2016 Reds

Searching for the Missing Reds Defense

A common critique of the Reds front office over the past few years has been that those in charge target speed and defense-minded players, advocating for a small ball approach dependent on superb pitching and eeking out a couple of runs. Or, as Bryan Price put it the other day, “If you can pitch, you can win in this league. And if you don’t pitch, you don’t win.”

While acknowledging that the Reds are rebuilding, the philosophy has marooned the team on an abysmal 36-58 island. The speed is there, the pitching is green but learning, and Joey Votto is still Joey Votto despite losing his wallet, phone, and car keys for the first couple months of the season. Yet, to paraphrase the legendary Cap’n Jack Sparrow, many Reds fans have been left wondering: “But where have the gloves gone?”


Before I can investigate any sort of defensive shortcomings, however; a few caveats must be made.

1) Most defensive stats recommend looking at a three year sample size; we’re looking at half a season. Take all conclusions with a grain of salt.

2) Defensive stats are notoriously hard to calculate and any explanation of how these were arrived at is largely futile. You can’t figure this stuff out with a pen and paper, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t less informative and relevant.

3) Shifts, positioning, field conditions, swarms of bees, streakers, wind currents, obnoxious fans, wardrobe malfunctions, and day-to-day fatigue are all unaccounted for in these numbers. You just can’t predict baseball.

4) I will be using DRS, UZR/150, and Def for all analysis. DRS and UZR/150 attempt to measure and quantify defense through similar but tweaked methods, whereas Def is a positional modification of UZR. For convenience, here are my simplifications of Fangraphs’ definitions:

Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) — Measures how many runs a player saves over the course of a season. The number falls on a scale of -20 to 20, with 0 being the average fielder at that position and +15 being a Gold Glove fielder. The statistic encapsulates position specific fielding events, such as double plays for 2B/SS or bunts for 3B/1B, as well as a range rating.

Ultimate Zone Rating/150 (UZR/150) — Measures how many runs a player saves over the course of a season, but is scaled to an average number of plays. UZR/150 allows us to more accurately account for differences in innings played, making comparisons across players more meaningful than DRS comparisons. The statistic also encapsulates position specific fielding events and range ratings, but tries to quantify how much a batted ball would be worth to the hitting team and how often the fielding player would make the play. UZR/150 does not apply to catchers.

Defensive Runs Above Average (Def) — Takes UZR and adds a positional adjustment so that fielders of different positions can be compared to each other taking into account the varied difficulty of the different positions. For example, center field is more difficult than right field, so Def normalizes the two numbers so they can be compared.


Okay, so where do the 2016 Cincinnati Reds stack up against their recent iterations? The short answer: Not that well.

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What’s most surprising in the above graph is not the Reds current defensive downturn, but that the slide actually began last season. Def is the best stat to use here because we’re comparing a full teams’ statistics. As such, the Reds rate just above average in the 2016, good for 13th in the Majors, as opposed to well below average and the 9th worst fielding team in 2015.

While neither of those numbers are unforgivable, they come after a six year stretch–2009 to 2014–where the Reds never ranked below 7th in Def and were in the top three five times. Prior to 2009, the Reds were absolutely miserable on defense, so we’ll ignore those years for the rest of this post because it’s simply too painful.

So what happened? How did the mighty fall? Injury, age, and a bit of Jay Bruce it seems.

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By positional DRS, the Reds are league average or better everywhere but catcher, first base, and right field. Of those three, Tucker Barnhart and Co. make up the difference to post a 9.1 Def, largely because catcher is a more valuable position than most others. Joey Votto’s -9.3 Def is right in line with his career average, so the club’s defensive woes can’t be blamed on the lead-footed first baseman even though compared to other first baseman, he is having a down season (-6 DRS compared to 2015’s 7 DRS).

Second base, and by that I mean Brandon Phillips, has also shown a steady decline over the years, decreasing from 2011’s 15.3 Def to last year’s 6.2 to this year’s 3.5.  BP is still valuable on defense, but his days of Gold Glove contention are most definitely behind him.

The true surprise here is that right field is far and away the worst defensive position on this current Reds team. The position’s -20.5 UZR/150 is more than double the number from 2015, which was an already quite bad -10.1. The Reds seem to be following the Little League mindset of putting the worst fielder in right but have forgotten that Major Leaguers can actually get the ball out of the infield.

Before looking further into why right field has been so bad this season, it’s worth noting that the Reds have returned to a league-average defensive team largely because of Zack Cozart’s return and Adam Duvall’s emergence.

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Adam Duvall has been an above average fielder in left all season with a 9.2 UZR/150, far eclipsing the bumbling duo of Marlon Byrd (-8) and Skip Schumaker (-22.6). Duvall is actually the first positively rated every day left fielder the Reds have had since Chris Heisey in 2013. (Heisey only 423 innings in left that year as the Reds staffed the position by  a committee which included defensive nightmares Ryan Ludwick and Xavier Paul.)

Zack Cozart has also returned to his pre-injury level of dominance, posting a 14.6 UZR/150 that surpasses his 2014 number of 12.3. The Eugenio Suarez/Ivan De Jesus experiment of 2015 was predictably miserable (-9.7 UZR/150, which is even tempered by 450 innings of Cozart).

But what happened to right field? To be entirely honest, I have no idea.

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Jay has never been that great of a defender, posting negative UZR/150 numbers in six of his nine seasons, and he’s usually been quite a ways below average. Some years his arm will make up for his range, and others vice versa. Defensive statistics are about as confused by Jay Bruce as I am by defensive statistics.

That both Jay’s arm and range have gone down the drain this year is probably less a reflection on his defensive prowess, which is admittedly nonexistent, and more a compensation for his suddenly resurgent bat. Jay Bruce is a living “You can only pick two” triangle, except he only gets one .

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Can all of the Reds’ defensive woes be blamed on Jay? Absolutely not, but he is far and away the worst defender on this team. I wouldn’t except the defense to get better with him on his way out the door either.

The Reds stand to lose their best defender (Cozart) soon, and their second worst (Votto) will be here for the long run. Both Eugenio Suarez and Tucker Barnhart are average defenders at best, against popular belief in opposite ways, and BP will only keep getting worse. On the whole, the Reds aren’t a bad defensive team, just a mediocre one. But after years of league excellence, mediocre seems pretty dang bad to the rest of us.

Unfortunately, it seems like the gloves are gone for good, and like Jack Sparrow, Reds fans are marooned on a desert island with nothing fun to pass the time. But you know, Elizabeth burned the rum to save the two of them in that movie, maybe the Reds can find a way to do the same.

 

31 thoughts on “Searching for the Missing Reds Defense

  1. How can our 3rd baseman be classified as better than average?

    I’m also surprised by CF number only being at 6.

    Sometimes the numbers don’t jive with what the eyes are telling us.

    • agreed VARED, I like Duvall but am not buying that he is better than Billy and equal to Zack.

      I still do not understand the Adam Dunn like numbers for Jay Bruce

      • those stats are also for the season and billy has missed time this year due to injury

      • It may be in comparison to other LFers. For example, Duvall is a pretty solid LFer compared to having Marlyon Byrd. While Center field is mostly comprised of athletes with range so the margin between Hamilton’s exceptional range isn’t as much. Like a comparison between Hamilton and Drew Stubbs. Both wicked fast and made plays that a lot of RF or LF guys wouldn’t get to, but they play center field for a reason…

    • DRS is based on league average defenders per position. Billy is 6 runs better than an average CFer, while Duvall is 7 runs better than an average LFer. Since CF on a whole are better than LF, we can conclude Billy is better than Duvall.

      Nothing out of whack, really. Just gotta get through the nuance.

      If you want to compare value across positions, you need to use “Def,” not DRS.

      • Also two clarifications that I should’ve made:

        1) These are positional stats and not player stats. So 6 DRS is for everyone who has played centerfield, not just Billy.

        2) Here are the Def numbers by position so we can all compare everyone against each other (again, not player centric, position centric)
        C — 9.1
        1B — -9.3
        2B — 3.5
        SS — 11.7
        3B — -0.7
        LF — -2.6
        CF — 5.5
        RF — -17.9

  2. Off topic, but….

    “If you can pitch, you can win in this league. And if you don’t pitch, you don’t win.”

    Does the same apply to hitting?

    “A common critique of the Reds front office over the past few years has been that those in charge target speed and defense-minded players, advocating for a small ball approach dependent on superb pitching and eeking out a couple of runs.”

    If that’s the case, the results don’t seem to indicate success.

    Extremely patient or slow learners?

    • I would say that the Reds have been more about power than anything else. It is why we do not move hitters with high OBP through the system.

      Now there have been some great defenders in that time; Cozart, Phillips.

      But I have to say that watching Suarez play 3rd base is the hardest thing I have had to endure as a fan. Watching that makes Adam Dunn look good in left field.

      From my eye watching games, the -14 would go to Suarez at 3rd, the -6 to Votto and the -1 to Jay Bruce. I just do not see Jay butcher plays as badly as Suarez does at this point. Votto makes some great plays at 1st and then misses some basic plays that make you wonder. I have not seen Jay make a play as bad as either of them

      • As bad as Suarez has been, he’s not worse than Encarnacion. That dude could not throw with accuracy from third much at all. Crazy thing is sometimes Eddy would actually make a nice stop then throw it into the fourth row.

  3. I think this shows exactly what Wesley said in the beginning of the article: “Defensive stats are notoriously hard to calculate and any explanation of how these were arrived at is largely futile.” There is no doubt that Bruce is not the best defensive outfielder in the league, his speed and range are both below average. He does however make a fantastic catch every now and then and makes a great throw, his arm is still good, just not as accurate as it once was (age does that, trying to do what you once did). There is no way however that he is a worst defensive player than Suarez. I cringe every time a ball is hit towards third. I understand he is “learning a new position” “no one works harder” phrases we hear from the TV announcers, but regardless he muffs so many easy balls it is ridiculous. My thought is they ought to switch Duval and Suarez. I think that Duval has done a lot better job in left than anyone ever thought, but I think he has the reflexes and arm to play third as well. And maybe Suarez can get back to concentrating on hitting.

  4. I still say this comes with better pitching, also. I do believe the two are definitely related. We had better pitching back then. The pitching was able to keep the batters’ timing off. So, instead of hitting balls like line drives, they were hitting much easier balls to field.

    But, the more balls that are hit, the more balls that will be hit hard. The more balls that are hit, the more errors will be made.

    This will get better with better pitching. I’m not too worried. After all, even with better defense, we still couldn’t win an NL pennant nor WS. But, the Cards, with great pitching and horrible defense, were able to win 2 WS.

  5. I’ve wondered in the past if Hamilton’s extremely high defensive metrics are related to Bruce’s extremely low metrics. Obviously Hamilton makes an eye popping play once a week that doesn’t take away a fly ball that a RFer would normally take. But perhaps he makes a play or two in the gap each week on lazy fly balls that on a normal team, the RFer would take. Think about it. Lazy fly ball to right center. Hamilton gets there a lot faster than Bruce does and settles under it. With a normal CFer, the right fielder gets there first some of the time and takes the fly ball. If my theory is correct, then over the course of the year, that is going to make a big impact on both their advanced metrics. Combine that with the fact that Bruce is below average anyway, and the result is he looks like literally the worst defensive player in baseball, at any position. (That is where fangraphs has him.)

    • It’s my understanding that neither metric used by Wesley penalizes a player for another player making a play in his defensive zone or on the border of two defensive zones.

      For example, Hamilton goes into right-center for a play and keeps running into Bruce’s zone in RF. Hamilton makes the catch in Bruce’s zone. This counts as an out of zone play for Hamilton but counts as a non-play for Bruce. The non-play for Bruce behaves as if a ball wasn’t hit into his zone in the first place and doesn’t hurt him at all.

      This is my understanding anyway.

  6. Speed and defense.
    The Reds front office has pulled a bait and switch on the fans. Same as when Jocketty declared he was searching high and low for higher OBP hitters that K less. And then he brought in player with sub-.300 OBP.
    A team needs to be built upon scoring runs, not just speed and defense.

  7. Something I want everyone to understand is this… each of DRS and UZR is made up of components.

    For DRS, you have the following:
    rSB (Stolen Base Runs, catchers only)
    rGDP (Double Play Runs, IF only)
    rARM (Arm Runs, OF only)
    rGFP (Good Fielding Play Runs, all positions)
    rPM (Plus/Minus Runs, all positions)

    For UZR, you have the following:
    ARM (Arm Runs, OF only)
    DPR (Double Play Runs, IF only)
    RngR (Range Runs, all positions)
    ErrR (Error Runs, all positions)

    So when trying to figure out why Suarez, for example, is rated higher than Bruce, you can dig in and see where it is coming from.

    Let’s look at UZR:

    We only have to look at one component, really… RngR. Bruce has been worth 8.4 runs below average simply from his range. Suarez, has been worth 2.3 runs ABOVE average simply from his range.

    Looking at the errors, Suarez has been worth 4.0 runs below average from errors, while Bruce has been worth 0.7 runs below average from errors. As it turns out, 3Bman are committing a lot of errors, making Suarez look not quite as bad by comparison.

    Looking at Bruce’s ARM is another negative… 3.2 runs below average. Think how often guys on 1st score on a double to RF against Bruce. That negatively impacts both his Range and his Arm runs. Also, Bruce has allowed a lot of 1st-to-3rd on singles.

    So really, looking at it this way, you can get a good idea of WHY players are rated how they are rated.

    LIke Wes said, 1/2 a season of defensive numbers aren’t great. For example, Peraza currently rates as one of the worst defenders (he isn’t in real life) because of such a tiny sample for him and being across multiple positions.

    • +1000 much better explanation of the differences than my rambling above

      • Haha! Not at all, man! Your article had a certain scope and stuck to it. Leave the rambling to me. 😉

    • I am just spitballing here, but I believe exit velocity is up and I wonder if that is making life especially hard for players at the hot corner.

      • Certainly possible. An extra 1.5 mph on average could certainly cause a few more errors.

    • So my question is how do they turn range into runs prevented? Number of balls caught that were hit into the zone then apply a weight factor of sort? Are the numbers situational. Do they just let variances even out over the sample size?

      • So if a certain fielder catches a ball that gets caught only 10% of the time, he gets credit for the value over average (so, 90%) multiplied by the change in run expectancy from the likely outcome of the play against the true outcome of the play.

        So, imagine a diving catch saves a double and that double would have increased RE by 1.5 runs, then that fielder gets 1.5*0.9 runs added to his “range” pool. Same goes for missing plays that other people make. You get negatives. Hope that made some amount of sense.

  8. It’s age more than anything. Philiips has devolved from one of the best ever to, I don’t know, about average and declining. Votto loses concentration because the team is so far below .500, Bruce is now lumbering rather than gliding. But watching Hamilton play center is an absolute joy. Used to feel the same about Eric Davis, who could also catch up to a seemingly uncatchable ball. Hope Billy stays healthy and continues to take away runs for years to come.

  9. This is good article, but yeah, lots of sample size caveats. Votto, Bruce, Cozart, and BP are the only every day players with a large enough sample to be considered reliable. I’d rather have seen a 3-year average for those guys when talking about their current talent levels.

    Also, Peraza is noted in the comments above, but having watched him a bunch in Louisville, he’s at least average at short and probably well above average at 2nd. His only issue is range to his right. And it’s not terrible. It’s just not as good as you’d like it to be.

    Winker, on the other hand, is going to be a defensive issues. Just have to hope he makes up for it with his bat.

  10. I am skeptical of defensive stats in general, because they inherently have small sample sizes. I am therefore skeptical that Bruce is as bad as the stats make him look, and I believe it is very possible that the configuration of GABP and the lousy Reds’ pitching may explain most of Bruce’s bad stats.

    The Reds’ pitching against all hitters rank 28th in triples allowed and 17th in doubles allowed, but they are far, far ahead 161 to a second-place 128 in homers, and worst in OBA. Much of that is GABP’s configuration, especially in a very short right field: more balls land in the stands that might be doubles or caught elsewhere.

    And the Reds’ staff, which was very bad for much of the season, almost certainly allows more hard-hit balls than any other NL team. Against LH hitters, who are most likely to hit to RF, the Reds’ staff has a MLB-low K/9 rate of 6.08; other than Texas, no other team is less than 7.19. The Reds have unfortunately used a lot of easy-to-hit RH pitchers this year.

    Bruce likely gets a lot more bullets hit to his area of the field than any other RF in baseball, and while I know that the intent it to normalize the stats, I doubt that the stats capture exactly what is happening. Sometimes, for example, a “first-to-third on a single” is actually a good play, such as 2 days ago when Bruce bare-handed a ball off the wall and held the guy to a single, with the runner going to third.

    Bruce is no Roberto Clemente, but he’s not Thelma or Louise, either.

  11. “You’re still missing the cutoff man. Now that is something I would like to you work on before next season.” – Jim Dugan (A League of Their Own)

  12. Wes It was a great article and Patrick your explanation on difference between Bruce and Suarez’s rating was enlightening. Thanks.

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