We have been on the topic of defense for the last few weeks since it appears the Marlins are ready to turn over the keys of to center field to Chris Coghlan despite the fans’ and saber-analysts’ concerns. Defense has recently become a focus once more for the Marlins, since the team apparently wants to shift back to its supposed 2003 roots of good defense and pitching. One of the team’s primary additions towards this goal of improved defense is the rehiring of former infield coach Perry Hill to once again teach the ways of the glove to the young Fish.
The Marlins have made some moves to improve their defense already, primarily in the swap between the departing Dan Uggla and his replacement Omar Infante. However, the club looks to be throwing away a good deal of that advantage by putting Coghlan, a potential liability, in center field following a mediocre performance in left field and a knee injury. Hill may have to coach up the Marlins infield to add more value and assist in building back some of that defensive value that the team is throwing away by sporting Coghlan and Logan Morrison in the outfield. How will he do that? A couple months ago, Hill discussed some of his coaching philosophies on the Marlins Insider radio show, and there were some very interesting tidbits to go over.
The State of the Infield
Right now, the Marlins infield is already surprisingly average. Jettisoning Uggla in favor of Infante did a whole lot to improve the team’s leather in the infield. Infante has played 2752 innings at second base in his career and has a career UZR of -2.1 runs, basically grading him out as average over the course of his career. My recent defensive projections put him right around +0 runs per season at the position. Gaby Sanchez isn’t praised for his defense, but he is smooth enough at first base to handle the position adequately; my projection has him as average there as well. At third base, the team still has a question mark, but if the position is ultimately taken by prospect Matt Dominguez, the Marlins aren’t likely to have to worry about defense at the hot corner. Dominguez is well known for his glove, as it seems to be the one thing he does best; all the scouting reports rave about his mechanics and smooth motions, and while the range has been questioned a bit recently, it still is likely that he would be a well-above average player at the position.
The one place in the infield that could use an upgrade is at shortstop, where Hanley Ramirez faces yet another season of scrutiny. After a terrible 2007 season with the glove, Ramirez switched to his teal glove and looked like an average player, both in stats and according to the Fans. But 2010 appeared to be a bad season in both regards, and again Ramirez is facing scrutiny in terms of a possible position switch. Ramirez’ problems nowadays no longer stem from his problems with errors; Ramirez’ fielding percentages since 2008 have been right around the league average for shortstops of around .970. Ramirez’ issues instead stem from a problem with getting to balls, but we know that he has little issue in terms of speed, as the Fans in the Fans Scouting Report have rated him at 75 out of 100 for the past two seasons. Most people feel Ramirez has had difficulty in getting good reads on the ball off the bat and reacting accordingly, hence his lower grades on aspects of instincts and first step on the Fans Scouting Report.
Hill’s take on range
Hill mentioned in his interview on Marlins Insider that he does not pay attention to defensive metrics in part because their evaluation of range is not truly measuring a player’s physical range on the playing field, but rather reflecting additional aspects of the game such as positioning. In fact, Hill thinks that players do not vary greatly in terms of actual fielding range, and that the greatest deviation (and thus greatest opportunity for improvement) for most players is their preparation and positioning done prior to the batted ball. This is where Hill is planning on improving the Marlins, by working with them on proper positioning on each play and good preparation prior to each pitch. He mentioned that the Marlins will be working on coordinating with the pitchers on the right positioning given the pitcher’s desired results so that players are in the best position to succeed and let their natural talents take over.
It is an intriguing way of looking at range. The defensive stats indeed do not currently have information on where a player began a play, only on how the play ended. We really do not know whether the issue with someone like Ramirez was more about where he started or how he reacted once the ball entered play. What Hill suggests is that we need not worry about what happens to the ball once it is in play; that aspect of the game is up to the player’s individual talents. The only thing that coaching can do is improve on how the player begins the play. I think positioning can play a huge role in assisting Ramirez and the rest of the Marlins, but I’d love to dig deeper and find out how Hill, the pitchers, and the fielders plan on coordinating these events. Will fielders have to learn the pitching gameplans along with the pitchers in order to know the tendencies of each hitter? Will fielders and pitchers be in constant communication in order to shift around on a pitch-by-pitch level? This is something to keep an eye on this season.
The other thing Hill emphasized, though to a lesser degree, is the importance of consistency in terms of mechanics and getting routine plays down. Most coaches spout off something about this, but they seem to heavily focus on this aspect as part of a plan to cut errors. The truth of the matter is that the error is a highly subjective stat that cannot be trusted for analysis. Nevertheless, Hill did mention that, while he does not obsess about errors like many managers, he does want players to be consistent in how they approach defense in order to minimize the potential for problems.
We can’t be sure how many errors this infield will make, but the team could use some strides in that department, given that the club had the second most errors in the National League. Combined with its already poor range, it would be difficult for the Marlins to succeed defensively without some focus on making sure routine plays remain routine. Still, I applaud Hill for not focusing in on these matters and emphasizing preparation and positioning above them.
It’s obviously too early to come up with any conclusions about how well the Marlins will play defensively in 2011. A lot of what has been discussed with regards to Hill’s hiring has been positive, and the Marlins could use all the help they can get on improving a defense that ranked in the bottom ten in UZR last season and could have potentially cost the club two wins compared to average on its own. I am looking forward to how this addition of Hill will affect the club’s much-maligned fielding unit.