Defensive Metrics (part 1)

I’ve lost my mind.

There is no way Gio Urshela is a below-average third baseman, defensively.  No way.

Put a pin in that, I’ll come back to it.

Advanced defensive metrics have some limitations obviously:  Some of the data is inputted by humans, and even great data entry folk make occasional mistakes.  There’s no way to know if a player was out of position because he took advice from a coach about moving in, back or to the side, that may have prevented him from getting to the ball.  Shifts obviously are difficult to account for – do you really want to penalize the third baseman for not getting to a ground ball toward third base when he was positioned at shortstop?  Teammates are factors:  Pitching staffs that consistently yield hard-hit balls are more difficult to play behind than good pitching staffs, and your double-play partner certainly has some say in how good your personal double play efficiency is.

But for the most part, defensive metrics are pretty good.  Like all stats, not perfect, but will give you a pretty good idea how a player has performed defensively.  It sure beats the hell out of using errors and fielding percentage to evaluate a player’s defensive ability.  For example, if shortstop “A” has 20 errors but has converted 350 ground balls into outs, and shortstop “B” has committed 10 errors and converted 275 ground balls into outs, shortstop “B” would have a better fielding percentage.  But shortstop “A” will save your team a metric ton more runs than shortstop “B” will by turning more balls that would have been hits into outs and double plays.

Bill James said it best:  If you’re a fielder and want no errors and a great fielding percentage, what you should do is avoid the ball when it’s hit to you.

So what most metric-driven evaluations do (I’ll use Fangraphs as an example) is measure a player’s range (the number of balls hit into an area that were turned into outs), the ability to turn double plays (percentage based on opportunities) for infielders and arm strength (ability to limit runners advancing) for outfielders.  Fangraphs calculates this and calls it “UZR 150” which means Ultimate Zone Rating which is then averaged over a full season (as small sample sizes can sometimes be a problem too).  UZR 150 is also park-adjusted, as playing 3rd base in Oakland presents different challenges than the ones posed by a small ballpark.

And according to Fangraphs (and the very smart people at Baseball-Reference too – more on that in a minute…), Gio Urshela is a crap defensive 3rd baseman.

18 third basemen have played 600 innings in the field in 2019.  In terms of the runs the player saves (or costs) his team with his defense, Urshela ranks 17th of the 18.  In fact, he’s cost the Yankees 6.7 runs this season – only Justin Turner is worse at -10.8.  For some perspective, Nolan Arenado is best with 14.3 runs saved and Matt Chapman is second with 7.4 runs saved.

”But we’ve seen Gio’s glove and it’s great!  The backhands with the strong throw to follow have been on highlight reels all season!  The catches on pop-ups he makes are ridiculous!”

All that may be true.  But the reality is that he’s above average at starting a double play (again, which is helped by having Torres and LeMahieu as his 2nd basemen) but he has no range and turns fewer “normal” ground balls into outs than most third baseman do.

And if you’re thinking maybe Fangraphs is wonky, Baseball-Reference calculates their dWAR (defensive WAR) slightly differently than Fangraphs, and they have Urshela ranked 19th out of 22 third basemen who have played a minimum of 60 games in dWAR.  They also, have Arenado and Chapman at 1 and 2, and Turner below Gio.

Now if you say but “eye test”, that’s cool.  But there’s no way we can see and remember every ball he got to or didn’t – we only tend to remember the highlight reels and errors.  And even if you could do that, if you’re watching him every day, by definition, you aren’t watching the other 3rd basemen in the league every day and can’t fairly make a comparative judgment.

And in full disclosure, when I thought about it: most of the great plays I’ve seen him make are the step to the right, backhand a very hard hit ball, and make a strong throw.  He makes that look easy.

But I haven’t seen him make a great play moving to his left at all.  Or to his right if he has to move more than a step or two.  Maybe an exception here and there but the numbers say those are exceptions, and that most other third basemen are better.

Not a judgment on Gio obviously, because he’s been a huge contributor to the Yankees and he sure as hell is fun to watch and easy to root for.

But he is a reminder that it’s cool to make evaluations based on what we see, but we need to remember that like good data entry folk, we make mistakes occasionally too.

Be sure to check back for Defensive Metrics, part 2:  My eyes tell me Mookie Betts is very overrated and Aaron Judge is very underrated.  I was wrong about Gio – let’s see if I’m right about them.

Did I miss something?  Let me know.

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