Editor's note: This story originally ran on June 1, 2016.
When I talk to a manager, I often ask what I jokingly call "The Philosophical Question of the Day." This time, outside of the Cubs dugout during pregame, I injected myself into a conversation between Cubs manager Joe Maddon and former player and colleague Raul Ibanez to ask Maddon about the positioning of his center fielder, Dexter Fowler, compared to where Fowler played in the past.
"What caused you to play Dexter Fowler deeper?" I asked.
"The stats guys," (aka "The Analytics Department") Maddon said.
As a former center fielder, I was interested in Fowler, and I called a Cubs-Nationals game last year. When considering runs saved in center field, I saw that Fowler's defensive ratings were horrific on deep plays, which are plays that made him go back toward the wall. These happen to be the plays that cause the most damage to your team if you do not make them. Runners get extra bases, runners score, and hitters end up with extra-base hits. It is costly if you do not know how to control those plays.
I made note of it because Fowler displays the tools of a good center fielder. He takes pretty good routes, he has good speed, and he can throw. I couldn't help but wonder why he was rating so poorly in his ability to save runs, particularly on deep plays.
Were these ratings tied to his skills and approach, or were they simply a matter of where he was positioned?
In my playing days, I had a lot of autonomy as to where to play, based on having front-row seats to real-time action. I wondered whether Fowler was employing his right -- a right that comes with the center fielder being the captain of the outfield -- to veto data-based suggestions and then getting into trouble.
After he started playing deeper, Fowler started having positive Defensive Runs Saved ratings on deep plays. This makes sense on one hand, but Maddon had another point.
"All of a sudden, he is a good outfielder," Maddon said. "But if you have the same player with the same skill set, and he is doing nothing differently other than playing in a different spot, and his rating goes up, it would seem that the rating system is telling us that it only matters where you start."
Maybe. Let's look into Maddon's point. Fowler's metrics have improved since his depth change, as shown in the following table.
Maddon's point is well-taken, as these numbers reflect more of a positioning system based on results. Fowler is the same guy. There was no injury between the dates and no new prescription for his eyes -- just a new location in the outfield.
I connected with Scott Spratt of Baseball Info Solutions, the company that compiles, analyzes and tracks defensive data. Spratt explained, "If you add up his shallow and deep plays saved, he hasn't improved a ton from last year (-5) to this year (+1), but the fact that his plays are now happening on deeper balls is responsible for the bulk of his improved total Defensive Runs Saved. The reason for that is shallow balls typically become singles, while deeper balls typically become doubles and triples, so the run impact of a made or missed play on a deep ball is greater. Meanwhile, at least so far, Fowler's deeper positioning has not hurt his ability to keep runners in check."
This speaks to limiting the damage. An outfielder who misplays a deep ball is going to create many more problems for his team than one who misplays a single that drops in front of him. Fowler is fantastic at taking away singles and cutting down plays that are straight ahead.
Yet, the key point might be the last sentence in Spratt's comment. Fowler was not necessarily giving up much on the shallow end in exchange for his position. He has not overcorrected. He has found a sweet spot.
When Kevin Kiermaier won the Gold Glove Award last year, he came on our awards show and explained that the difference in great defense is how well you defend the plays that would most hurt your team -- deep plays. Kiermaier set a record for DRS for outfielders (+42) as a result of his approach, and that was with a modest -2 on shallow plays.
"Anyone can come in and catch a fly ball," Keirmaier said on the show. "That's not very difficult."
Where do the outfielder's skills come into play? It could be in how he makes in-game adjustments. An outfielder can be placed like a chess piece on the field, but in the end, he has to weigh many other factors. Playing a day game a Wrigley tells that story well. Sun and wind are factors, and even without this day-game effect, you have to know how the light banks play and how well your pitcher is hitting his spots. There is a lot to adapt to in-game that moves a player to his "ideal" spot.
Plus, there always needs to be room to move from that spot based on your core skills. That reminds me of a conversation I once had with late Phillies coach John Vukovich. At the time, I was the every day CF for the Phillies, and he was the guy who relayed the scouting reports on occasion.
One day, he asked, "Man, you are so good at going back on balls. Why don't you play shallower?"
He had seen that I was literally running out of room from overlapping with either the wall or my fellow corner outfielders. I also was letting balls drop in front of me on the bouncy AstroTurf at old Veterans Stadium. I put my trust in "Vuke." I moved up ... a lot.
It set me free.
One of the biggest challenges in analytics and its relationship with the human element is belief. As a player, I have to trust the data, or I might unknowingly work against it. Data might pinpoint where I should play, but I have to add my empirical evidence. Nothing works in a vacuum. Everything must be dynamic and allowed to breathe in real-time.
In my case, I went back on balls well. My perfect spot needed to account for that. My perfect spot would be different if I were good going in.
To Maddon's point, it is hard to imagine that an outfielder is only as good as where he positions himself.
That minimizes the skills needed to determine the angle to take, the speed of your first step, the sense you have for the stadium conditions and the closing skills to finish a play. Defensive Runs Saved data reflect the impact Fowler has on the game, based on his placement, not what tools he has in his tool belt. In a team sport, Fowler's game impact is the priority.
All of which makes for an interesting concept: Are these players interchangeable? Can you have the ultimate knowledge for positioning and get away with having just anybody out there?
Mets infielder Wilmer Flores did not have the traditional shortstop skills but was positioned well enough to hold down the position. The ideal world marries optimum skills with good analytics. Only someone who is already good can be moved to a different spot and be great. The numbers are saying: "How well do you get it done?"
We don't care about anything other than making plays, and if your skills allow you to make more plays, the metrics will reflect that fact. Leave the angles, speed and routes for scouting. Speed and skill do not save runs by themselves. Making the play saves runs.
We also must consider what plays the team is asking a player to prioritize. There are times when you need to take away the short play with risk for the deep play. Therein lies the challenge. Playing the infield in certainly hurts your range, but you must do it from time to time for the greater goal.
So far, so good for Fowler and the Cubs. It is early, but Fowler's improvement is a sign of bigger things to come, a sign of how the defense is acting more like a single organism, working off one another and understanding where all the players are in the scheme. This is why we see these shifting defenses -- an approach that is escalating -- working in concert, and it is a good lesson about the power of teamwork.
Maybe it is a good lesson for us all: It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like as much as it matters if someone has the wherewithal to put you in the right position to succeed.
Even if that someone is you.