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2011 Marlins Season Preview: Let's talk defense (again)

Once again, the offseason for the Florida Marlins is being spun primarily in a defensive light. I don’t mean “defensive” as in “defending from attacks,” but rather “defensive” in a purely baseball sense; the Marlins front office has made mention numerous times of a desire to return to defense in 2011. To that end, they think that the moves they plan on making will help them accomplish just that.

As part of a busy offseason, the Marlins signed free agent John Buck, who will be looked at to solidify the catcher spot along with assisting a young pitching staff. Omar Infante, obtained from the Braves in the Dan Uggla trade, is strong defensively. He projects to be at second base. Prospect Matt Dominguez is considered a Gold Glove-caliber defender at third base. Dominguez — who was at Double-A Jacksonville last year — has yet to win a roster spot, but he is expected to be with the club at some point in 2011.

These were part of the moves the team has made in hopes of getting better in the field.

“We talked about it a lot, and it was probably my fault as much as anybody’s,” Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest said. “We need to improve the defense. We need to get back to pitching, and all that. We probably didn’t do enough over the past couple of years. I think we took a more aggressive path this year. And hopefully it will happen.”

Yes, the Marlins have been one of the worst defensive teams in baseball for the past few seasons. And yes, these moves, when looked at individually, will serve to improve the defense from last season. But for every hole that was plugged defensively, another one has opened up, and the Marlins have not been as forthcoming in discussing how well those issues will be addessed. And should the question be whether the team can improve defensively? Shouldn’t the question be whether the team can improve as a whole?

These are some of the questions I have had in my mind ever since this campaign to improve the team’s defense begun this offseason. And the honest truth is that the Marlins have not convinced me that the team will be any better defensively than they were we finished last season.

Errors are an error

This quote in particular stood out immediately from the article:

Additionally, the Marlins hired Perry Hill, one of the best infield coaches in the game. Hill was part of Florida’s great defensive teams seven years ago, but he left the organization after the 2006 season.

Since ’06, the Marlins have committed 609 errors, the second most of any team in the Major Leagues. Only the Nationals, with 633, have made more in the past five seasons.

To put these figures into perspective, consider the Rangers are a distant third with 565 errors.

Not surprisingly, the teams with the best defense over the past five years have enjoyed playoff experience in that span. The Twins have committed the fewest amount of errors since 2006 with 441. The Phillies follow with 442 and the Rockies are third (443).

Here we have an example of the difficulty the mainstream media faces in analyzing defense. When all they have is error counts, it can lead to problems in their conclusions. Since 2006, here are how the top ten and bottom ten teams in terms of error counts have stacked up when measuring them with a quantitative measurement like UZR and a more qualitative, scouting measurement like the Fans Scouting Report.

Team Fielding Percentage (Rank) UZR (Rank) FSR Runs (Rank)
Astros .986 (1) +47 (10) -1 (16)
Red Sox .986 (2) +52 (7) -4 (18)
Rockies .986 (3) -120 (25) +61 (4)
Padres .986 (4) +3 (17) +10 (12)
Phillies .986 (5) +114 (3) +67 (2)
Yankees .986 (5) -134 (27) -1 (15)
Twins .986 (6) +46 (11) -1 (14)
Giants .985 (7) +193 (1) -25 (23)
Blue Jays .985 (8) +32 (14) +13 (11)
Mets .985 (9) +51 (8) -23 (22)
Athletics .985 (10) +51 (8) +31 (8)
Angels .983 (21) +45 (12) -8 (19)
White Sox .983 (22) -137 (28) -46 (27)
Braves .983 (23) -14 (18) -57 (25)
Brewers .983 (24) +36 (13) -11 (20)
Cubs .982 (25) +116 (2) -46 (26)
Royals .982 (26) +19 (16) -153 (30)
Diamondbacks .982 (27) -33 (23) -1 (17)
Rangers .982 (28) -32 (22) +30 (9)
Marlins .980 (29) -105 (24) -57 (29)
Nationals .979 (30) -32 (21) -13 (21)

This table shows some agreement, some disagreement, and a lot of things in between. Some teams were pretty clear cut in agreement from all three sources, while others oscillated pretty wildly between rankings.

And yes, we see a mostly good set of teams at the top of any of these lists and a mostly less successful set of teams at the bottom of these lists. This shouldn’t surprise anyone; good teams generally have good defenses, and good defenses generally commit fewer errors. However, errors do not do certain teams justice. The Colorado Rockies, for example, boast a home stadium with an expansive outfield that undoubtedly leads to fewer balls reached and thus fewer errors. We also know that the rangiest of players will likely commit more errors because they will have more opportunities at the ball (managers often refer to this as “trying to make a play” and consider it a good thing). So while none of these three stats are a strong indicator towards how well a team did defensively, I’d almost certainly would prefer to use an indicator that uses more information, such as the scouting info of the fans or the algorithms of UZR (although it does have its bias issues).

How much can the Marlins gain?

Of course, that little aside did not have much to do with the Marlins, as they were universally panned for their defense. However, the Fish aren’t just poor glovers, as evidenced by their error counts. The Marlins tallied 63 runs less than average according to UZR on range alone, not accounting for errors. When we speak about a player like Dan Uggla not being a good defender, it is his range at the position that hurts him a lot more than his glove and error avoidance skills. The team will have to not only improve on making mistakes, but also improve on their ability to get to the ball, whether it is via Perry Hill’s focus on defensive positioning or simply improving the personnel in terms of defensive skill.

How much improvement can the Marlins expect? Well, let’s use two different possible projections to determine this. First off, I will use friend of the Maniac Steve Sommer’s recently released defensive projections, which use UZR as an input and regress to a scouting mean determined by the Fans Scouting Report. You can read more on the methodology here. I compared the likely starting lineups among second base, third base, and center field before and after the Cameron Maybin and Dan Uggla trades. For numbers involving Chris Coghlan, I took away seven runs per projected season total for him playing center field (a conservative number I believe) and two runs for him playing third base.

Pos Before Runs After Runs
2B Uggla -6 Infante -2
3B Coghlan -4 Dominguez +7
CF Maybin -1 Coghlan -9
Total -11 -4

This method say that the Marlins do indeed improve on defense from last season, provided they bring Matt Dominguez and he is as dominant a defender as we have been hearing (I intentionally went conservative with Dominguez as well since I was nice to Coghlan’s projection). If Dominguez and Coghlan are both a bit better, I could see the tallies adding up a 1.5-win difference in defensive acumen. Those are huge advancements on the defensive end, and I expected as much of an improvement given the fact that the team would be replacng Uggla with an average defender in Omar Infante.

Here’s the same described methodology as above, but using my own crude projections.

Pos Before Runs After Runs
2B Uggla -6 Infante +0
3B Coghlan -6 Dominguez +10
CF Maybin +1 Coghlan -11
Total -11 -1

I added a few runs to Dominguez, but even without the help, you are looking at a difference of still almost one win from last season.

Context

Again, this is quite an improvement, but it needs to be couched in the correct context. The Marlins made this improvement in defense at the cost of offense. Who are the players that are being replaced, and how would they project for next season? Uggla is projected at about +20 runs in a full season next year, while Maybin is being pegged for a .259/.323/.391 season (.319 wOBA) by the Fans. PECOTA suspects that, when including baserunning into the equation, Maybin should be close to an average hitter. Even if you don’t suspect that (and I don’t), let’s say you think he’s a hitter equivalent to that of Dominguez (who I’ll get to when the time comes), which is the likely worst case scenario. You are essentially trading 1.0 to 1.5 wins on defense for an almost guaranteed two wins on offense. It is not much of a downgrade, but it does appear to be a downgrade to the team. In addition, our defensive projections are not as certain as our offensive ones; I am much less certain that our defensive improvement will be worth this much than that the difference between Omar Infante‘s bat and Dan Uggla‘s bat is worth two wins.

The Marlins have chosen to make their bed with defense as they supposedly have done in the past. The thought is indeed a good one, but the application appears to have ended up hurting the team’s overall production in the process.

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Tags: Chris Coghlan Dan Uggla Matt Dominguez Miami Marlins Omar Infante

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