To the naked eye 2016 seemed to be a very good year for shortstops in New York, with the glove as well as the bat.
Asdrubal Cabrera was a sure-handed revelation for the Mets, handling the position so impressively that Terry Collins practically mocked the scouts who had warned him Cabrera could no longer play short adequately.
Didi Gregorius, despite a few too many careless errors, played with such electric athleticism and eye-popping arm strength that it was hard to disagree with Yankees GM Brian Cashman, at season’s end, calling him “an exceptional defender.”
And yet the cold, cruel analytics say both of these guys were among the worst defensive shortstops in the majors last season.
According to Baseball Solutions Info, a company that provides statistical data for 25 of the 30 teams in the majors, Cabrera and Gregorius came in at 29th and 31st, respectively, among the 35 shortstops it ranked defensively.
That ranking is based greatly on calculations that had Cabrera at -7 in defensive runs saved, meaning seven below average, and Gregorius at -9.
By comparison, Brandon Crawford had the best DRS number at +20, and Addison Russell was second-best at +19. As dazzling as those guys are with the glove, the disparity between them and the two New York shortstops is rather stunning.
Ben Jedlovec, president of Baseball Info Solutions, explains:
He had range issues going to his right but also had a tendency to make mistakes, not just the 15 errors but what Baseball Info counted as 28 misplays, which could be anything from failing to handle a throw on a steal or turn a double play, to making a bad decision on a fielder’s choice that didn’t get an out on the lead runner.
It also had Gregorius for 43 of what it calls “good fielding plays," down from 53 in 2015, and 61 in 2013 in Arizona with significantly fewer chances.
“It’s uncommon to see someone drop that far that quickly," said Jedlovec, “but it’s not uncommon for guys to decline, even at a young age. Defense doesn’t improve much once you get to the major-league level. You generally start to lose some athleticism and quickness.”
Such analytics are more and more a part of the game, as today’s GMs seemingly put far more weight on run-prevention than their predecessors. And Baseball Info Solutions plays a major role in, as the company slogan goes, “collecting, interpreting, and disseminating baseball statistics.”
Yet there is still skepticism in the baseball industry about just how completely defensive metrics can be trusted to be accurate.
“Defensive metrics are still a work in progress," Cashman told me earlier this off-season. “I wouldn’t say we’re big on them. I consider Didi an exceptional defender.”
Mets GM Sandy Alderson, meanwhile, says he thinks it’s important to “be informed" of defensive metrics “even if one is not always governed by them," and makes the point that “there is no settled way of measuring defense.”
Regarding his shortstop, Alderson acknowledged that Cabrera “graded poorly in range,” but emphasized that his sure hands were at least as and perhaps more important.
“Positioning can compensate for range," Alderson said by e-mail. “Nothing compensates for poor hands, except for maybe a really good bat!”
The exclamation point had a hint of Alderson’s dry sense of humor, and Cabrera did have a good bat in 2016 to go with those sure hands, so the Mets were more than happy with him.
Still, the metrics measure more than range, and while Jedlovec admits “the numbers don’t explain everything,” he believes they present an accurate picture of how players compare to one another defensively.
Baseball Info Solutions puts that picture together with video analysis that is broken down into 80 — yes, 80 — different categories for each position on the field, all of it tracked and charted by trained “video scouts," as Jedlovec calls them, at company headquarters in Coplay, Pa.
“We try to be as objective as possible,” Jedlovec said. “We have access to multiple (TV) angles, multiple broadcasts. We can slow it down, replay it. If it takes 10 times to get the hit location and the times exactly right, that’s what we do.
“When a ball is hit we first plot the hit location: the ground ball went to this particular direction, this is where the ball was fielded…we break that down into one-degree slices across the entire field — 90 little slices in all.
“We also time the batted ball, how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B. So we say, ‘okay, for balls that took this long to get from the bat to the glove, and they were hit at this particular angle, with a couple of other variables taken into account, how often was that play made over the course of an entire season?’ So there’s not a lot of subjectivity in that.
“The eyes can very easily see that outstanding throw and the finish to the play, but it’s a lot harder to see the subtle…the slow reaction or slow first step, or the (lack of) range that put him in a bad place in the first place.”
That subtlety factors in primarily to the defensive-runs-saved calculations. But judging good plays and misplays also contribute to the ranking, and Jedlovec admits, “those have a little grey area" despite what he calls “an objective criteria for defining what is a good play vs. a misplay."
On that front, Cabrera was as smooth as he was reliable last season, making only seven errors, where Gregorius had plenty of spectacular plays but didn’t always make the routine play.
Baseball Info’s numbers reflect that observation, recording 28 defensive misplays for Gregorius vs. only 11 for Cabrera. The surprise, though, is that the Mets’ shortstop was credited with more good fielding plays as well, 45-to-43, yet his lack of range kept him from having a significantly higher overall ranking than Gregorius.
On the other hand, Gregorius’ numbers dropped so dramatically, especially his range to his right, that Jedlovec says it could have had something to do with how the Yankees positioned him.
There’s another factor, defensive shifts, which limit the total picture. Jedlovec says his company is working on a new system that will incorporate shifts into their calculations, but until it’s ready the Baseball Info Solutions people discount any play for an infielder that includes a shift.
So, as Jedlovec said earlier, the numbers don’t explain everything. But more and more teams are using them at least as a tool, along with their own traditional scouting, by which to evaluate players.
And such data makes the case that you can’t always believe your own eyes. To what extent, however, remains up for debate.