa Bay (+19.6), Washington (+16.4) and Oakland (+12.6).

"The Red Sox lost one defensive star in Adrian Beltre this winter, but Carl Crawford's range in left field should help compensate for his departure," Dave Cameron of FanGraphs said. "With two guys fast enough to be playing center field and the underrated J.D. Drew, Boston's opponents will have a hard time getting a ball down in the gaps."

Cameron said the A's helped themselves tremendously on the defensive side by trading for David DeJesus and Josh Willingham.

"While the A's receive credit for upgrading their offense with Hideki Matsui and Willingham, it's the defense of DeJesus that might help the most," Cameron said. "Along with Coco Crisp, Oakland will have two flycatchers in the lineup, and when Ryan Sweeney starts over Willingham, they'll have a trio of elite defenders."

Dewan doesn't shun the work that scouts do in evaluating defensive talent. He says scouts are much better at predicting how young outfielders will perform, naturally, because statisticians have small sample sizes of performance numbers to work with and scouts have the advantage of seeing the players with their eyes.

"Also, we're at the 80-90 percentile with statistics and how we can evaluate and therefore predict how players will hit and how they'll pitch," Dewan says. "With defense we're only at about 60 percent."

What does it all mean?

Well, maybe the Angels' moves to improve their defense that looked so good in theory might defy these statistical predictions and work on the field. Their players seem to think so.

As Hunter explained, the change from center field to the corners, the hype of the acquisition of Wells, the future of Bourjos -- it all won't mean much until they start playing and they hear the crack of the bat.

"When the ball's hit," Hunter said, "go catch it."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.