Back when you were a kid, out in the backyard, maybe you had a fence. I had a fence. In fact, my fence lived under a blanket of unrepentant ivy that swallowed up baseballs for whole seasons at a time, just like the trademark vines of Wrigley Field. In the years before I grew too tall to act out the charade, the fence was an outfield wall in need of scaling. Those years were more numerous than you’d expect and, not coincidentally, they were the years during which I came to understand that I’d never pull off such a Web Gem outside of that fence, outside of my own head.
Your dream-state defensive heroics, though produced with different props in a different setting and perhaps with different contemporary inspiration, probably had the same narrative thrust: The ball is flying, and you have to start as far away as possible. You sprint to grab it just before it crosses over the “wall” or hits the ground. If you get there, you’re a star. If you get there in acrobatic or daring fashion, you’re an even bigger star.
None of your daydream highlights, I’m guessing, looked like the home run robbery that Justin Upton so nonchalantly executed in real life on July 24.
Extreme displays of effort and athleticism are still alluring to our eyeballs, perhaps even more so in the age of Statcast. But they are also a bug in our code. Baseball fans, and the defensive metrics we use to evaluate outfielders, are programmed to reward difficult plays. We see sprawling, sprinting, lunging grabs as the pinnacle of defensive performance.
When it comes to judging individual talent levels, we aren’t wrong. The highlight-focused method of appreciating defense doesn’t work as well on a team level, though. As more and more analysts unravel the mechanisms that turn muscle twitches into steps, and steps into plays, and plays into wins or losses, defensive performances seem likely to be among the sport’s most team-based, interconnected data points.
And whether we want to admit it or not, it confirms the efficacy and importance of a strategy we all mastered out in the backyard when no one was looking except the imaginary, roaring crowd in our head: Start closer to the spot where the ball is headed.
So all of this started when I began to wonder what those Statcast outfield defender charts might say about UZR or DRS if they were not charts, but instead data-oriented baseball analysts quick to criticize metrics they viewed as outdated – perhaps even via tweet storms. (Don’t act unfamiliar with the genre.)
The first problem you encounter when you try to facilitate this conversation is that they aren’t speaking the same language and neither has provided an adequate dictionary. This, as it turns out, is basically insurmountable, so understand that this isn’t headed toward an answer so much as it is pointing out a missing piece.
That missing piece is positioning. To be more precise, I believe we need a way to adjust our evaluations of individual and team defenses to reward those who put themselves in positions to make more plays routine. A team that excels in this realm may provide fewer thrilling TV moments, but would almost certainly provide better results.
One of the basic struggles of defensive metric-making is deciding how “difficult” a play was to make. UZR and DRS and Inside Edge and Statcast all have their ways, but here’s what you need to know: Statcast’s relatively new outfield charts are not attempting to assign value to the plays. That makes them bad for trying to discuss whether Kevin Kiermaier was better than Kevin Pillar last season, because they lack context. But their omniscience opens up a whole new world of forward-looking possibilities.
Statcast charts are able to tell us where the fielder started, how far away the ball landed, and whether he got there in time. UZR, the best contemporary defensive metric, tells us how many more or fewer plays a fielder made compared to the previous six seasons’ worth of fielders, converts it to run values, and then scales the difference to determine how much better or worse he is than his average contemporary.
There are a lot of reasons that is muddy, many of which have to do with the added layer of thought that goes into creating a value calculation. But one thing that UZR can’t tell us is whether a player reached a ball because he (or his coaches or his front office) had an understanding of where it was likely to be hit, or because he is really, really fast.
That may not seem like a particularly important detail (and in terms of the result, it literally doesn’t matter at all), but it could completely revolutionize how teams are built and how players are evaluated, coached, and eventually paid.
One way a center fielder can get to a screaming line drive in the gap and save his team 0.52 runs (or something like that) is to start in the well-worn spot in the middle of the outfield, in line with second base and the pitcher’s back. Depending on his jump and natural running ability, a good center fielder might make the play, what, 30 percent of the time? Sounds great!
Another way a center fielder can get to a screaming line drive in the gap and save his team 0.52 runs (or something like that) is to start here.
I don’t know how often this exact play is made. But we know that positioning himself on the correct side of second greatly increased Trayce Thompson’s chances of catching this – one time or 100 times.
In a very rudimentary method of looking for players who put themselves in good positions, I took the catch charts and the hit charts for a selection of center fielders and dropped them on top of each other so we simply see every ball they fielded. Then I chopped off the left side so we are only looking at the balls they fielded more than 90 feet from where they started. The higher the dot, the more time the ball hung in the air; the further to the right, the farther the fielder had to travel.
If I ran a team, I would want this particular slice of my outfielders’ charts to be as blank as possible. That would mean one of my outfielders starts nearly every play with an exceedingly realistic chance of getting under the ball. Even if it’s a low line drive, where a catch is considerably less likely, a shorter distance would seem to decrease the chances of allowing an extra-base hit.
The closer a play is to routine, the more likely the outcome is positive.
In 2016 (the only season for which we have the charts), my model chart might have looked like Dexter Fowler or Joc Pederson. That’s weird, considering they aren’t thought of as elite outfielders. But then, it’s not. It has little to do with our traditional perception of playing the outfield, and much to do with the information they’re being given, and the job they’re doing in implementing it on a nightly basis.
Look at how much less often Fowler and Pederson had to handle far-away batted balls compared to Billy Hamilton (part of that is probably thanks to the unfortunate Reds pitching staff, but Hamilton also played slightly fewer innings). Hamilton proved himself far more capable of making the difficult plays, and was rewarded with the much higher UZR, but on balance, the Cubs and Dodgers probably feel better about their strategy.
The implications of optimizing positioning are huge. And so are the questions – which affect how those charts came to look that way. Here is a sampling:
- Do you set your priorities to limit slugging percentage and take away extra-base hits? Or do you try to minimize the number of baserunners?
- How much risk are you willing to absorb in the form of open space in whatever section of the field you deem least likely to see a given hitter’s ball?
- How does personnel factor in to your plans? Do you move your star center fielder more or less toward the likely batted-ball location if the two corner outfielders are subpar?
- Does any of this transfer over when Fowler or other outfielders switch teams?
I don’t have the answers, but the Statcast charts provide a glimpse into the ways our understanding might begin to diverge from the currently available metrics. And to some mysterious extent, they show how teams are acting on their even more advanced knowledge.
The distinct separation between Pederson’s starting points, marked by the bright blue dots, indicate a clear directive to differentiate between hitters (probably by simple handedness), and virtually every chart shows fielders adjusting their depth, within a range, based on who’s hitting.
How big are the gaps between those little dots? I’m not totally sure. But 15 or 20 feet of ground, gained more than a hundred times a season, adds up to something worth measuring.
. . .
Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.