Causality or Coincidence?

Though I think the new defensive statistics are very cool to play with, the skeptic in me can’t help being… well… skeptical about how accurate they really are.  How important is defense, really?  Fangraphs’ UZR/150’s have a guy like Jason Bay consistently costing his team between 11 and 18 runs every year.  That’s a LOT of runs, especially for a guy who’s pretty athletic and moves really well.  Is defense really THAT important?

Two items I recently noticed brought this conflict into my crosshairs:

  1. As Pete Abe said in his blog the other day, the Yanks have not made an error in twelve straight games and are an impressive 23-6 in games where they are errorless.  Wow!  That’s pretty stark.  Is it a coincidence that the Yanks began their winning streak at the same time they began their errorless streak?  Is it possible that A-Rod’s stabilization of the atrocious 3b defense has been the TRUE key to the Yanks going on their run?
  2. The worst defense ever?  Give this tremendous Fangraphs’ article a quick read.  It talks about the worst defenses in the UZR era, stating that the post-championship era Yankees were clearly the worst defensive teams in the league, with the 2005 Yanks dwarfing all others with a stunning -130 runs.  The chief culprits of that team were Bernie Williams and Gary Sheffield, costing the Yanks more than 28 runs apiece!

As someone who has often wondered why the Yanks have come up dry in the past 8 years, despite all their star power, I can’t help but wonder if defense is the reason, or at least one of the biggest reasons why they have always come up dry in the big spots.

If that is truly the case, and not just a coincidence, can the recent spate of stellar defense continue?  I’m even less sure of this.  In terms of range, the Yankees rank right about dead average with the rest of baseball (-1.8 UZR/150).  In terms of runs cost by errors, they are also pretty average (+0.8).  The scary thing is is that average represents a great improvement over recent defensive squads.  By these numbers, if the Yankees can just be an average defensive team, their chances for making a deeper run in the playoffs are greatly enhanced.

Where is this improvement coming from?  Mainly from Gardner in Center, who is in the +20’s UZR, the addition of Teixeira at first, and improvements from Melky and Cano, who are among the top Yankee UZRs this year.  I guess there are two big questions, then.

  1. Have the Yankees greatly improved their defense to the point where it is at least in the average range (this is largely dependent on whether you feel Robbie and Melky have become plus defenders for good).
  2. Do you feel defense is really that important anyway?  Is it right up there (or close to being up there) with hitting and pitching in terms of things we should be monitoring or do you feel the recent emphasis on defense is somewhat overblown?  Should the Yanks be mainly concerned with acquiring pitching and hitting, and allowing the defense to take care of itself.

11 thoughts on “Causality or Coincidence?

  1. I totally agree with these comments. Question: what percentage would you put on the importance of defense to success versus pitching and hitting? Is it just as important as the other 2 categories (a 33%/33%/33% split) or is it almost as important but slightly less (25/35/40), etc.?

    • Well, offense is 50%, so you need to split the pie differently. I’m not sure how- maybe 50, 30, 20?

      • Though most will tell you that the most important aspect of baseball is pitching.

        Also, Yogi said that 90% of the game is half mental. If that’s true, then, hmmm… carry the two, divide by… way beyond my math skills.

    • I don’t think it’s a fair question to ask because it varies depending on the team and the park that team plays in. The Red Socks don’t bunt at home (in fact, they really just don’t bunt at all) and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that a fly ball turns into a homerun or double very quickly in that park.

      Like many people have said, a run prevented from scoring is just as good as a run scored.

  2. Defense is absolutely crucial for a championship team. I never realized how terrible the Yankees were in the field from 2002-2006. I think it is even more important in the playoffs where you’re not getting a chance to pound teams 4th and 5ths starters around. Bernie Williams was simple atrocious in center field. I would love to see the difference in UZR numbers between the 5 year championship run as opposed to the 5 years afterwards.

    Just to take an example of how this could severely effect a pitcher let’s look at Andy Pettite in 2008. That year he went 14-14 with a 4.54 ERA. Taking a look at the peripherals, he wasn’t that horrible. Sure the 1.4 WHIP looks bad but that isn’t a fielding-independent stat. He kept his walks down, kept his K/9 right around 7 and had a GO/FO of 1.80. The thing that almost jumps off the page is that his BABIP was .339 which would leave you to believe that he allowed a lot of hard-hit balls. Yet he only had a 20% line-drive rate and a .84 HR/9. So how was allowing all these hits? The defense behind him of course! Pettite’s field-independent pitching was 3.71.

    Can you imagine the difference in how we viewed Pettite’s season had he been in front of a decent infield? Say he went 18-10 with a 3.80 ERA. There wouldn’t have been a whole lot of complaining about his return if that had been the case

    (Yes I know he was especially bad towards the end of the season but as we all know, he was pitching hurt because the alternative was Kei Igawa)

  3. Defense is the new OBP- Moneyball was not about OBP, it was about exploiting market inefficiency, and defense is the new market inefficiency, because people do not know how to quantify it very well. Look at what the A’s did (outside of Giambi)- they brought in Holliday and Cabrera, two excellent defenders. Not a coincidence.

  4. Tex anchors the infield and has made everyone better.
    Cano is going deeper behind 2nd base with TEX covering more ground at first and Tex’s throwing ability compared to the ridiculous Giambi is a huge plus.
    I know Cano dogged it last year but he always had good hands and a good arm and made the double play pivots beautifully.
    He and Melky have grown up and matured a bit.
    Gardner is a plus defender and Swisher is an upgrade over Bobby (the walls are radioactive) Abreu.

    • Yeah, I always knew that Abreu and Sheffield were not great defenders but the numbers are pretty staggering even so.

      • I didn’t realize how bad Bernie was in his decline either. The Yankees definitely made the wise decision to not resign him

  5. Chip: I didn’t realize how bad Bernie was in his decline either.The Yankees definitely made the wise decision to not resign him

    Really. It looked like he was standing still the last couple of years. I have no doubt Torre would have put him back out there in Center if we had brought him back. Bernie was my favorite Yankee of those great teams, but he was done.

  6. The mantra from me has always been; Defense, Instincts etc….
    My thinking in all sports has always been defense first, granted some say; “The best defense, is a good offence”! Many teams tried to go with 60% offence, 25% pitching and 15% defence…most of them were, “also rans”. Last years Tampa team was on target with Defense, Pitching and not having many Injuries that had the team doing what ever it took to win.