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.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Cubs 7, White Sox 2: Chicago wins! Willson Contreras hit a three-run homer and drove in four in all. The talk of the game, though, was John Lackey who plunked four White Sox batters. Three of them in the fifth inning. It put me in mind of Dock Ellis’ famous “do-the-do” game, except Lackey is about as far from Dock Ellis-level cool as one can possibly get. Sox pitcher Carlos Rodon struck out 11 batters but lasted only four innings. Should’ve given up some more ground balls. It’s more democratic. The Cubs have won nine of 11.

Yankees 4, Reds 2: Todd Frazier hit into a triple play in his first at bat as a Yankee in Yankee Stadium. A run scored on the play — out number three came on a time-buying rundown — and the Yankees still won, so I suppose he doesn’t mind much. Jordan Montgomery allowed one run while pitching into the seventh. Didi Gregorius hit a sac fly and homered. Here’s the triple play:

Brewers 8, Nationals 0: Zach Davies pitched shutout ball into the eighth and Oliver Drake took it the rest of the way. Travis Shaw, Eric Thames and Manny Pina all homered. Shaw’s was a three-run blast. “Oliver Drake” sounds like a fake name a guy gives to the police after the party gets raided. He’s a little drunk and has to think fast, scans the room, sees his DC comic book collection and just blurts it out.

Astros 5, Phillies 0: Houston can bash your brains in or they can shut you out. Well, they can shut Philly out at least. Old friend Charlie Morton did the honors here with seven shutout frames. Speaking of Morton and the Phillies, remember when he was supposed to have turned into a Roy Halladay clone? For that matter, remember Roy Halladay? That was some Ric Flair-Buddy Landel falloff there, brother. In other news, Jose Altuve only went 1-for-4, so I assume he had a compound fracture or something.

Blue Jays 4, Athletics 1: Fun with earned runs. A’s starter Sonny Gray gave up four runs in the second — all the runs the Jays would score in the game — but they were all unearned. Tough luck? Well, they were unearned because Gray himself made the throwing error that caused them to be unearned. Oh, and he also uncorked a wild pitch that put a runner in scoring position. He gave up four hits in the inning — two doubles — but all the runs were “unearned.” Stats are dumb.

Indians 11, Angels 7: You don’t see many walkoff grand slams, but Edwin Encarnacion hit one here in the bottom of the 11th. All three of the baserunners reached via a Bud Norris-issued walk, one intentional, two accidental. That was the second grand slam allowed by Angels pitchers in the game, by the way, as Bradley Zimmer hit one in the second. The Indians had a 7-0 lead after two and blew it before Encarnacion’s heroics. In other news, the AP gamer reads like Coppola’s discarded first draft of “Apocalypse Now”:

CLEVELAND — Bradley Zimmer didn’t care one bit that his mouth was filled with talcum powder.

To the rookie, it tasted like victory.

Royals 3, Tigers 1Whit Merrifield homered on the game’s first pitch and Danny Duffy was solid into the seventh. That’s seven straight for Kansas City. Meanwhile, Ned Yost just rendered every studio analyst and color commentator’s job obsolete with what is, really, the only commentary you need:

The Kansas City Royals are keeping the pressure on in the AL Central, and manager Ned Yost has no big secrets to offer about their impressive winning streak. “There’s no key to staying in it. You just keep playing good,” Yost said. “If there was a key to staying in it, then we would stay in it forever. You just play good. That’s all you do.”

Rays 5, Orioles 4: Baltimore closed the gap late and threatened in the ninth but the Rays held on to break their five-game losing streak. Tim Beckham hit a three-run homer. Rookie starter Jake Faria pitched into the eighth inning and pitched well before running out of gas and stalling out.

Rangers 10, Marlins 4Joey Gallo hit two homers and Mike Napoli and Rougned Odor each had one as well. Christian Yelich had a three-run homer and drove in all four of Miami’s runs in a losing cause. Adrian Beltre went 0-for-3 and the Rangers have a day off on Thursday, so, barring a 16-inning game in which Beltre goes 7-for-7 today, the march to 3,000 will go at least into this weekend. That’s unreasonable, of course. The Rangers could never play a 16-inning game with their bullpen. If they did. Beltre’s 7-for-7 and 3,000th hit would be the sidebar story.

Cardinals 3, Rockies 2: The Cardinals called up top prospect Harrison Bader yesterday. He made a good first impression, doubling to lead off the ninth inning and then scoring the walkoff run on Jedd Gyorko‘s sacrifice fly. He had to slide and everything:

Braves 8, Diamondbacks 3: Kurt Suzuki homered twice and Matt Kemp homered and tripled. Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz allowed two runs over six, striking out nine. He hasn’t lost any of his last nine starts, going 6-0 in that time.

Mariners 6, Red Sox 5: The Red Sox took a one-run lead in the 13th inning with a Sandy Leon RBI single, but Seattle came back in the bottom half via a walk-fielder’s choice-single-wild pitch-walk-infield single combination, proving that you don’t have to bash anyone’s brains in to win this crazy game. Jean Segura hit the walkoff single. Doug Fister was the Sox pitcher responsible for those thousand cuts.

Dodgers 6, Twins 2: Chris Taylor hit two run-scoring doubles and continued his torrid post-All-Star Game hitting. Dude’s 23-for44 in those 11 games and is at .321/.388/.545 on the year. Dude can play five or six positions too. The Dodgers win their 70th game.

Mets 6, Padres 5: Yoenis Cespedes homered, doubled and tripled, driving in three. He scored on that triple too, thanks to a Wil Myers throwing error. Cespedes even threw a bullpen session before the game, so even if the Mets can’t contend in the last two months of the season, maybe they can be fun and let Yo pitch:

Giants 11, Pirates 3: Madison Bumgarner finally earned his first win of the year, allowing one run over five innings. The San Francisco bats were winners too, as Bumgarner singled and scored, Buster Posey had three hits and an RBI, Joe Panik added a bases-loaded triple and the now-departed Eduardo Nunez drove in two before he started hugging his mates.

Red Sox acquire Eduardo Nunez from the Giants

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A trade went down in the wee-wee hours: the Boston Red Sox acquired third baseman Eduardo Nunez from the San Francisco Giants. The Giants will receive minor league pitchers Shaun Anderson and Gregory Santos in return.

Third baseman for the Boston Red Sox have, obviously, been terrible this year, with Pablo Sandoval being released and Brock Holt being injured for most of the season. top prospect Rafael Devers was just called up and got his first start for Boston last night, but it may be a lot to ask of a 20-year-old to carry third base every day for a contender.

Nunez can play other infield positions, but it’s not like second base and short are problem areas for Boston. Better too have too many options than not enough, I suppose. And of course, Devers has options in another sense of the term, so I’d expect him to spend a bit of time with the Sox but to soon be sent back down.

The news of the trade broke in what has become classic trade deadline style: via cameras catching the player who was traded gathering his equipment and hugging his teammates during the broadcast:

Nunez is hitting .308/.334/.417 with four homers 31 RBI and 18 stolen bases on the year. This is the second year he’s been moved at the deadline, getting sent to San Francisco from Minnesota in 2016. He’s making only $4.2 million this year and can be a free agent after the season.

The Giants get Shaun Anderson, a third round selection in the 2016 draft out of the University of Florida. He’s still in A-ball, pitching alright but obviously not close to the bigs yet. Gregory Santos is only 17 and is currently playing in the Dominican Summer League. All in all a pretty low price, but better than the nothing the Giants would’ve gotten for Nunez if they kept him for the final two months of the season.

And hey: now there’s room for Pablo Sandoval in the Giants big league lineup!