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The 2009 Diamondbacks Season, Part VI: Defense

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Few losses were more spectacularly painful for the 2009 Diamondbacks than the one which we endured in Seattle on June 21st. With the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, Clay Zavada loaded the bases with two down. Enter Chad Qualls, who got a ground-ball to Mark Reynolds, who made a perfect throw across to Tony Clark at first, for the last out of the inning, to send the game into extras. Except, Clark muffed it, dropping the ball and the winning run cantered across home-plate. That was one sad example of what seemed to plague Arizona for much of the year - just a week later, another inter-league game, against Anaheim, turned into a meltdown with three Angels batters reaching on D-backs' errors in the same frame.

Looking at some defensive stats, it would seem very clear that it's an area in which the Diamondbacks need to improve significantly, if they are to have any hope of challenging next season. However, as ever, after the jump, we'll be taking a look at a broader range of numbers and whether they can add any depth to the picture. We'll also see who they say was the best defender on the team this year. You might be surprised by the answer.

By just about every basic metric, our defense was undeniably among the worst around. With 124 errors, the Arizona Diamondbacks were ahead of only the Washington Nationals (143) - and that's in all of major-league baseball, not  just the NL. At 68.0%, their defensive efficiency - the percentage of balls in play which e converted into outs - was better than just the Astros (67.6%) in the National League. We turned only 132 twin-killings (ok: technically, it was 131 and a triple-play), fifteen below league-average and ahead of one team, the Marlins (129). If there's any hope, it's that we had significantly fewer errors over the last 81 games (fifty) than the first 81 games (seventy-four). Let's start by breaking down the errors to see what positions were the source of our problem.

2009 Arizona errors
Pos Err. NL Av. Rank
C 9 8 =5th
1B 15 10 =2nd
2B 11 13 =10th
3B 27 19 3rd
SS 16 18 9th
LF 9 6 3rd
CF 5 5 =5th
RF 13 5 1st
P 19 13 2nd

While Mark Reynolds may have made more individual errors than anyone else, third-base was not an especially problematic positions for us. First-base, right-field and - perhaps surprisingly - our pitchers, all made 45% or more errors above NL average. Whatever Doug Davis's merits, his fielding wasn't apparently one of them, as he was tied for the league-lead in errors, with five. Jon Garland was just behind, committing four, but especially notable was Blaine Boyer, who had three errors in only nine chances. At the other end, Dan Haren was one of four NL pitchers to be perfect when given more than 40 chances (Wainwright, Josh Johnson and Livan Hernandez were the others).

For right-field, I don't think I need go into specifics - I could just post Justin Upton's baseball card as an explanation there. At first-base, things probably weren't helped by the lack of a regular man at the position. Chad Tracy (56) started most there, but we had six other names written into the line-up, ranging from Brandon Allen (29 games) down to Rusty Ryal (five). Mark Reynolds was responsible for one-third of the 1B errors, despite starting only 24 games there. The vast majority (21) were before the All-Star break, and I doubt we'll see much of him there in 2010. For the next chart, we break down the E's into catching, fielding and throwing errors, and compare to NL average.

Error by type + position
Pos Cch Fld Thr
C
NL

11%
4%
0%
18%
89%
78%
1B
NL
27%
22%
60%
54%
13%
24%
2B
NL
0%
11%
71%
53%
29%
37%
3B
NL
0%
1%
48%
54%
52%
44%
SS
NL
6%
7%
38%
49%
56%
44%
LF
NL
0%
0%
33%
74%
67%
26%
CF
NL
0%
0%
80%
75%
20%
25%
RF
NL
0%
0%
77%
80%
23%
20%
P
NL
0%
8%
5%
22%
95%
70%

We are dealing with pretty small numbers, especially in the Arizona sample, so caution should be exercised. However, a couple of numbers do stand out as worthy of mention. The pitchers' problems mentioned above seem to be almost entirely on the throws, and the same goes for left-field - that ties in with my memories of the Parrazooka mis-firing in that position. Also worth mentioning is the change in numbers between 2008 and 2009 for Mark Reynolds. He made half as many errors at third on throws last season as in 2008 (18-9), on almost the same number of total chances. His fielding errors were also down,  (15-10), but it's Mark's throws that really improved.

There's no doubt the errors tell a sorry tale of the problems in Arizona, but as we saw (in some depth!) earlier this season, they are far from the whole story as far as defense is concerned. There's a whole raft of numbers which go beyond the simple error, and some don't cast the Diamondbacks defense in such a bad light. Leading the pack would be Fangraph.com's UZR - see the above link for more info on it. As measured by that, the Diamondbacks' defense overall were at +22.0, which was fifth-best in the National League. WTF? Shome mishtake, shurely? Well, here's the breakdown of UZR by position. Yes. Another table... [Note: UZR isn't calculated for catchers or pitchers]

2009 AZ UZR by pos.
Pos UZR NL Rk
1B -7.0 15th
2B 14.0 2nd
3B -3.7 =9th
SS 7.2 2nd
LF 14.1 5th
CF -13.1 14th
RF 10.4 2nd

There are some radical differences here, though UZR does concur with Errors that first-base was our worst position or thereabouts. Second-base comes up as a strength too - it has to be said, Felipe Lopez far from disgraced himself there this season, and we find ourselves in the same place as we were last winter, with a big questionmark at the spot. However, it's the contrast at CF and RF which are most striking. If you looked purely at errors, you'd think Chris Young was about average, while Justin Upton was the worst in the majors, commiting more by himself than the entire outfield of eight teams. However, UZR strongly disagrees, rating Young at -7.4, ninth of 11 qualifying fielders, while Upton was at +6.3, tied for Jason Werth as best in the league.

Before we anoint J-Up as unjustly robbed of the Gold Glove, we should probably do some checking. There has been some interesting work done lately on the accuracy possible by the hit-tracking systems, on which metrics like UZR depend. These are still human-powered - there's no version of PITCH/fx, which uses multiple cameras to objectively record location and speed. As a result, the 95% confidence level is +/- eighteen feet and four degrees of direction. That's a significant margin for error. If we contrast the Baseball Prospectus stat, Fielding Runs Above Average, it gives Arizona a combined total of -38. That seems to sit closer to what we'd intuitively expect. But even here, we see Chris Young in the basement at -13 and Justin Upton leading the way at +9.

Let's check one more. Bill James just released his Fielding Bible Awards for 2009, which combine votes from a number of sources. You won't be surprised to learn that no-one on the Diamondbacks won anything, but the following players were mentioned - note that these do not separate AL and NL, so the ranks are among all major-league players. Miguel Montero (13th, C); no-one at 1B; Ryan Roberts (13th, 2B); Mark Reynolds (16th, 3B); Stephen Drew (13th, SS); Gerardo Parra (19th, LF); Chris Young (10th, CF); Justin Upton (4th, RF); Jon Garland (P, 6th). So maybe Upton really was the best fielder on the Diamondbacks last year.

A couple of other things to note. Not all Arizona pitchers saw balls in play converted into outs at the same rate. If you look at the Defensive Efficiency figures for those who pitched 40 innings or more, there's a wide gap between the conversion rate for Leo Rosales (73.9% of balls in play became outs) and Billy Buckner (63.2%). Now, while these numbers need to be broken down more - it could just be that Rosales induced more infield flies, and Buckner more line drives - one would tend to expect both numbers to regress towards the team's overall mean (68.0%). Might be another reason to give Buckner a shot in the rotation next year.

Finally, let's take a look at the outfield: how were they at holding runners, and stopping them from taking a base. There are a lot of different scenarios involved here. Runner on first and a single; do they go to third? Or if they're on second, do they go home? What about advancing on a sacrifice fly? You can break down the numbers for each situation: here they are for our LF, CF and RF players. In total, however, the "hold rates" for the positions, the National League average and the number of "kills" - runners thrown out - were as follows. LF: 66.8% (63.3% ave, one kill). CF: 37.6% (44.0% ave, three kills). RF: 52.7% (50.5% ave, four kills). This is more evidence Young's 2009 defense wasn't up to much - not least because all three kills were by Parra...

Overall, there is a huge amount of room for improvement in this team's defense. Not necessarily in their range, which seems not to be the issue. It's more in the "fundamentals" side, such as hitting the cut-off man, knowing where about you have to be on a play, and not making mental mistakes. The raw talent and skills on view in the field were sometimes very impressive in 2009: however, too often, there was a problem with converting that into outs. And as Mark Grace said, if you habitually give a major-league team four outs in an inning, they will eventually bury you. Sound basic baseball needs to be the focus of this team in spring training next year, and if the players aren't on board with that, they should get familiar with the bench.

I was going to talk about our baserunning as well, but I've already gone on longer than expected, so that will have to wait for part...er, seven. I hope to have this series finished in time for Opening Day. Mind you, I'm not saying which Opening Day...