Sunday, January 4, 2009

Defense and Manny Ramirez (In the Same Sentence)

The New Year has come and gone, and the sometimes lovable, sometimes frustrating goofball who happens to double as one of the five best right-handed hitters in the history of baseball remains unemployed. As opposed to the still-controversial lack of contract offers to baseball's home run king last offseason, there are no cries of collusion amongst owners where Manny Ramirez is concerned. Rather, Manny simply appears to have misplayed a weak hand into becoming a free agent at the worst possible time. Beyond the economic downturn that seems to have all MLB teams not nicknamed the Yankees hesitant to sign ballplayers to large contracts, most franchises not named the Phillies seem to be realizing how much monetary value defense has for them. The best current example of this is the Rays. Returning basically the same, seemingly-inept pitching staff from 2007, Tampa went from allowing the most runs in the American League to allowing the second-fewest. While it is only right to attribute some of this improvement to their pitching staff, a large portion of the credit must go to the defense. They went from allowing -54.2 more runs than an MLB-average franchise defensively in 2007 to being 70.2 runs above average this season, quite the improvement in terms of tracking down shots hit into the gaps (As a sidenote, I believe the fielding runs rate is something along the lines of 0.8 runs per play, but I can't for the life of me remember or find the conversions right now). But this does not tell the whole story. While it measures the runs a team has saved with the leather, it does not take into effect what these catches do about the runners already on base. In 2007, Rays pitchers had a strand rate of 66.8% (This seems fairly self-explanatory, but strand rate is the percentage of runners who reach base but do not go on to score a run). In 2008 this increased to 74%, much of which can be attributed to balls that would have been RBI doubles the previous season now being turned into outs. Over the course of the season, 1,875 players reached base against the Rays via a walk or a hit, meaning that this 7.2% increase in strand rate kept 134 runs from scoring. And this is where Manny enters the picture.

Beyond entering the free agent market during a recession, as well as at the same time as four other players who do the exact same things Manny does, albeit not quite as well (The job description from here on out shall be referred to as 'Defensively-Challenged Slugger'. These players (Pat Burrell, Adam Dunn, Raul Ibanez and Bobby Abreu, for those of you keeping score at home (If we expand the player pool to include DHs (The position all these players should probably be stuck at), Jason Giambi needs to be included as well)) are all corner outfielders by trade). If we use Tom Tango's positional conversion chart, the value of these four players to their future employers actually increases if they leave their glove behind and DH. You have to REALLY suck at fielding for that to happen. And Manny is regarded by most fielding statistics (And evaluations) as being the worst of this bunch, giving back a substantial portion of the offensive lead he has over his job competitors with his putrid leather. Add in that teams (Again, non-Phillies division (If I get bored, I'll pile on about the Ibanez signing sometime. But not today. Today I'll stick to snide references to it)) have begun to understand the dollars that should be attached to a player's defense, and Manny is up against as perfect a storm as anyone who employs Scott Boras can be. But Manny's defense may actually be undervalued. Brian Cartwright at Statistically Speaking made an attempt to accommodate for the odd shape of Fenway Park by examining the Retrosheet data from 2003-2006 and found that non-home-run fly balls to left field, balls that fall in for hits 17.1 percent of the time at other parks, were scored as hits 31.3 percent of the time at Fenway. I'd recommend reading his piece for the actual results and the gory details (You can find the article here), but Manny's D is nowhere near as bad as it's typically believed to be (Worst left fielder in the new analysis: Raul Ibanez. Alright, I'll stop now. Maybe). The Green Monster actually has caused a substantial portion of his seeming ineptitude (That it has likely helped his offense as well is a subject outside this post's purview). Because of this and the depressed price the market seems likely to force on him, Manny may actually be an outright steal for the next few years. With the caveat here being history, which may be scaring off more teams than his glove.

You see, eight months ago Manny was signed to a contract that had become a relative bargain, a club option for each of the next two years at $20 million per (A bargain by baseball standards, people). Manny decided that he no longer wished to play for the team he was bound to by this contract, and staged a ridiculously impressive push for a trade consisting of sitting out games for no reason whatsoever, feuding with the team about this, and shoving a man well past 50 in the employ of the team to the ground. If you are the general manager of a baseball team and sign Manny Ramirez to a deal good for your club, what will happen when he realizes it? This is the risk associated with employing the dreadlocked wonder, not his defense. But as many teams (Presumably) use more traditional defensive measurements than park-adjusted play-by-play data, Manny is looking at quite a lengthy winter with those two black marks against him. Scott Boras has long been regarded as some sort of Satanic superagent, and he's going to have to use all his demonic minions and/or powers to get the deal that this time (For once) his client actually deserves.

Also, Raul Ibanez's baseball skills are vastly overrated.

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