Book Review: The Fielding Bible

The Bible Tells Me So

“The Fielding Bible” will reinforce many of your beliefs about defense–Ichiro Suzuki is good, Alfonso Soriano is bad–but it also will tell you a lot of things you don’t know. Such as:

Mike Lowell. The Red Sox third baseman won the Gold Glove at third base in 2005 for the Marlins and rated as a plus-19 on balls to his right, and he was the best in baseball over the last three years at handling bunts. However, he was minus-29 on every other type of play and was rated as the 21st-best third baseman overall in 2005.

Richard Hidalgo. For baserunner kills (assists by an outfielder that did not involve a cutoff man), Hidalgo posted the highest total of the past three seasons with 19 in 2003. The second-highest total? Hidalgo, with 13 in 2004. He won’t get a chance to showcase that arm in the big leagues this season because he was released by the Orioles this spring so he could pursue opportunities in Japan.

Torii Hunter. Not surprisingly, he ranked as the best center fielder over the past three years with an overall score of plus-44. He was followed by Aaron Rowand at plus-34 and Andruw Jones at plus-26. The worst? Bernie Williams–and it’s not even close–with a score of minus-78. The second-worst was Ken Griffey Jr. at minus-58.

Adam Everett. He has rated as the best shortstop in baseball over each of the last three seasons and scored a plus-33 in 2005. Michael Young rated as the worst in 2005 with a minus-39. “The Fielding Bible” looked back at his days at second and says he has always had a tendency to play too far to his right to take advantage of his strong arm, which leaves him vulnerable to his left.

Everything you know about baseball defense is wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but at least worth questioning. That’s the conclusion reached in “The Fielding Bible,” the latest publication by baseball stat pioneer John Dewan.

The goal of the book is simple: to figure out how many plays each player makes relative to an average player at his position.

What makes Dewan’s method unique is that it does not simply rely on esoteric data that the reader does not have access to. While using statistics, it also relies on visual data, which subsequently allow the writer to explain why and how a player is rated. The bulk of the book is made up of 2005 player rankings, with comments on each player based on visual evidence. The player comments are written and edited by Dewan and a group of others, including Bill James and Dave Studenmund.

The ratings are generated by Baseball Info Solutions, a company Dewan helped found in 2002. Employees reviewed video from every major league game last year and recorded data from every ball put in play, including direction, distance, speed and type of hit (groundball, liner, fly, bunt, etc.). We could try to explain what happens next, but we’ll let Dewan do it instead:

“The computer totals all softly hit balls on Vector 17, for example, and determines that these types of batted balls are converted into outs by the shortstop 26 percent of the time,” Dewan writes. “Therefore, if, on this occasion, the shortstop converts a slowly hit ball on Vector 17 into an out, that’s a heck of a play, and it scores at plus-.74. The credit for the play made, 1.00, minus the expectation that it should be made, which is .26. If the play isn’t made–by anybody–it’s minus-.26 for the shortstop.”

Common Sense

So a player gets credit if he makes a play on a ball that at least one other player at his position missed that season, and loses ground if he misses a ball that at least one other player at his position made. Each player starts with a score of zero, and his final score is the sum of all their plusses and minuses over the season, rounded to the nearest integer.

To get a sense of what the ratings look like, over the last three years Orlando Hudson rates as a plus-77 at second base, while Alfonso Soriano was a minus-40. That means that Hudson made 77 more plays than the average second baseman, while Soriano made 40 fewer. Maybe moving Soriano to the outfield wasn’t such a bad idea.

For the most part, the ratings are consistent with Gold Glove winners over the last three years, particularly for outfielders. Of the 18 outfield Gold Glove winners from 2003-2005, Dewan’s system rated 13 of them as the best in the outfield in that season.

“That was our number one criteria to determine do our results make sense,” Dewan said. “They have to be consistent with what people feel is generally correct from an observation standpoint. And they did. When you have that, you feel like you have a good system.”

Infielder ratings, however, were not as consistent with reputation.

“I think it is easier to see an infielder and feel that he looks good and wins a Gold Glove because he looks good, as opposed to actually making the plays,” Dewan said. “What we are doing in this system is measuring how often they make the plays. So a guy like Derek Jeter who won the last two Gold Gloves, I feel he shouldn’t have won them.

“He has a lot of different skills as a shortstop that make him a good shortstop. But he is not the best.”

When it comes down to defense, Jeter is the most divisive player in the game. But unlike other defensive metrics, “The Fielding Bible” explains in straightforward fashion why he is not as good as his reputation as it breaks down how he (as well as every other infielder) fares on balls to his left, to his right, straight on and in the air.

Jeter rated as a minus-18 to his right and a minus-25 to his left in 2005; he was a plus-5 on balls in the air and a plus-1 on all slowly hit balls. Over the past three years, Jeter had a higher rating than any other shortstop on balls in the air, which provides ammunition for the talk of Jeter moving to center field. (For other intriguing player ratings, see the accompanying chart.)

More Than Just Player Ratings

Beyond the individual player ratings, the book also shows how each team fared on defense in 2005.

For example, the Mariners allowed fewer hits than average on balls hit to right-center, down the right-field line, over the right fielder’s head and in front of the right fielder. This is clearly a reflection of the skills of Ichiro Suzuki, whom Dewan rates as the best right fielder in the game since 2003.

“The Fielding Bible” also gives rankings on fielding bunts for third and first baseman, as well as rankings for shortstop and second baseman on double plays and pivots.

This is not Dewan’s first foray into the field of defensive statistics. While serving as president of STATS Inc., Dewan developed zone rating, a metric that first charted the location of batted balls. Subsequently, the field was divided into nine regions, and zone rating measured what percentage of balls a player converted into outs in his region.

“As far as zone rating is concerned, this is an advance on that,” Dewan said. “We are not just looking at particular zones; we are looking at every possible location that a ball is hit and measuring how often fielders get to each location on the field, and evaluating an individual fielder relative to the league averages.”

“The Fielding Bible” is certainly an advance on zone rating, and for fans thirsting for more advanced numbers to gauge defense, it is a huge step forward. Its ratings satisfy those who need numbers to quantify who is best, while also relying on visual evidence to support it.