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Defensive metrics, the Mariners, and Kevin Kouzmanoff

Aug 24, 2009, 12:46 PM EDT

Vastly improved defense has played a huge role in the Mariners going from 101 losses last season to above .500 this year, and Gary Armida of FullCountPitch.com wrote an interesting article about how first-year general manager Jack Zduriencik and his sabermetrically inclined front office went about making those changes with the help of advanced defensive metrics.
Here’s a quote from special assistant to the GM (and SABR member) Tony Blengino:
The statistics add another level. It shouldn’t be scouting against numbers. Successful organizations have to find a way to blend the two. It’s our responsibility to blend the two. … Our own [statistics] are easily adjustable measures as they build in nature of our pitching staff and our defensive positioning. There’s a margin for error with positioning with many of the public metrics. If you over-shift quite a bit, the shortstop may have skewed out of zone ratings. … To properly evaluate teams have to know the context of how those numbers are generated. So, we use our own metrics to account for that.
There’s plenty of other interesting stuff in the article, so definitely read the whole thing, but the gist is that the Mariners are among quite a few teams that are actively trying to quantify things that until recently have been based on eyes and scouting reports. Perhaps the most popular of the publicly available defensive metrics is Ultimate Zone Rating, and the Mariners have gone from 20th in UZR last season at -20.9 runs to second-best in UZR this year at +52.1 runs.
Of course, not everyone is aware of or interested in new approaches to evaluating defense. For instance, San Diego Union Tribune columnist Tim Sullivan wrote a lengthy piece today arguing for Kevin Kouzmanoff of the Padres as a Gold Glover based on his low error count at third base, writing that “statistically Kouzmanoff’s glovework has been of 24-karat quality this season” because “he owns the highest fielding percentage at his position in either league and has committed only three errors in 121 games.”
Sullivan goes on to make comparisons between Kouzmanoff and two-time Gold Glover David Wright based on errors, fielding percentages, and total chances, but merely gives passing mention to “the new-age calculation called zone rating” and “many arcane statistics being floated now.” There’s plenty of similar “analysis” being done in newspapers across the country, but the funny thing is that you’d be hard-pressed to find many MLB teams focusing on the same old stuff that so many writers are still hooked on.
Kouzmanoff’s own team employs former stat-head posterboy (and current blogger) Paul DePodesta as a special assistant and you can be absolutely certain that the Padres’ front office isn’t doing any meaningful evaluations based on fielding percentages. Low error totals could mean that a third baseman is sure-handed with excellent range, but they could also mean that a third baseman is sure-handed with mediocre range or even sure-handed with terrible range.
Guys like Ozzie Smith, Willie Mays, and Brooks Robinson aren’t considered all-time great defenders because they committed a low number of errors, they’re considered all-time great defenders because they made plays that other fielders simply couldn’t. As for Kouzmanoff … well, he’s a solid defensive third baseman according to UZR, rating 3.2 runs above average this season and 2.7 runs above average last season, but a Gold Glover he’s not.
Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals likely deserves that honor in the National League this season, rating 16.5 runs above average according to UZR and also drawing plenty of positive reviews on his glove from people relying on their eyes. Of course, he’s made 13 errors compared to only three for Kouzmanoff, and despite the fact that more data and information is available for meaningful defensive analysis now than ever before there are still an awful lot of people who misguidedly equate errors with defense.

  1. Grant - Aug 24, 2009 at 2:02 PM

    Luckily for Zimmerman, he’s having an outstanding offensive season. As has been noted before, offensive stars tend to win gold gloves, for whatever reason. The fact that Zimmerman combines excellent defense with a strong bat should help him win the award. As if Gold Gloves mattered, but still.

  2. jsapwco - Aug 24, 2009 at 2:13 PM

    As someone who sees Zim play on a regular basis, he definitely is deserving of the Gold Glove. He makes the occasional throwing error, but his range and reflexes are phenomenal. Hardly a game goes by where he does not make at least one eye-popping play

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