This graphic (supposedly) represents the Reds defense in 2011. (The plays and balls in zone numbers are really basic numbers available from fangraphs. The playing time percentages are based on innings played.) That 2011 team sucked, but the defense was highly rated – ranking 2nd in overall UZR in the NL, and 4th in fielding percentage. We also topped the NL, and were second only to Tampa Bay in MLB, in defensive efficiency rating – the most basic rating of how many balls in play get fielded.
Fast forward to 2012, and it’s suddenly no longer the case. Hal McCoy and Dusty have commented on it recently: but mostly in terms of a error-licious Cubs series. But it’s more than just that. We’re actually still 4th in fielding percentage. But our team total UZR and DER have dropped to almost exactly league average. Here’s what the same graph looks like for this season:
Here, I’ve adjusted all the counting numbers for a full season – and more specifically, I’ve adjusted it to 1467 2/3 innings, which is the exact number of innings fielded by the Reds in 2011. It’s not supposed to be a projection – just so you can compare the basic numbers from one season to the next. I’ve also got the tabular versions:
Balls in play is just based on the pitching numbers. I have no idea why it’s so many more than the BIZ numbers, I just figured it might help to compare between seasons. RZR is just plays/balls in zone. There’s clearly been a drop in the raw numbers – both the RZR and out of zone planes have dropped substantially – leading to that enormous disparity in UZR. The errors aren’t even that different – yes we had a bad spat of them in Chicago, but over the season, they haven’t been a huge issue.
There have been a few fewer balls in play per inning this year – thanks to a higher K rate (which is a counteracted by lower BB and HR rates).
By these numbers, 3B, SS, and the OF look like big differences from 2011 and 2012 – to the extent these numbers can tell us anything, at least.
SS – Cozart is undoubtedly capable, but he’s apparently no Paul Janish when it comes to getting to balls in the zone. On the other hand, Cozart is making a lot of out of zone plays. Maybe that has to do with what’s going on at third base. (If that’s so, it could be dragging down Cozart’s in-zone numbers as well. At third, both in zone and out of zone numbers have dropped precipitously.
3B – In 2011, Rolen and Cairo split the majority of time at third, with contributions from Frazier and Francisco. Both Rolen and Cairo had much better results in 2011 than in 2012. It could be an age factor – or, like many fielding numbers, it could just be a small sample size. Comparing between the two years, if anything, it looks like there are fewer balls hit towards the left side of the infield in 2o12. But overall, I don’t put a whole lot of stock in any of these zone numbers – there’s a lot of variance involved.
OF – RZR is down across the whole outfield, almost uniformly. It’s interesting because, Reds pitching has also seen an upswing in line drives this year. The groundball rate is uncannily identical to last year’s – but we’ve seen 2-3% of balls in play go from flyballs to line drives. That could certainly make a big difference in fielding for the outfielders. On the other hand, I think classifying line drives from flyballs is a little iffy – I think being caught or not can effect what the scorer calls it. But if that’s legit, that could be as many as 105 outfield balls that are line drives instead of flyballs – and that could make a big difference to the outfield defense.
It also looks like the Ryan Ludwick left field may be a little behind last year’s, which, yes, had Jonny Gomes quite a bit, but also had Fred Lewis and Dave Sappelt, who played some good defense. The basic plays/balls in zone number hasn’t dropped that much, but this years left fielders are making a lot fewer out of zone plays. Considering right field and center field have remained much more constant both in individuals and in performance, it’s hard to say what that might mean, other than 1) maybe Ryan Ludwick has a small range and 2) maybe these numbers don’t mean very much.
Bruce has been criticized a lot lately – and he’s certainly misplayed some balls. But he hasn’t really committed very many more errors than last year. His numbers have gone down overall – but that could have something to do with the line drives issue, and even if not, it doesn’t seem like this is a very big drop in performance.
Overall, defensive numbers are complicated. Even the basic numbers seem unreliable, given day to day, or even year to year variation – and don’t tell me much about positioning or ball trajectory/velocity. On the other hand, if you told me that 3B/SS/LF were all a little worse this year, I would believe that. LF and SS are the two positions where we’ve had major personnel changes, and the average age of our third basemen this year is about 1000 years. Of course, both Ludwick and Cozart make up for things with their bats: Ludwick by hitting very well these last two months, and Cozart by being still pretty good on defense, and hitting better than a cedar post. (I actually like soft J, and think he can hit a little better than he did last year, but… still.)
So our defense is mediocre this year – that’s almost an achievement in itself, as we’ve been known for terrible defense for a long time. At least, we’ve got some excellent defenders to make up for what’s so-so.