Getting Defensive About Jayson Werth's Value With Glove
West Coast Bias expects Werth to sign with the Red Sox, who have a need for an outfielder to patrol their vast right field and supply punch to their lineup, although I suspect part of the reason they'll sign him is that they are sore losers. Boston didn't reach the postseason last year. Like the Yankees, they are flush with cash and can -- and will -- outspend everybody else.
Back to Werth and why he doesn't need me to defend him. It's not Werth who needs defending. It's his defense that needs defending. But only if one attaches significance to the minus-6.9 "Ultimate Zone Rating" assigned to Werth's defense this year. The number implies that Werth had a crummy year defensively. Which didn't make sense to me. And I suspect it doesn't jibe with the Matrix's computers on Yawkey Way, either.
Two months ago, while contemplating Werth for the bottom of my NL MVP ballot, I looked up his UZR rating on FanGraphs.com. FanGraphs is baseball's coolest site for statistical analysis. (Full disclosure: It's also a partner of FanHouse's.)
I was surprised to learn that Werth's number was ugly. It contradicted everything I'd heard from major league personnel who'd watched Werth, and what little I'd seen of Werth this year.
Even a mediocre ranking for Werth would've surprised me, because I'd seen him make so many excellent defensive plays over the years. Like the one he made in San Diego's ballpark this past August. He ran some 100 feet to "Death Valley" in right-center field, then reached up and backhanded Adrian Gonzalez's 400-foot drive. It was a staggering play, partly because Werth did it so smoothly. It also was critical to the game's outcome, a Phillies victory that was part of San Diego's 10-game losing streak.
Someday, when Werth and Gonzalez are Red Sox teammates, they can joke about that play.
Statistics are cool because they tell us so much about a ballplayer when we don't see him. I had seen Werth in fewer than 10 games this years, which is why his lousy UZR made me curious. Had Werth gone from being an above-average defender to a below-average one? Had an injury detracted from his mobility? Maybe what I'd seen was the exception to the rule.
So I asked a few baseball people who'd seen a lot of Werth. I also asked two members of the Philadelphia media who saw all, or nearly all of the Phillies' games. Nope, nothing wrong, they said. They all said Werth was having a good year defensively. A month later, then-Phillies outfield coach Davey Lopes went one step further. He said Werth had a great season defensively.
"He was Gold Glove material this year," Lopes said during the National League Championship Series.
Admittedly, I am a geek about defense. Baseball telecasts make me feel claustrophobic because the defenders are off screen. TV baseball is overly confining. You can not see how the defense is aligned, or how well the defenders read the ball. It's one reason that football is a better TV sport. You can see more of the defense.
We sportswriters are spoiled. Not only are there TVs in the press box that allow us to watch the pitches from the center field vantage, and the replays, we get to see the whole ballfield. It's fun to see which outfielders are daring. Those are my favorites -- the outfielders who have the guts and the skill to play shallow. Franklin Gutierrez is a Gold Glove winner for the Mariners. Based on both scouting reports and statistics, he is a fabulous center fielder. But I saw two games this year where he played way too deep against a Padres singles hitter. Twice, his overly deep positioning cost the Mariners in a big way.
Werth is like Barry Bonds, who in his prime was the best fielding left fielder I've seen. He'll risk having a ball sail beyond him.
"He plays a shallow right field," Lopes said.
To watch Jayson Werth play defense, Lopes said, is a beautiful thing.
"He does a lot of things. He cuts balls off. He keeps doubles to singles. He does things that get overlooked. He's got a good arm. He's aggressive. He likes playing 'D.' No question, he's Gold Glove-caliber."
NL managers and coaches speak highly of Werth's defense, yet they haven't voted to give him a Gold Glove. His Phillies teammate Shane Victorino, a center fielder, was one of the winners this year, along with outfielders Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies and Michael Bourn of the Astros.
Like Gonzalez, Werth has played all three outfield spots and is said to be a decent center fielder. Boras reportedly is trying to sell some clubs on the idea that Werth could play center field full time. Scouts don't wholly agree, but they say Werth wouldn't embarrass himself there. But why bother? Playing right field in the National League Championship Series, Werth made both good and excellent plays in San Francisco's ballpark, whose right field is one of the most difficult in the majors. His throw that nabbed Cody Ross at third base may have been the best defensive play of the postseason.
Nonetheless, Werth's UZR of minus-6.9 would lead one to believe that he had declined sharply this year, for in 2009 his UZR was a plus-4.3, preceded by a plus-17.8 in 2008 and a plus-13.3 in 2007.
For his part, Werth said his defense this year may have been better than it was a year ago.
"In 2009," he told FanHouse after Game 2 of the Division Series, "I had a leg thing going on that hampered my ability to take off. When I was I up to full speed, I was fine. But I wasn't able to take off. This year, I had no problems.
"I played the same good defense I've always played," Werth added. "I've heard about that (UZR rating) for me not being good. I don't think the sabermetric stats are complete when it comes to defense or baserunning. I think they're often not very good."
UZR has gained traction within the mainstream press especially in the last year or two. We see it in telecasts. We see it in newspapers. We see it on the Internet.
We've seen a lot of fascinating stats move into the mainstream in recent years. They've added to fans' abilities to understand and enjoy the game.
But I wonder if a one-year UZR is a reliable snapshot of a player's defense. I wonder if it'd be better for the mainstream press to reference a three-year UZR and stop using the one-year UZR altogether.
"I totally agree," said a statistical analyst with an American League club.
A statistical analyst from another club told me that he's excited about several defensive metrics plus others that are on the horizon, but he added, "I would never just look at a one-year number and with any certainty make a prediction to a player's defense."
This makes sense. Use one-year UZR as one of many tools. But what if this particular tool can be as misleading as it seemingly was with Jayson Werth's performance this year?
I ran the subject past the folks at FanGraphs, who cater to a statistically savvy audience that can better understand the nuances of stats such as UZR than dummies such as myself. David Appelman of FanGraphs was kind enough to respond. Here's his full response:
"UZR is best when used over a three-year period, but it doesn't mean single-year UZR can't shed some light on how well a player did in a particular year. I think this falls into the category of some information is better than no information.
"We have three advanced defensive stats on the site for 2010: UZR, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), which is Baseball Info Solutions' advanced metric, similar to UZR, and the Fans Scouting Report (FSR), which is fans scouting survey on how well a player played defensively.
"DRS thought Werth was plus-5, with the FSR thinking he was plus-4. UZR thought he was minus-7.
"Over the past three years Werth has been plus-15 in UZR and plus-20 in DRS, or plus-five per season for UZR and plus-seven-ish per season for DRS. The fans think he was plus-10 over the past two years, so plus-5 per season.
"No one ever said UZR was perfect, but it is currently among the best publicly available metrics we have to assess fielding ability. If UZR matched up 100 percent with what ours eyes saw, there wouldn't be much point in having it. Basically, all these stats, (not just the defensive metrics) are additional tools in your toolbox to try and evaluate a player.
"Taking what you know about Werth, his UZR, other defensive evaluations, and some first-hand expert analysis, you'd probably say he's an above-average fielder."