Making defense part of the equation

December, 3, 2008
Anyone see a connection between these two items from my colleagues?

First, Peter Gammons:

    "There's no question this is a dual market situation," says one GM. "The corner bat/DH market is flooded, and the stock market is drowning. Not a good combination, not when pitching rules the market."

    "The other thing is that teams are moving away from the base offensive statistics," says another GM. "They are pouring through defensive studies and seeing that below-average defenders like [Manny] Ramirez and [Pat] Burrell in the field depreciate their offensive numbers because of what they give up."

Next, Jerry Crasnick:

    In addition, Dunn's price might be dropping in a down market. Two NL officials wondered whether Dunn would command even a Jose Guillen-caliber, three-year, $36 million deal from a team other than Washington.

    "[The Nationals] might have to pay a bit of a premium for him to go to a team that has not won recently," one of the executives said.

I agree with Craig Calcaterra: "if Dunn can't get a Jose Guillen deal we've gone from a tough market to comically irrational pessimism."

There's also this, though: Dunn, like Ramirez and Burrell, is a pretty lousy outfielder (though not as lousy as them, yet). All of these guys are worth a great deal of money. But while Ramirez might be a $25 million hitter, he is not a $25 million baseball player because he gives away a bunch of runs when he's in the outfield. Same goes for Burrell, a $12 million hitter but an $8 million player.

For years, everybody in baseball paid a great deal of lip service to defense but paid very little attention at contract time. Sure, Ozzie Smith got his money, but that's only because he was so awesome that nobody had to guess. With everybody else, though? Your scouts might tell you that Jose Canseco was an awful outfielder, but you couldn't put a number on his glove so you just didn't worry about it too much.

Now, though? Some teams have numbers, and most of the teams that don't are smart enough to at least glance at John Dewan's Fielding Bible data or Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs. According to Dewan, Burrell's been the worst-fielding left fielder in the majors for three years running, roughly 25 "plays" worse than average over the course of a season. According to BP, Burrell over the last two seasons has been 15 runs worse than average per season. It's such a fundamental thing but is so often ignored: all those plays lead to runs allowed, and those runs count, too. Doesn't mean he's not a good and valuable player. Does mean that if you ignore his defense when you're figuring out how much he's worth, you're going to overshoot by a big chunk of change.

Teams are figuring this out. Of course there's always going to be a dummy out there who hasn't gotten the memo yet. But there might not be enough dummies for all the sluggardly sluggers to get the contracts they believe they so richly deserve.



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