Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It Ain't The Scoops

We all knew Mark Teixeria was going to be a gigantic improvement over Jason Giambi in a number of ways when the Yankees signed him just before Christmas. He figured to hit for a higher average, have an equal or better OBP, hit as many home runs or more, run the bases more effectively and perhaps most obviously, be able to play first base almost daily and field the position well.

In my post about Derek Jeter's defensive improvements this year, here is what I said about Teixeira's positive impact on him:
Teixeria's glove probably helps, but Jeter has never made many throwing errors. He is on pace for 5 this year and has averaged 6.5 per season since 2001.
It was a pretty blunt measurement, and it turns out I might have actually oversold Teix's influence on fielding throws to first.

John Dewan, author of The Fielding Bible II, contends that there isn't much evidence to suggest that Teixeira is better at rounding up errant throws than the Big G: (h/t BBTF)
In fact, in 2008, Giambi's 29 scoops for the Yankees were good for 0.26 scoops per game started, while Teixeira's 2009 scoops for the Yankees are only 0.23 per game.
Dewan's Plus/Minus System keeps track of positive and negative fielding plays made by each player in every game and recently added "scoops" by a first baseman which would have prevented an error by an infielder as a positive play. These stats are tallied by actual people watching the games, so there is a human element involved, but on the whole would figure to be pretty accurate.

The only thing I can think of which would skew the results is that Teixeira can cover more territory with his foot on the bag than Giambi, and this extended range allows his to field balls Giambi would have had to reach for without scooping them. But I don't think that could occur often enough to make much of an impact.

The true difference between Gold Glover Mark Teixeira and Jason Giambi is in handling grounders. In the last two years Teixeira has saved his teams 18 runs fielding grounders, while Giambi has cost his team 18, a 36-run difference in Defensive Runs Saved.
Keep in mind those numbers are over the course of two years, but that is a massive gap in terms of fielding ability. To put it another way, Teixeira's career UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating averaged over 150 games) is 2.2 while Giambi's is -7.2. Giambi might think he's a great defender, but that's obviously not what the numbers say.

Defensive performance is never going to be as easy to put a numerical value on as offensive production, but this should at least help us appreciate what Teix brings to the table on both sides of the ball.


  1. Awesome read, Jay. I just posted about Tex's d over at my iYankees blog and spoke on his ability to scoop throws. Cano and Jeter have stated that they can both send the ball to Tex without worrying about him catching their throws. I wonder if their perception of him as an excellent defender allows them to make better throws to Tex whereas with Giambi, the throws weren't "free and easy" given Giambi's defensive reputation (which could mean more errant throws). Not sure how that may factor in---if at all, but it does go to show that assessing defense through a numeric lens is a highly complex task, as you stated at the end.

  2. Thanks, Chris. In our efforts to write about baseball from the outside, there is a tendency to ignore anything that we can't easily quantify. As a result, I think we are undervaluing the mental side of things, because it's impossible to prove, but it obviously plays a part. It's just tough to tell how much.

  3. Defensive metrics have improved greatly in recent years, but IMO they still lag behind batting and pitching in giving a tangible quantification of what's going on.

    That said, I don't find these results too surprising. My impression of Giambi was that he actually pretty good at picking it - both on throws and batted balls - but that he just had no range (and threw worse than Damon).

    Teix's defensive value, as Jay rightly points out, comes from the entirety of his defensive skills: range, instinct, throwing, scooping, positioning, reaction time, etc. He still strikes me as incredibly dull, almost devoid of any personality at all, but watching him everyday is a treat. The guy is an incredible all around ballplayer, excellent baserunner, etc.

    I think there are other factors at play here as well, they may not reveal themselves. As the RAB post on this mentioned, the IF defense this year is much better, with Jeter at his best in a decade and Cano playing GG caliber. Is that the chicken or the egg? Does this mean more tough plays this year? Does this mean Giambi had less opportunities last year? What effect did A-Rod's absence for the first month plus have on all of this? What effect did Ramiro Pena's defense have?

  4. I think it's been pointed out part of the improvments in the infielders is the coaching of 1st base coach/infield coach Mick Kelleher. He's helped them position themselves better before pitches, allowing for better 'range' by having to move less to get grounders.