|Is defense the new OBP?|
Written by Daniel Paulling (Contact & Archive) on May 03, 2009
On-base percentage was an undervalued commodity at the time, but now general managers and others are beginning to look at it as an indicator of player quality. That means we need to find something new.
Billy Beane, the legendary general manager of the Oakland Athletics, began building his team around a strong defense the last few seasons. It may have started with his locking Eric Chavez into a, unheard of for Oakland, six-year, $66 million contract. Chavez is a wizard defensively, while his former teammate Miguel Tejada isn't that well regarded with the glove. Tejada, despite his MVP season in 2002, was let go to the Orioles for six years and $72 million.
Anyway, building a strong defense has a great effect on a team. Defenses cut down on the balls in play, which reduces the strain on pitchers, which reduces the strain on hitters. It has become a well-known fact that the Rays built their 2008 success based on their tremendous defense last season.
Tim Marchman of SI.com wrote a good column about the value of defense using Fangraph.com's UZR rating. The power of defense struck me, and it may do the same for you.
That a high-revenue team would place such weight on its outfield defense is, arguably, part of a broader movement in the game. Last year, going by Ultimate Zone Rating, a sophisticated defensive statistic based on play-by-play data, the pennant winners were streets ahead of any other team in the field, saving more than 30 runs on defense above what the third-best team did. As was widely noted last year, in fact, the Tampa Bay Rays' defense was basically why a joke team that had never lost fewer than 91 games in a season won 97. According to UZR data, in going from the worst defensive team in baseball in 2007 to the best last year, the Rays improved by around 130 runs, the rough equivalent of having replaced the worst hitter in their lineup with Barry Bonds in his absolute prime.
Making this sort of improvement can be relatively cheap. Chavez, for instance, is such a good defender that he's nearly as valuable as the man he's replacing in left field, Raul Ibanez, even though his career slugging average is more than 100 points lower. Despite that, he makes about one-fifth of Ibanez's salary. Home runs earn money; glove work generally doesn't. And as Wakamatsu points out, another crucial benefit of building on defense is that it can act as what the military calls a force multiplier.
Endy Chavez has been an easy-to-acquire player the last few years. The Royals, Expos/Nationals, Mets, Phillies and Mariners have all used him at the major league level since 2001. He was a mere toss-in the Mets offseason trade to acquire relief pitcher J.J. Putz.
However, if the Mariners offered Chavez to the Phillies straight up for Raul Ibanez, they'd be laughed at. Should the Phillies actually make the deal, their fans would rebel for making a deal so ridiculous.
Tampa moved Akinora Iwamura to second base last season, installed Jason Bartlett at shortstop, gave Evan Longoria the everyday spot at third base and moved BJ Upton to center field. That reduced their number of runs allowed by 130, according to Marchman, which he equates to Tampa Bay replacing its worst hitter with Barry Bonds in his prime.
Of course, defensive metrics aren't perfect yet. But once they are, perhaps baseball will learn just how valuable defense truly is. It doesn't seem like defense is getting its due just yet.