Defense: The Final Frontier

Pondering where to position the first baseman against a RH Pull Hitter

Pondering where to position the first baseman against a RH Pull Hitter

The 2011 film adaptation of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball is a good movie.  Brad Pitt does a fine job of acting, Aaron Sorkin’s script is well-written, filled with memorable dialogue;  the movie is well worth the $11.00 I spent to go see it (although $4 for a Slurpee, frozen sugar water that cost you 3 cents to make? Come on!) But while Moneyball is a good movie, it is a terrible baseball movie.  This is true for multiple reasons, especially because it turns all characters into archetypes (because all stat guys are fat slobs, and no scouts are capable of complex reasoning or looking at data).  But the key problem with the movie is that it fails to emphasize the reason the A’s were successful; they exploited the market inefficiency.

Sure, it talks about how the A’s had limited recourses, and in order to field a competitive team, they had to do things more efficiently than other teams by figuring out skill sets that were undervalued by other teams.  But the movie only talks about one skill that the A’s looked into: the power of the almighty OBP.  The truth is, there were many ways that the A’s maximized cost in the early 2000s — finding young, cost controlled starting pitchers (Hudson, Mulder, and Zito were rarely mentioned), not building around a Proven Closer™, and not paying for past performance when signing free agents (the A’s let Giambi and Zito go at the height of their primes, and it worked out pretty well for them.)

In the year 2013, all of these inefficiencies are well known by most MLB front offices (save the Phillies, who are just getting around to hiring a “stat guy,” whom they don’t seem intent on listening to.) But there is one market inefficiency that, for a large percentage of teams, has yet to be explored: defense, and defensive shifting in particular.

According to Bill James, defense makes up only a small portion of the game of baseball; 13 percent.  But even though defense is of little import compared to offense and pitching, baseball is a game of little things, and every edge, however small, can pay dividends.

But how much? Let’s look at the numbers.  According to Baseball Info Solutions, defensive shifts save an average of 3.3 runs every 100 shifts.  The top-shifting ballclub, the Orioles, had shifted 483 times through early September (the most recent data avaiable), on pace for 564 shifts in the year.  That can add up.

But do defensive shifts correlate to real world success? The top 5 teams in defensive shifts, the Orioles, Rays, Brewers, Cubs, and Pirates, finished 11th, 14th, 4th, 9th, and 3rd respectively in Defensive Runs Saved, saving their teams an average of 35.4 runs this year.  Now, according to sabermetrics, 10 runs equals one win.  That means these defenses, while utilizing shifts, earned their teams an average of 3 to 4 more wins this year.

This is why I am so excited about the Nats hiring of Matt Williams as manager.  By hiring a defensive coordinato, Mark Weidemaier, to stay in the dugout and help employ these defensive shifts, Williams shows that he understands how to maximize the personnel he is given.  Time will tell what kind of manager he will be, but this move shows me he is willing to use all information out there, even sabermetrics, to grab every edge he can.

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