Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Guest Post: the Champs in the Field

I'm in the middle of my midterm exams, so SBTB has taken a bit of a backseat for the week. Today, we'll have another guest post from friend of the site Julian Tucker, and I expect to be able to get a post up by the end of the week. I'll be on Spring Break down in Scottsdale, AZ, the epicenter of Cactus League action, next week, so expect a full dose of posts as we prepare for the start of the season. Spring Training games start this Friday, and we're a month and a week away from regular season games. Get pumped.

Anyways, Julian's thoughts on the role defense played in the Giants' improbable World Series crown in 2010:

As a huge fan of the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate and write about them. Congrats! Now that that’s over with, I would like to turn your attention to an aspect of the 2010 Giants that many people did not recognize: their defensive prowess. Widely thought of as an excellent pitching and average hitting team, defense was one of the big surprises for the Giants in 2010.

At the start of the year, the Giants’ defense was generally considered poor. Of the team’s Opening Day starters, only two, second baseman Juan Uribe and center fielder Aaron Rowand, were considered above average defenders. In left field, Mark DeRosa would be adequate but not stellar. Right fielder John Bowker was thought of as below average. It was also thought that after many seasons in the American League as a DH and first baseman, Aubrey Huff would be poor defensively. On the left side of the infield, shortstop Edgar Renteria was aging and did not have the range or arm he once had. Pablo Sandoval was generally considered good at third, but there were still questions. Behind the dish, Bengie Molina was often maligned for his propensity to allow passed balls and inability to throw out runners stealing second.

However, over the course of the season, the Giants almost completely remade their roster, and in addition to more offense, new players provided better defense as well. One of the biggest changes was Buster Posey taking over catching duties from Molina at the beginning of July. Although defense for catchers is a difficult thing to measure, I for one can attest to the fact that the difference between the two was night and day. Posey allowed fewer passed balls and ‘wild pitches’ than Molina and was also much better at controlling opposing team’s baserunners, throwing out over 50% of attempted steals while Molina did not crack 30%. Other changes were also taking place. Renteria landed on the DL for a substantial amount of time, which also coincided with Freddy Sanchez returning from the DL in early May. This shifted Uribe to shortstop, his more natural position. They combined for 8.0 UZR in 2010, solidifying the middle of the Giants infield. Aubrey Huff had a resurgent year on defense, silencing his critics by contributing a UZR of 5.4 in 2010. Perhaps most important was the change in the Giants outfield over the course of the season. By mid-May, Aaron Rowand had played (and injured) himself out of the everyday lineup, opening up center field for journeyman Andres Torres, who quickly proved to be one of the best outfield defenders in the league. He posted unbelievable UZR numbers in every outfield position, with 7.9, 6.9 and 6.3 in left, right and center, respectively. Nate Schierholtz, the local kid with a cannon for an arm, logged more than 540 innings in right field and managed a 6.4 UZR in limited playing time. Even Pat Burrell rebounded to post a spectacular 4.9 UZR in left field. In total, the team put up 56.4 UZR for the 2010 season, second best in all of baseball. In terms of more advanced metrics, the Giants were average or better in four of the five categories that make up Defensive Runs Saved. High scores in arm and range indicate that Giant outfielders did not allow many runners to take extra bases and the team’s position players were good at getting to batted balls and turning them into outs. The only area the Giants were lacking was their double-play turning abilities.

All in all, the Giants great defensive year was a key component in their successful season. Their defensive prowess undoubtedly saved runs and games and helped out the stellar pitching staff. With such a good defensive team behind them, Giants’ pitchers were able to outperform their FIP of 3.74 by 0.38 for an ERA of 3.36. While this could be considered a small amount, it was actually second best in the majors, and definitely shows that a team’s defense can have a huge impact on the success of a team’s pitching. As the Giants showed in 2010, when you take a great pitching team and put great defense behind them, the results can be wonderful.

Thanks to Julian for an awesome and very informative post. For my two cents, I think his conclusion about the synthesis of great pitching and great defense is spot-on, and the basis for some of the strongest and most underrated teams in baseball finding success. In 2011, look for the Giants to continue to benefit from the combination of pitching and defense, and expect the A's, Twins, Rangers, and Reds (especially if they choose to give Fred Lewis significant innings in left in place of Jonny Gomes) to profit from such an arrangement in 2011. In addition, the Red Sox improved their defense massively this offseason, and combining that with several starters who would likely be in line for a bounce-back year anyway could allow their pitching to outperform current expectations in a huge way. There's a reason PECOTA has them projected to win more games than any other team in baseball this season, and although their lineup will be fearsome, that projection is largely based on them being expected to give up only 676 runs, shaving 68 off last year's total of 744.

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