Defense Upgrades

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

"We can't escape from who we are...pitching and defense are in our DNA," as Joe Maddon said repeatedly in one of the radio/tv ads that ran all throughout the 2012 season. When a team struggles to produce runs as the Rays do most seasons, they are forced to reduce the margin of error in other ways.

As the Rays edged out the New York Yankees by a single game in the 2010 standings, they also came in just ahead of them in defense runs saved as measured by Bill James, besting the Bombers by six runs. In 2011, as the runs became more scarce, the defense stepped it up a few notches and led the league in team runs saved by a considerable margin. 2012 was a different story as the Rays fell to fifth in runs saved while, ironically, four of the five playoff teams in the American League had negative totals. The difference? Those teams had good offenses that helped overcome defensive shortcomings while the Rays did not for a variety of reasons.

Acquiring offensive help to plug needs in a lineup is expensive in one of two ways. Free agents dig into a team's budget, as we have seen this week alone as three year deals and/or $13M annual average value deals are being handed out left and right to players that are not quite worth it. They're also expensive to trade for because, most of the time, you have to give something of value to obtain something of value. This week, the Rays have made each kind of move as they gave up a prospect of some value in Derek Dietrich to acquire Yunel Escobar and went their tried and true method of clearance rack shopping for a first baseman in acquiring James Loney. The offensive merits of both players were covered in other pieces, but the defensive impact of these moves has not been given as much attention.

The two player acquisitions give the Rays a chance to right the ship on the infield defense that visibly affected game outcomes in 2012, especially while Evan Longoria was on the disabled list.

BillJamesOnline has many defensive metrics in their partnership with The Fielding Bible, nearly all of which are behind their paywall. The stats are broken down into a variety of categories, but also show us how good the players to their left and right. Let's review the new acquisitions against what they are replacing using those statistics.

Range Factor: Range Factor is the number of each player's successful chances (putouts plus assists) times nine divided by the number of defensive innings played.

The table below shows how the recent and new shortstops and first basemen compare to one another just on range factor as well as each player's two or three year average (depending on sample size):

PLAYER RF AVG
Kotchman 8.8 9.4
Pena 9.3 8.8
Loney 9.1 9.1
Johnson 4.1 4.0
Zobrist 4.3 4.5
Rodriguez 4.4 3.9
Escobar 4.8 4.6

At first base in terms of range, it is mostly a wash from 2012 but both Carlos Pena and Loney scored better than Kotchman did in Cleveland. At shortstop, Sean Rodriguez showed the most range of the three shortstops Maddon utilized but all three fell well short of what Escobar did with Toronto last season.

By Area: The defensive statistics are also able to show how each player did to his left, right, with balls hit at him, and how they handled ground balls. The table below shows each player's 2012 results as well as their three-year averages:

PLAYER '12 to Right Avg '12 At Avg '12 to Left Avg GB Avg
Pena 2.0 4.0 2.0 0.7 2.0 -3.0 7.0 2.7
Kotchman 0.0 0.0 -2.0 -1.0 3.0 4.0 2.0 2.7
Loney 7.0 3.0 5.0 4.3 -3.0 -2.0 9.0 6.3
Johnson 5.0 5.0 -7.0 -4.5 -7.0 -1.5 -10 -1.5
Zobrist 2.0 0.5 0.0 -1.0 -5.0 -3.5 -2.0 -3.5
Rodriguez 6.0 3.0 -6.0 -4.0 0.0 -0.5 1.0 0.0
Escobar 4.0 4.7 3.0 0.7 17.0 9.3 23.0 16.0

One part that stands out is Loney's ability to move toward the second base hole. Last season, he excelled at that compared to the two former first basemen and has also been strong at balls hit at him. The one area where he has struggled a bit compared to Pena and Kotchman is playing balls down the line. While both Loney and Kotchman are left-handed throwers, Kotchman grades better playing balls to his hand side while Loney is the best on his glove side. Lastly, Loney has been quite strong in handling all groundballs when compared to Pena and Kotchman.

At shortstop, all but Zobrist were good at making plays to their left. Both Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez have had their issues with throws from the hole, but the scored hold up for them. However, the numbers are not kind to either player at balls hit at them and are even less kind when grading both players covering the area behind second base. Zobrist was a team player in taking over the shortstop position last season, but his overall efforts pale in comparison to what Escobar did in 2012 and over the past three seasons.

David Price, Jeff Niemann, Alex Cobb, and James Shields each had groundball rates greater than 50 percent last season as did several relievers, which emphasizes why infield defense is important to the team. In examining the spray charts when the pitchers work at Tropicana Field (courtesy of katron.org), we can see where each pitcher tends to allow infield balls in play:

Cobb_medium
Niemann_medium
Price_medium
Shields_medium

There have been surprisingly few balls hit down the first base line but Loney's skills to his right should help given the frequency of groundballs in that direction while Escobar's talents up the middle will help on balls the Rays have traditionally struggled to convert into outs. Escobar should also be quite comfortable with the team's defensive alignments given the fact Toronto frequently positioned their infield into shifts, most notably with Brett Lawrie moving from third base to short right field in overshifts on left-handed hitters.

Saving Runs: The Fielding Bible includes Plus/Minus, which represents the number of plays above and below average according to video scouts. They also show actual runs saved which evaluates positions differently. For example, both corner infielders and middle infielders have scores based on their range in the field. Lastly, The Fielding Bible computes total runs so we can see how each player contributes on offense, defense, and baserunning while ranking them against their peers.

PLAYER '12+/- Avg '12 Runs Saved Avg '12 Rank Avg '12 Total Runs Avg
Pena 5.0 1.7 0.0 -0.3 16 18.3 68 81.3
Kotchman 0.0 1.7 -1.0 1.7 20 15.3 46 58.7
Loney 8.0 5.7 6.0 7.0 7 6.7 51 75.3
Johnson -4.0 2.5 -6.0 1.0 25 25 45 38
Zobrist -4.0 -4.5 0.0 -1.0 17 20 123 128.7
Rodriguez 2.0 1.0 1.0 1.5 n/a n/a 50 64.7
Escobar 22 14.0 15.0 10.3 4 5.7 100 105.7

In terms of defense, there is little doubt that the Rays have upgraded both shortstop and first base defensively. Loney does most things better than Kotchman and Pena did over the past two seasons while Escobar is a clear upgrade from the spare parts that filled the position last season and allows Zobrist to return to his swiss army knife role that he has flourished in.

The offense certainly needs more help as the team continues to re-tool this off-season, but the process behind the recent acquisitions seems quite clear. The 2013 team defense should be a step back toward the efforts that drove the team into the post-season in 2011 rather than the one that was a major factor why they did not return there in 2012.

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