Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Erroneous Streak

Errors might be the most flawed statistic in baseball. Wins and batting average don't paint nearly the complete picture they are given credit for, saves are arbitrarily defined, RBIs are greatly influenced by a hitters place in the line-up and a catcher's caught stealing percentage is badly skewed by the pitcher who is throwing to him. Still, I think errors tell you the least of any popular metric about what happens on the field.

Bill James famously broke down the difference between a good and bad defensive shortstop for John Dewan's Fielding Bible and his analysis purposefully removed errors from the equation. An error only measures when a player makes a mistake on a ball that they got to. It can't take into account the difference in range, which is the most important overall defensive factor. 

Your baseball career wouldn't last very long if you did this, but a shortstop could theoretically stand in the same place for the entire game and as long as they caught every ball within their reach, they would never be docked with an E6. 

It's great that the Yankees just set the Major League record for most consecutive games without an error. It means that everyone has performed their position somewhat competently over that stretch. At least that's what you would assume, right?

Just as one example, take Brett Gardner's play during the fifth inning of Sunday's game on Asdrubal Cabrera's line drive. It was a ball that he easily could have caught, had he read the ball correctly off the bat. Instead he misjudged it, took a step forward, then retreated and reached towards the ball as it sailed past him for a double. Ironically, had he been slightly closer to making the play, and it tipped off his glove, it would have been scored an error. While not an error in official baseball scoring, it still made the game recaps and highlight reels and was cast as an obvious mistake. 

Since defensive statistics are relatively new and difficult to quantify, we can't go back and see what the best 18 game streak of defensive play in the history of the MLB was. Dewan's plus/minus system has only been around since 2004. UZR only goes back to '04 as well. I did a pretty entensive search for a study looking into the best fielding teams of all times and came up empty aside from straight sorts based on fielding percentage. The nature of batted balls and the dimensions of parks have changed throughout the years, making it even more difficult to quantify. 

If you had a Retrosheet Database, it would be easier, and more to the point to find the lowest amount of runs allowed by a pitching staff over that same time period and adjust for era. During the last 18 games, the Yankees pitchers have allowed only 3 1/3 runs per outing, a feat which I find far more remarkable.

1 comment:

  1. I look at it a little differently. Case in point: Jeter. He's been criticized for years for not having the range of other shortstops in the league. However, he has lasted a long time competently fielding his position. Range for an infielder is important, but I don’t feel it’s as important as things like a good glove, a strong/accurate arm, and knowing where to be positioned against each batter in the line-up.

    Range in the outfield, on the other hand, is extremely important. MLB ballparks are big. They’re a lot bigger than they look on TV and even from the stands. The centerfielder in particular has a lot of ground to cover. Remember when Bernie was nearing the end of his career? It seemed like a lot more balls were dropping in for singles and doubles after he had lost a step or two.

    In guess what I’m trying to get at is that the combination of an errorless streak and good ERA for the pitching staff is evidence of at least this; the defense is doing its job. They’re making the majority of the plays that they should, as well as some outstanding ones. I think with Melky, Swish, Damon, & Gardner the Yankees have pretty good range in the outfield. With A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, & Texeira in the infield they are as solid as they’ve been in 7 years.

    For a team that has been ripped the last 2 or 3 years for looking old and slow in the field, this errorless streak is a very good sign.