Surprise! Why Chipper rates well on D

Daniel Shirey/US Presswire

Chipper Jones has rated well under advanced defensive stats this season.

A few days ago, a colleague saw a list of the defensive ratings that Baseball Info Solutions puts out for major league third basemen and his puzzlement was not over who ranked first, but over another name among the leaders in Defensive Runs Saved.

You may raise an eyebrow at the name Chipper Jones in the chart on the right too, especially after seeing the two errors he made Wednesday night.

It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask how and why the 40-year-old Jones, who has never had a great defensive reputation, ranks so high.

So I figured I’d try to answer that.

Let’s get a few things out of the way before we do.

First, Jones has played 423 2/3 innings at third base this season. That’s a small sample in the defensive world and there can be notable fluctuations as a result. This won’t be looking to establish any predictive value to his performance. It’s more of a look inside the numbers that already exist. For reference: Jones' Defensive Runs Saved totals the past four seasons are 10, minus-6, 0, and minus-3. He’s had both good years and bad years in his career. This year was off to a good start, though Wednesday night may make you think differently.

Two, just because Jones is tied for third in Defensive Runs Saved does not mean we’re saying he’s the third-best defensive third baseman in the league, or better than (fill in the blank with whatever name you wish). Three, this stat, just like any other, has its flaws. Measuring defense is an inexact science, reliant on some things that are not fully foolproof.

We can easily understand why someone ranks highly in the accumulation of home runs or hits. But how does one rate well in Defensive Runs Saved? Let’s explore a bit.

Jones defensive rating is based on much more than comparing his error totals from this year (eight after Wednesday’s game) to last year (six, in more than twice as many innings).

It encompasses the sum of four components: a plus-minus number (how many plays was he better at converting batted balls into outs than an average third baseman), a double-play number, a bunt defense number, and a Good Play/Misplay number (based on video review).

Jones' plus-minus rating has been worth three runs, his bunt defense worth two runs, his double-play defense has been worth no additional runs, and his video review has added three runs (this information is available publicly at Baseball-Reference.com).

Why has Jones been worth three runs for his ability to turn batted balls into outs?

BIS tracks infielders based on how they fare against balls hit to the right and to the left of where all third basemen turn better than 50 percent of batted balls into outs, as well as “straight-on” meaning where third basemen most often turn batted balls into outs.

An example of the area around third base that Jones is covering well (in this case, for Tim Hudson).

Jones rates highest (plus-3 “bases” in the plus-minus system) on ground balls hit to the right of where third basemen play. Thinking about that intuitively, that’s telling me that he’s saved a few more doubles than other players.

We have our own tool that allows us to look at where batted balls go, based on video review. It’s similar to what BIS uses. We’ll put it to use here.

Imagine the area extending from the third base line about 10 degrees outward around the diamond. Basically, that’s covering a swath of territory that we can estimate along the third-base line and a little bit outward. If a ball is hit into this area, it’s the third baseman’s ball and no one else’s. The image at right shows the approximate locations we’re talking about for Tim Hudson this season.

Want examples of the kinds of plays we’re talking about? Click on the links here, here, and here.

Batters who have hit ground balls to that area have gotten a hit 29 percent of the time and reached base via hit or error about 35 percent of the time this season.

The Braves have allowed 38 such ground balls with Jones on the field. You’d figure if they were converting grounders into outs at an average rate, Jones would have gotten at least one out on 25 of them.

He’s done better than that. He’s turned 32 of the 38 into outs.

Now, we’re not judging why he has done so well. That could be any number of things, ranging from where he’s positioned to whether a first-base ump blew a call or two, to just plain good luck.

Bottom line: In the time he’s been on the field, we’ve found something that accounts for part of the reason why Jones rates well.

BIS doesn’t just do this for ground balls in this area. It does it for every ground ball, every line drive, and every popup, the end results of which rate Jones four runs above average. It’s going well beyond just looking at his errors and fielding percentage.

With that in mind, check out the chart on the right. We asked BIS to video-track assists recorded on barehand plays this season.

BIS shared with us who rates best on balls hit no more than 90 feet from home (in other words, balls like this one).

We’re guessing the barehands have something to do with Jones ranking first this season (he was 4.5 plays better than an average third baseman before Wednesday).

Why does Jones’ bunt defense rate well?

BIS has a means of evaluating bunt defense a bit too detailed to explain here (you can learn more in its book "Fielding Bible Volume III"), but the key to Jones’ value (1.7 runs, rounded up to 2 runs) comes from this.

He’s fielded eight bunted balls, six in sacrifice situations (men on base, less than two outs), two with a batter bunting for a hit. Of the six sacrifice attempts, four resulted in advancement of the runner, two did not. Of the two bunt-hit attempts, neither was successful.

In short, that’s good bunt defense. You and I might not think it’s worth two runs (and that has the rest of the year to even itself out), but the system BIS uses does.

What has Jones done to make himself valuable on video review?

This winter, BIS implemented a system by which it gives Runs Saved credits and demerits to players based on specific plays (known as Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays) that get categorized by a staff of video trackers.

Jones has three Good Fielding Plays that literally saved runs, i.e., situations where he cut a runner down at home plate. The most recent of these was last week in the second inning against the Phillies. Playing a little bit behind third base, Jones came home on a one-hopper just to the left of the third-base line and nailed Carlos Ruiz at home.

Jones also made a similar play about a month ago against Curtis Granderson and the Yankees with a one-run lead in a close game.

BIS’s system is rewarding those plays, just as it would give him a demerit if he made a bad throw to the plate, as he did on Wednesday. Cutting down (or failing to nail) a runner headed to home plate is one of many categories that the BIS video trackers check.

Jones comes out about even in everything else. Bearing that out, BIS video trackers have Jones faring slightly better this season than last season, with 16 Good Plays/15 Defensive Misplays & Errors, compared to 21 and 24 in 2011.

In the end, Jones gets credit for three Defensive Runs Saved so far in 2012. He was credited with none in each of the previous two seasons.

In summary

Sabermetricians espouse the idea that a good list will both confirm what you know in some ways and will surprise you in other ways. We’ll admit to being very surprised that Jones ranked so high. But now we have a better understanding of why he does.

The challenge and fun in what is to come is to see whether or not his days ahead are more like those couple of innings against the Giants on Wednesday, or the first 400-plus that preceded them.