Putting Sabermetrics To The Test: The Fielders

Fielding is perhaps the one thing that is difficult to quantify by use of sabermetrics. While several systems are available in evaluating a fielder (Dewan’s +/-, UZR, etc.), they don’t always agree and a single season often isn’t enough. Some people were surprised to see Denard Span rate so poorly in center field by UZR in 2009, after he rated well all over the outfield in his rookie season, but 2010 showed that ’09 was likely the outlier as he was rated as an above-average fielder again.

Even with this knowledge, I’m going to completely ignore it and attempt to predict the UZRs for most of the 2011 starters, using their ratings from their career compared to the previous season. Since this could be considered the hardest thing to predict, I’m going to give a range of 5 instead of an exact number. Also, I won’t include Joe Mauer and Drew Butera since UZR does not currently exist for catchers.

Justin Morneau

2011 UZR/150: 18.0

Career UZR/150: 5.5

A converted catcher, Morneau has done a lot of working in transforming himself from a passable first baseman to an excellent defender. His offensive work last season gets all the credit, but he was doing a great job on defense as well. In fact, that 18.0 was the best he had done in whole career, besting the 15.0 from 2005. This likely means that it will drop this year, however, but he should still remain above-average.

2011 prediction: 2 to 7 UZR/150

Alexi Casilla

2010 UZR/150 (shortstop): 27.0

Career UZR/150 (shortstop): 25.7

At first glance, this seems like Casilla is the second coming of Omar Vizquel, but what I didn’t show you immediately is that Casilla has only played about 1/5 of a full season at shortstop. While at second base, he’s compiled a career UZR/150 of -7.9 in 247 games, which appears to paint him as a poor second baseman and contradicts his “great” numbers at shortstop. However, shortstop is his natural position and perhaps the switch back would bring back some comfort for him. Nevertheless, I’d have to go with the fact that he’s rated as a bad second baseman and his switch to a tougher position according to Bill James to say that he’ll continue to be bad this season.

2011 prediction: -8 to -3 UZR/150

Delmon Young

2010 UZR/150: -11.0

Career UZR/150 (left field): -17.0

The bad news is that Delmon still rated poorly as a left fielder last season. The good news though is that he probably can’t be considered as the worst left fielder in baseball anymore. Last season, he was just slightly worse than guys like Ryan Braun and Raul Ibanez, whereas the previous two years, he nearly doubled Carlos Quentin’s UZR/150, and Quentin finished in second to last behind Young. The turnaround could be attributed to two main things. First, Young had complained that he had trouble seeing the baseball with the lights at the Metrodome, and a move to Target Field allowed him to track the ball much better. Second, he lost 30 lbs. to start the season, and that could have made it easier for him to stomp around the outfield.

Already this season, we’ve seen him make some plays that he probably wouldn’t have in previous years. I think he may improve a little more, but he’ll still be below-average defensively.

2011 prediction: -13 to -8 UZR/150

Denard Span

2010 UZR/150: 6.4

Career UZR/150 (center field): -1.2

Like I said before, Span is someone that has been a bit puzzling in prior years. When he first came up to the majors in 2008, he dazzled everyone with his defense in the outfield corners. Then in 2009, he wasn’t so great in center and right field, while he defense in left thrived. He did put the doubters to rest last year when he finally rated above-average in center field, even though he did seem to pull up on several balls hit either to the warning track or the wall for fear of running into the fence. That being said, I think he’ll again be above-average, but still not quite among the elite defensive center fielders.

2011 prediction: 1 to 6 UZR/150

Michael Cuddyer

2010 UZR/150 (right field): -18.4

Career UZR/150 (right field): -7.2

Look up Michael Cuddyer in the dictionary, and you’ll see a picture of Delmon Young. Honestly, they are two very similar outfielders. Both have terrible range and strong arms. Some fans believe that Cuddyer’s arm makes up for his lack of range, but that’s simply not true. The difference between setting up a few baskets in the outfield connected to a pitching machine and Cuddyer in the outfield is almost like comparing Cuddyer to Brett Gardner, 2010’s best defensive outfielder in terms of UZR/150. Ok, it’s not exactly true, but my point is that getting outs is far more valuable than preventing a runner from advancing a base, and I digress.

Once upon a time, Cuddyer was merely an average to below-average outfielder, but his range has decreased significantly in recent years. Part of his deterioration could possibly be attributed to the fact that he hasn’t played a full season in right field since 2007, which is also coincidentally the last season Cuddyer could have been called an average defensive right fielder. However, he has been below-average for nearly his entire career in right field, and I don’t think this year will be any different.

2011 prediction: -13 to -8 UZR/150

Jim Thome

Just kidding.


Note: I did not include Danny Valencia, Luke Hughes, or Tsuyoshi Nishioka due to a lack of data for their careers.


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