Marlins paying lip service to defense again


With the Marlins swapping Dan Uggla with Omar Infante and Mike Dunn, a lot of questions were being asked. One of the biggest things being asked is how the Marlins would replace Uggla’s offensive capability, particularly his power output. President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest thinks the team’s composition is in for a drastic change:

"“It’s a little bit of a change for the ballclub,” Beinfest said from the General Managers Meetings in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday. “To replace the home runs, I’m not sure you’re going to replace 30. But is that really our objective? Our objective, really when you think about it, is let’s get guys on base and let Hanley [Ramirez] and [Mike] Stanton and [Logan Morrison] and those guys knock them in. It’s a little bit different because we’ve really wailed the last few years. We hit a lot of home runs in the last four to five years, and this will be a little bit of a different look for us.”"

This part is correct to some degree. The point of offense isn’t to hit home runs or to avoid strikeouts, but rather it is to score runs. Scoring runs is obviously based on getting on base and advancing runners. So yes, Beinfest is right about that. But it seems like Joe Frisaro thinks the plan is going to be replacing power with contact and defense, in particular.

"Obviously, they aren’t. But that’s the point, essentially: The Marlins aren’t looking to replace power for power. Sure, they would’ve liked to retain Uggla if a four-year, $48 million contract would’ve been enough, and, yes, they’ll miss his bat in the lineup. But Florida has wanted its lineup to be better adept at fielding and contact hitting for quite some time now.…The Marlins have ranked among the bottom five in the National League in errors each of the last five years, but in Infante, they get a solid defensive player at second and third base. And if Matt Dominguez wins the starting third-base job in Spring Training, the Marlins’ infield defense will be vastly improved.It may not create as many runs as the 2010 version — with Uggla and Jorge Cantu — but it should save plenty more.“If Dominguez battles and makes the club,” Beinfest said, “he’s a well-above-average defender which we haven’t had at third base for quite some time.”"

Losing Dan Uggla and replacing him with the most average of defenders at second base is going to do a good deal to improve the fielding situation. However, as always, it seems like these comments on a newfound dedication to defense as simply lip service. The Marlins have mentioned this before and, unfortunately, have never delivered on the promise of improved defense.

A brief history

After 2007, the Marlins were stuck with one of the worst defensive teams in the game. UZR rated them as somewhere around 40 runs worse than average. Hanley Ramirez his worst defensive season of his career, a very visibly poor year that included a lot of errors, missed plays, and Internet talk of moving to center field. The Marlins had Miguel Cabrera manning third base, a player who had already grown too large in terms of girth to be athletic enough for a position he never played well anyway. The team was having Uggla hold the fort at second, where he played terribly. The primary starting infield for that team was a combined -43 runs on their own.

The following year, the Marlins were no better. While Ramirez had made strides, the Marlins replaced Cabrera with the equally pathetic Jorge Cantu. Mike Jacobs, one of the worst defensive first baseman in the game, was still playing first base; he was apparently worth a staggering -16 runs at first according to UZR that year. The team then vowed to improve the defense in the ensuing offseason and made steps to do so by acquiring Emilio Bonifacio and placing him at third base in order to shift Cantu to first. Still, Bonifacio had not played the position for a while and struggled visibly, while the rest of the Marlins infield continued to do its usual thing in 2009.

Skip forward to the start of 2010, when the Marlins opened the season with a series of ridiculous-looking errors and mishaps on the field before settling into mediocrity (UZR had them as 23 runs worse than average in 2010). All the while, the front office and coaching staff kept expounding on the principles of fundamental defense, while the team showed no improvement. It seemed that nothing could be done to fix what was apparently a glaring hole, no matter what the team tried (or said they tried).

It’s about personnel

Part of the reason why the Marlins were as bad as they were on defense is because of personnel. What I mean by that is simple: some guys just don’t have the range to play the positions you want them to. The Marlins could not be serious about defensive improvement if they decided to man third base with Cantu at the start of the year. They couldn’t be that serious about improving defense if they had not at least internally discussed moving Ramirez from shortstop to an easier position. They couldn’t be seriously concerned with defense if they decided to throw Logan Morrison into left field on a semi-permanent basis.

Some of that isn’t their fault.  Those guys may not have the range to play those positions, but neither would they be able to replace those players with the budget they have. I understand some of that. But to say that your philosophy as a team is to improve on defense and pitching when your personnel decisions simply don’t match is to insult the fans’ intelligence. Cantu is not a third baseman, but you valued him there because of his bat. Chris Coghlan wasn’t a left fielder, but you sent him out there because of his bat. Morrison is not likely a left fielder, but you sent him out there because of his bat.

This sort of thinking extends into this offseason. When asked what the Marlins front office is thinking of Chris Coghlan moving to center field, Larry Beinfest said this:

"“We feel good about Coghlan out there in center field,” Beinfest said."

Coghlan has rated as a -6 defender per season in left field, which is easier to play than center. My true-talent projection for him this upcoming season is -3.5 runs in left. If you think that he is this bad in left field, what makes you think he could be any better in center field? And ths doesn’t take into account that Coghlan is coming off of knee surgery, so his recent celebratory injury is likely to have some negative effect on his play. And you are sending him to center field rather than the short-term option of moving Infante over there? It seems counter-productive to the recovery of Coghlan and to the benefit of the team to send a player coming off of injury to a position he never played before and likely would be worse at than the one he manned before. And yet this seems to be the primary plan, and the Marlins sound as if they have no trepidation on the matter.

The Perry Hill factor

One thing of interest with regards to this season is the fact that the Marlins are bringing in former infield coach Perry Hill to take the reins as first base coach once more. A lot of people in the organization are excited that Hill’s return will bring some benefit to the Marlins’ infield defense. Hill is particularly stressing a decrease in errors:

"“I’ve been doing that since 1997 when I was in Detroit,” said Hill, long considered one of the top defensive instructors in the game. “The idea behind it is when the ball is put in play and we can get to it comfortably — not diving or jumping — those have to be outs.“You need to get 27 outs in a game. The more times you throw a ball away, you give teams extra outs. You don’t want to give them 32 outs. How many times have you seen an error and the next guy pops a home run? Well, he should never have gotten to the plate. Pitchers need to make their pitch and we need to help them defensively.”"

Hill seems to be stressing both an error-free approach and proper positioning.

"“I learned a long time ago, range is positioning,” Hill said. “You get caught up with, ‘This guy gets to this many balls.’ But if you pay attention to the game plan and what the pitchers are going to do to a hitter, and how a hitter’s approach changes during the count because of the situation, and you move yourself accordingly, the ball will be hit right to you.”"

I’ll believe it when I see it, but the idea itself isn’t bad, even if the concept seems off to me. Ultimately though, it will be up to the Marlins to get to those balls, no matter how well coached they are.

A lot has been made of Hill’s past success, but I wonder how much an effect he actually had. During his time as coach from 2002 to 2006, the Marlins had only two seasons in which they were an above average team via UZR, including the 2003 World Series year. However, if there was one thing that Hill seemed to be good at, it was preventing errors, as the Fish only had one season before 2006 in which they were below average in terms of errors and had two years in which they were in the top three in error runs above average. However, those teams between 2002 and 2005 were manned by guys like Derrek Lee, Luis Castillo, Mike Lowell, and Alex Gonzalez, all generally known for their good defense even before Hill arrived. How much credit can Hill receive for coaching very good defenders? When the 2006 crop came out, the Marlins bottomed out in both errors and runs.

Still waiting on good D

There are upgrades to be made to this team’s defense, that is for sure. The Marlins say that they are emphasizing now, as they supposedly have been for each of the last three years. We will see if that comes to fruition, or whether the Marlins will continue to pay lip service without providing results. I think the Hill signing is a step in the right direction in terms of errors, but I do not suspect the Marlins will see improved defense without a drastic change in personnel and some better decisions regarding the players they already have.