Defensive metrics, the Mariners, and Kevin Kouzmanoff

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Vastly improved defense has played a huge role in the Mariners going from 101 losses last season to above .500 this year, and Gary Armida of FullCountPitch.com wrote an interesting article about how first-year general manager Jack Zduriencik and his sabermetrically inclined front office went about making those changes with the help of advanced defensive metrics.
Here’s a quote from special assistant to the GM (and SABR member) Tony Blengino:
The statistics add another level. It shouldn’t be scouting against numbers. Successful organizations have to find a way to blend the two. It’s our responsibility to blend the two. … Our own [statistics] are easily adjustable measures as they build in nature of our pitching staff and our defensive positioning. There’s a margin for error with positioning with many of the public metrics. If you over-shift quite a bit, the shortstop may have skewed out of zone ratings. … To properly evaluate teams have to know the context of how those numbers are generated. So, we use our own metrics to account for that.
There’s plenty of other interesting stuff in the article, so definitely read the whole thing, but the gist is that the Mariners are among quite a few teams that are actively trying to quantify things that until recently have been based on eyes and scouting reports. Perhaps the most popular of the publicly available defensive metrics is Ultimate Zone Rating, and the Mariners have gone from 20th in UZR last season at -20.9 runs to second-best in UZR this year at +52.1 runs.
Of course, not everyone is aware of or interested in new approaches to evaluating defense. For instance, San Diego Union Tribune columnist Tim Sullivan wrote a lengthy piece today arguing for Kevin Kouzmanoff of the Padres as a Gold Glover based on his low error count at third base, writing that “statistically Kouzmanoff’s glovework has been of 24-karat quality this season” because “he owns the highest fielding percentage at his position in either league and has committed only three errors in 121 games.”
Sullivan goes on to make comparisons between Kouzmanoff and two-time Gold Glover David Wright based on errors, fielding percentages, and total chances, but merely gives passing mention to “the new-age calculation called zone rating” and “many arcane statistics being floated now.” There’s plenty of similar “analysis” being done in newspapers across the country, but the funny thing is that you’d be hard-pressed to find many MLB teams focusing on the same old stuff that so many writers are still hooked on.
Kouzmanoff’s own team employs former stat-head posterboy (and current blogger) Paul DePodesta as a special assistant and you can be absolutely certain that the Padres’ front office isn’t doing any meaningful evaluations based on fielding percentages. Low error totals could mean that a third baseman is sure-handed with excellent range, but they could also mean that a third baseman is sure-handed with mediocre range or even sure-handed with terrible range.
Guys like Ozzie Smith, Willie Mays, and Brooks Robinson aren’t considered all-time great defenders because they committed a low number of errors, they’re considered all-time great defenders because they made plays that other fielders simply couldn’t. As for Kouzmanoff … well, he’s a solid defensive third baseman according to UZR, rating 3.2 runs above average this season and 2.7 runs above average last season, but a Gold Glover he’s not.
Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals likely deserves that honor in the National League this season, rating 16.5 runs above average according to UZR and also drawing plenty of positive reviews on his glove from people relying on their eyes. Of course, he’s made 13 errors compared to only three for Kouzmanoff, and despite the fact that more data and information is available for meaningful defensive analysis now than ever before there are still an awful lot of people who misguidedly equate errors with defense.

Jose Altuve and Corey Kluber head list of Esurance MLB Award winners

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The 2017 MLB award season officially drew to a close on Friday with the Esurance MLB Awards, handed out to the best hitters, pitchers, front office members and moments in the 2017 season. Jose Altuve was crowned the Best Major Leaguer overall, beating out fellow finalists Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, while two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber took home honors as Best Pitcher.

Here’s the full list of winners:

  • Best Rookie: Aaron Judge
  • Best Defensive Player: Nolan Arenado
  • Personality of the Year: Adrian Beltre
  • Best Postseason Major Leaguer: Jose Altuve and Justin Verlander
  • Best Postseason Moment: Alex Bregman‘s 10th inning walk-off single in Game 5 of the World Series (video)
  • Best TV/Radio Call: Joe Buck and John Smoltz call Jose Altuve’s game-tying three-run blast in Game 5 of the World Series (video)
  • Best Play (Offense): Nolan Arenado completes the cycle with a walk-off homer (video)
  • Best Play (Defense): Austin Jackson‘s over-the-wall catch in the Red Sox’ bullpen (video)
  • Best Single-Game Performance: Anthony Rendon‘s six-hit, three-homer, 10-RBI game (video)
  • Best Player-Fan Interaction: Joey Votto gives Walter “Superbubz” Herbert a bat and jersey (video)
  • Best Fan Catch: Fan’s brother-in-law grabs Yasiel Puig home run ball and chucks it back on the field (video)
  • Best Manager: A.J. Hinch
  • Best Executive: Jeff Luhnow

No surprises here — the world champion Astros ran away with seven awards, including those for Best Manger and Executive and a dual award for Best Major Leaguer of the Postseason. Altuve added to an impressive run this offseason after earning a Silver Slugger, two Players Choice Awards, Hank Aaron Award and MVP Award for his outstanding work in 2017, while Yankees’ slugger Aaron Judge continued to be a lock for all AL rookie-based awards after locking down the Rookie of the Year title earlier this week.