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.

Breaking Down the Today’s Game Hall of Fame Ballot: Lou Piniella

TORONTO - JULY 9:  Manager Lou Pinella of the Cincinnati Reds looks on during batting practice prior to the1991 All-Star Game at the Toronto Sky Dome on July 9, 1991 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
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On Monday, December 5, the Today’s Game committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame — the replacement for the Veterans Committee which covers the years 1988-2016 — will vote on candidates for the 2017 induction class. This week we are looking at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness. Next up: Lou Piniella

The case for his induction:

He notched 1,835 wins, made seven postseason appearances, a won a World Series as a manager. That win total is good for 14th all time. Of the 13 men ahead of him, 12 are already in the Hall. The only who isn’t is Gene Mauch, who was under .500 for his career. Connie Mack and Bucky Harris are in that crowd and they were under .500 too, but Mack is kind of a special case as the all-time wins leader and Harris, well, I dunno, he hung around forever and the Veterans Committee was a different beast back in the 1970s. Point is, if you have Piniella’s win total and you’re over .500, as Piniella is, you’re probably getting in, at least eventually.

A lot of those wins came in some good places and at some good times, adding some psychological weight to that record. Taking the 1990 Reds to the World Series and beating the heavily favored A’s was a great story and, as the Reds’ last title for 26 years and counting, stands as a more memorable accomplishment than doing it someplace else. Likewise, his next job, in Seattle, coincided with the franchise’s best seasons thanks to the emergence of Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez under Piniella’s command. Mariners’ history fundamentally changed during the Piniella era and he will always be associated with that. Oh, and his 2001 team set the single season record for wins with 116. He made two playoff appearances with the Cubs too. That’s been eclipsed by the 2016 team’s exploits, but it was a pretty big deal at the time.

It’s also worth noting that Piniella likewise had a very fine playing career, with 18 seasons of 109 OPS+ hitting, a Rookie of the Year Award and a couple of World Series rings on his resume. That’s not enough by itself to get him in the Hall, but he presents a nice total package as a Baseball Man Supreme who has been thought highly of for close to 50 years now.

Oh, one other thing: he was colorful. He had a temper and a repuatation as kind of a red ass, with a good number of on-the-field incidents which stick in people’s minds. That sort of thing doesn’t necessarily make someone a good manager or a good person, but Piniella has been seen as a guy who mellowed with age and, at various times in his career, showed that he had a sense of humor about all of that stuff which makes it play a heck of a lot better. For Hall of Fame purposes, it certainly plays a heck of a lot more memorably.

The case against his induction:

His years in Tampa Bay weren’t all that great and, by the time his days in Chicago were over there was a sense that he was sort of running on fumes and padding that win total to get him into that top 14. In both places Joe Maddon eventually came along and did better things and, in some cases, undoing some bad things Piniella did. Some believe he should’ve won another pennant or two and, yes, some of those Mariners teams disappointed in the postseason. Some people look less amusingly on his temper tantrums over the years and, I suppose, one could characterize them a bit more sinisterly than I did above without being too dramatic.

Would I vote for him?

I think so. As I mentioned in the George Steinbrenner entry, when it comes to managers and executives, I put a lot of weight on whether one could tell the story of baseball in a guy’s era without mentioning his name. Piniella is no Joe Torre, Bobby Cox of Tony La Russa in that regard, but he’s pretty close to that group in terms of the figure he cut in the game and, as I mentioned, he’s critical to the story of a couple of franchises. Certainly the Mariners but also the 1970s Yankees as a player and, possibly, the 1990 Reds. I tend to be a softer Hall of Fame touch than a lot of people, so I get that people may disagree, but I’d put him in.

Will the Committee vote for him?

Hard to say. On the one hand, Piniella feels like the sort of baseball man that gets rewarded by the Veterans Committee. On the other hand, the Veterans Committee took ages to vote in some other notable managers such as Whitey Herzog, suggesting that maybe Piniella will have to wait. This is the first year for the new composition of the Veterans Committe, however, so it’s hard to say if they’ll be tougher or easier graders. He may be the hardest call of all of the guys on this year’s ballot.

Twins hire James Rowson as their hitting coach

BOSTON, MA - June 4: The Minnesota Twins logo is seen during the fifth inning of the game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on June 4, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
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The Minnesota Twins have announced that they have hired James Rowson as their hitting coach.

Rowson was the minor league hitting coordinator for the New York Yankees for seven of the last nine seasons, interrupted by a short stint with the Chicago Cubs as minor league hitting coordinator. He also worked at the minor league levels with the Los Angeles Angels. He played in the minors for the Seattle Mariners and Yankees.

Rowson replacesTom Brunansky, who was hitting coach for the past four seasons.