OK, I guess this is the month for confessions from your humble blogger. Having confessed my germaphobia quite publicly, it’s now time to confess that I am a total baseball statistics nerd. Hey, it’s no worse than being a confessed law nerd like my sister (http://thoughtsnax.com/2011/05/07/one-simple-graph-explains-lawyer-stress/). Frankly, I don’t know how I survived before the Internet (again, thanks Al) and, in particular, www.baseball-reference.com.
Many years ago, one of my best friends, Patrick, tried to argue that Cal Ripken was a weak defensive shortstop. Preposterous, I know. But, he tried and we were in our 20s and 30s and had little better to do than sit around and argue over who the best shortstop in history is. Now, we’re older and have responsibilities like family and work. So, we sit around and argue about who the best set-up reliever in baseball history is (really, I shit you not – this entire blog was inspired by an e-mail argument over whether Tyler Clippard of the Nats is a good set up man or not). Anyway, back in the day, we would point out to Patrick that Cal had one of the best fielding percentages in baseball and, in fact, in baseball history for a SS. We’d point to the season where he made 3 errors ALL YEAR. Patrick would attempt to counter by saying that this was only true because he had poor range and, therefore, got fewer chances to make errors. Despite its immense implications for the world, we had no data to resolve this dispute back then. Fortunately, we do now. And, I totally nerded out on baseball-reference.com to figure it out.
So, if you’re not a baseball fan or, perhaps, even a baseball stat nerd like me, go away. Come back later when I’m blogging about something that does interest you.
In order to get a sense of a player’s range at his position, I looked at chances/game – that is, the number of opportunities you have to make a play (total chances is the denominator in fielding percentage, the numerator being successful chances or total chances minus errors). Cal played 2,302 games at SS and had 10,853 chances, or 4.71 chances per game. In order to see how that stacks up against other future Hall-of-Famers at his position, I compared it to Derek Jeter. Jeter has 4.07 chances per game over his career at SS. So, Cal had almost 20% MORE chances per game than the evil Yankee SS. Cal got to a lot more balls hit near him than Jeter did.
But, there are plenty of baseball pundits who have criticized Jeter’s fielding skills (this analysis supports them!). So, next, I compared Cal to a player anyone would agree had about the best range at SS in our lifetime – Ozzie Smith. The Wizard of Oz averaged 5.1 chances per game over his career. While better than Cal, Cal only had 7.5% fewer chances per game than one of the best in modern day. Not too shabby.
The other thing I considered was errors/chance. That is, if you get to the ball with whatever range you have, how frequently do you actually boot it (this is the inverse of fielding percentage)? Here, Cal is exactly equal to Ozzie with 0.021 errors per chance (0.979 fielding percentage). Put another way, Cal and Ozzie each made an error about every 44 chances. Interestingly, Jeter is about the same at 0.023 errors per chance. But, Jeter had a lot fewer chances.
To summarize, if you watched Cal, Jeter, and Ozzie over their careers, you might get the sense they are about equal as fielders because you would notice they made the same number of errors per game on average. In fact, because of his greater range, you would see Ozzie make more errors per game. However, what you wouldn’t notice is that Cal and Ozzie were averaging almost one chance more per game and that extra one “non-chance” for Jeter was a hit that got through. It actually shows up against the Yankee’s pitchers (which, given how evil the Yankees are, I’m OK with). So, had my buddy Patrick made the argument that Jeter’s fielding percentage was high, but he has poor range, he would be statistically correct. He was wrong when it came to Cal. Phew.