The Great Debate continues: Outfielders and DH

Right Field: Nick Swisher versus Paul O’Neill

Paulie 1998 0.384 0.317 0.372 0.510 0.882
Swisher 2010 0.357 0.244 0.361 0.502 0.863

So 1998 has the lead here as well, leading by a chunk in wOBA, largely on due to 98’s advantage in batting average (though Paul holds slight advantages in OBP and SLG as well). Defensively, they’re both adventures in right field–but Swisher is probably slightly better (this year’s results in three games notwithstanding). Overall, Paulie wins.

And to the final spot:

Designated Hitter: Nick Johnson versus Daryl Strawberry

This one seems like it’s going to be a bit of a rout….until you actually look at the numbers.

Designated Hitter wOBA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Strawberry 1998 0.375 0.247 0.354 0.542 0.896
Johnson 2010 0.363 0.271 0.396 0.419 0.815

The wOBA likes Strawberry by a bit due to his prodigious power. I’ll go so far as to suggest that the Yankees have plenty of power, and that Johnson’s slugging is likely to rise a bit due to his new home park. The on base percentage is what makes Nick such a weapon, as he was third in the majors leagues in the category last season. The two guys ahead of him both took home MVPs (Pujols, Mauer). Strawberry wins this–but not by much.

So I’m left openly admitting that 1998’s outfield and designated hitter combination are better than 2010’s. But not by as much as you think. Bernie Williams’ defense was terrible, and while we the numbers to describe it aren’t nearly so intuitive as batting average, they are nonetheless just as important.


At the end of the day, this differential does make up some of the ground lost in the infield, as discussed here. But in the task of trying to overcome the infield disadvantage, this is like shooting a tank with a pistol. You just need more firepower.

Check back soon for our discussion of the two teams’ pitching.

Will is a lifelong New Yorker and Yankees fan who splits his time between finance, music, and baseball. He was one of the early contributors to IIATMS, though life took him away for some time. He is very excited to be back.

5 thoughts on “The Great Debate continues: Outfielders and DH

  1. Larry@IIATMS

    Will, I'll admit I'm still trying to get comfortable with the (relatively) new ways we have to measure defensive ability.  Sometimes, the statistics seem to confound what we're seeing (or think we're seeing) on the field.  I guess that's why we do the analysis, but it leaves me with an uneasy feeling.

    I simply don't remember thinking that Bernie Williams was a liability in center field in 1998.  I remember thinking he was a reasonably good center fielder.  And I think this was the consensus at the time. 

    Bernie won four straight gold gloves between 1997 and 2000.  OK, I know there's no more lightly regarded award than a gold glove.  I'm not trying to say that Bernie was the best defensive center fielder in the AL in 1998.  But at the same time, could he have been as terrible in the field as you are suggesting, and still have won those gold gloves?  Couldn't we at least regard 4 straight gold gloves as evidence that Williams was an ADEQUATE center fielder?  At minimum, the gold gloves tell us that in 1998, Williams was NOT regarded as a liability in the field.

    I feel the same way about Paul O'Neill, a guy with 11 assists (and 6 double plays!)  in 1998 (does UZR look at the ability of a right fielder to peg a throw to third base?).  Sure, O'Neill was 35 years old in 2008 and probably had little range.   But did I cringe in 1998 every time a ball was batted in his direction, the way I do with Nick Swisher?  Nope.  I thought that O'Neill had the one quality most valued in a right fielder — a throwing arm that baserunners were reluctant to test.

    Will, I'd like to join the 21st century with the rest of you sabermatricians.  But you worry me when you suggest that the 2010 Yankees would move the 1998 Bernie Williams to DH. 

  2. misterd

    Larry said it all well, and I thank him for it. I'm all for the modern metrics, but in the case of the 1998 defense, you're pretty much conjuring them out of thin air. I also find it hard to believe that such a horrible defensive outfield could support such an excellent pitching staff.

    In short, while the 2010 infield beats the holy hell out of the 1998 infield, the 1998 outfield smacks around the 2010 crew. Gardy/Swish likely cancel out, or nearly so, Paulie/Curtis, but Bernie is at least half a lap ahead of Curtis. Still not nearly enough to counter the IF dominance, but credit must be given where its due.

  3. Will@IIATMS

    Apologies for the belated response, Larry and misterd–life's coming down hard on my free time lately.

    Let's go step by step. Regarding Bernie's gold gloves, let's look at Derek Jeter in 2005 and 2006–both years when he took home the gold glove at shortstop. Between the two years, he was worth -22 runs in the field–that's a loss per year in just the field. The reason he won those was because the gold gloves voting (from my understanding) is based almost entirely on perception, not on any sort of advanced metrics (unless you count fielding percentage….and you shouldn't). In the early 2000s, Derek Jeter was regarded as a great fielder by the folks who don't believe in statistics, and a below average to bad fielder by those of us paying attention to the numbers (basically, an issue of faith in the data over our eyes). He's gotten better of late, but for a long time I had a running drinking game–pound a beer whenever you hear "past a diving Jeter". I remember a few innings with multiple beers going down the hatch as a result. That's not to say that you should assume Bernie is a bad fielder because Jeter was. However–Bernie's speed didn't diminish a ton when he got older. He could truck even in his later years in the game. It's sort of hard to believe that his routes would get worse—those tend to improve with experience, so why did he become so bad by the end of his career (when the advanced metrics started being recorded)? What regressed? I'd suggest not much did, and that he was probably a bad to terrible fielder earlier in his career as well.

    On Paul O'Neill's arm, let's talk about Melky Cabrera, just to give you an example. For ages, people talked about how great Melky's arm was, and how it gave him tremendous value in the outfield. Only, when measured by advanced metrics (RAR), Melky's arm was actually worth *negative* runs, while Brett Gardner's weaker, but more accurate arm was worth positive (these again by ARM, found on Melky got some serious mileage on those throws, which was phenomenal when he knew where the ball was going to end up. Unfortunately, he didn't always–lots of airmailed throws.

    I'm not going to argue that Paul O'Neill missed a lot of throws, because my memory simply isn't sharp enough to make such a claim. I will point out, however, that arm strength isn't nearly as important as folks make it out to be. Having a weak arm is very significant, as it means people will run on you. Having a normal arm and being able to throw it with accuracy is more important than the strength with which the ball is thrown. (which is not to say arm strength isn't a boon, if you do have the accuracy).

    And on the assists and double plays–remember who lead the league in outfield assists several years running: Manny Ramirez…one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball.

    On the outfield supporting the pitching staff–sure, this has an effect. It's quite difficult to measure, as indicators that would work for such a comparison generally are combinations of luck on balls in play and fielding (ERA to FIP, for instance).

    Anyhow, to be entirely honest–yes, these comparisons are 'ballpark', in that we don't have a tremendously effective way to do them. I'm working with what I've got, people! We have imperfect tools (though they're getting more perfect every day) and when comparing older teams with newer ones, we are stuck using the options at hand.


  4. Larry@IIATMS

    Will, your arguments are solid.  This is probably not the time or place, but UZR simply hasn't won me over.  You look at the UZR versus the perception for a guy like Bernie Williams, or even a Mark Teixeira (generally negative UZR numbers over the last five years), and it's simply amazing how much the numbers disagree with the perception.  I understand that a guy who won four gold gloves in a row might not be the best outfielder of his generation, but to say that he was a terrible outfielder, that he should have been a DH, is a mind-blower.  Sure, it's possible that the numbers have it right, but it still seems to me that the numbers might be missing something.

    A discussion for another day. 

  5. gary

    Strawberry was 50 times better than Johnson.  Yeah, they may get on base about the same, but do pitchers in the AL fear Johnson.  Strawberry was one of the most feared hitters at that time and when pitchers faced the Yankee lineup in 1998, they were afraid to pitch to him.  Messing up the mind of a pitcher is worth alot, and it helps the rest of the lineup. 

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