Friday, August 15, 2008

A baseball post

Because I haven't done one in a while and figured this would be the last chance I get for one until baseball is completely forgotten in the rush of football season.

Adam Dunn is undeniably a very good hitter, which is something people who can't look past batting average are unable to wrap their heads around. In lieu of his recent trade to the Diamondbacks and his impending free agency, many are saying he'll have to go to the AL to DH because of his fielding, which is oft described using terms that would make your mother blush.

But here's the thing: He's not that bad. In fact, he might actually be a good left fielder.

(Though I couldn't find any picture of him actually fielding or even wearing a glove. I like to think of the image to the right as having the caption, "Don't tell me another one of you idiots think I suck because I hit .247 for my career!")

Revized Zone Rating is a fielding stat that basically measures how often a fielder makes an out on a ball hit into his "zone." Make every play and you're a 1.000 fielder. Make 80% of them and you're .800. Seems simple and accurate enough; after all, it's a fielder's job to make outs. I believe it counts errors into its measure (as "non-outs") and a shortstop throwing to first for the out counts just the same as if he caught a line drive.

So, looking at qualifying left fielders in the majors this year, Dunn ranks fourth out of 12 players with a .899 rating. I think they're a little strict at determining the number of innings you need to qualify, but that's still pretty good. Expand it to all left fielders and Dunn would at least still be in the top half, if not top 10. Click on Dunn's name to pull up his player card and you'll see his LF RZRs the last three years are .878, .826, and .899. In other words, for the past three years, he's been no worse than an average left fielder, according to RZR.

Ah, but look at his earlier years: an abysmal .569 in 2004 and .595 in 2005. That'll get you a rep right quick for being an awful fielder. But if he's improved to being in the .800s now, why do people still think he's awful?

The answer is that nobody really knows how well anyone fields because there are no day-to-day statistical updates or easy, utterly impartial way to compute fielding aptitude. You can tell if a hitter went 1-4 or that he his hitting .325 for the season or has a 3.48 ERA. Those numbers are recorded, double-checked, and easily verified. But could you tell me a hitter's batting average if it wasn't computed for you and if you didn't keep records of it, except in your head? Even if you watched him every day, could you tell me how many home runs Adam Dunn has hit this year? 20? 30? 40? You'd never know.

Fielding is the same way, and, because of that, once we have a notion of how a player is in the field, we tend to think players' fielding aptitude never changes. Unlike virtually every other aspect of baseball -- hitting, pitching, baserunning, and so on -- players are stuck with the label of "bad fielder" or "good fielder" early in their career, and it sticks forever, except occasionally in the case of a good fielder who is very obviously not good any more (like Barry Bonds late in his career). That's why a lot of the same players win Gold Gloves every year. Does the same player win the MVP -- which is largely determined by hitting prowess -- every year? If not, why should the same player be considered the best fielder every season? Look at the bottom of the AL center field RZR ratings. Bet that guy will get some Gold Glove votes this year (and maybe win it outright)?

I'll grant you that fielding stats are an inexact science, but if you look at the objective numbers pretty much anywhere for Adam Dunn (take a look at his RF9 compared to league average RF9 here), you'll find that he's, at the very least, not an embarrassment to the position and a smart team wouldn't immediately try to shoe-horn him into a DH position.

Which, of course, means the Twins would. If they wanted to sign him. Which they, in all likelihood, won't because he hits OMG .247. Oh, and he probably lacks team leadership and is poor at fundamentals. Who wants 40 HR a year from a guy who can't lay down a bunt?

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