Chicago, We Have a Problem (or Maybe Not)

We do love our guest columns since we all get to take the day off from writing. Today, it's the ever cantankerous Real Neal taking on The Fielding Bible System.

The other day I bought The Hardball Times 2009 Baseball Annual. I haven’t finished yet, but as of so far, I would say save your money.

In it, though, there is an article about titled “Fielding Breeds Winning” by a certain John Dewan, which goes into some detail about how the Fielding Bibles’ Plus/Minus system helps determine which teams have a real shot at the title. I’ve argued in the comments about inherent flaws in the Plus/Minus system, but there are a lot of people, famous baseball statistical analysts who think it’s the greatest thing since high socks. My main point of contention with it, is that we know that people are biased when it comes to evaluating fielding, based on some of the ridiculous Golden Glove awards handed out, yet we go from our 500 person sample size for those awards to 3 people sample sizes for the Plus/Minus system, and somehow conclude that the latter is more accurate. Really quickly, the system looks at all plays and says for each one – if any fielder in the majors missed a play you made, you get a Plus, and if you missed a play that any fielder made, you get a Minus. Add up your Pluses and your minues and you get Plus/Minus score for the season.

Well, you might be thinking, isn’t this article supposed to be about a Chicago baseball team, and preferably the Cubs, since that’s who I come here to read about? Well, yeah, it is about the Cubs, because according to this system, the Plus/Minus system, the 2008 Cubs were living on borrowed time.

Something you can find it in this same Annual or at various other baseball statistic sites around the net is a stat called Defensive Efficiency Rating. It’s the reverse of BABIP (batting average on balls in play). How often do PA’s which don’t end in walks, Home Runs or strike outs get turned into an out. The 2008 Cubs, Jim Edmonds and all, lead the league and did it pretty easily with a .706 DER, that’s six tenths of a percent ahead of second place Milwaukee. Which, I think we as the fans, and definitely the pitching staff would agree is a good thing. But here’s the rub. The highly touted Plus/Minus system ranked the Cubs as the leagues’ 13th best team, at minus 27 plays. So an ‘average’ defensive team would have given up 27 hits less than the Cubs. Only the Reds, Rockies and Pirates managed worse team totals.

Now, if you take the highly touted Plus/Minus system for its word, that leads to my titular problem. It is possible, in theory, that the Cubs could have turned balls into outs at a higher rate than all of their competition merely by the virtue of good luck. Yes, they had the best rate, but they were merely fortunate that of the roughly 5600 times hitters were kept in the park by the Cubs staff, many of those balls were hit softly or right to Cubs defenders. If they had such good luck in 2008, then odds are they’ll regress to average luck in 2009, and have some ERA problems. 5600 is a pretty big number, but let’s dig a little deeper.

Usually if you’re going to give up a batted ball, the best kind is a ground ball. The second best kind is a fly ball that stays in the park, and the worst thing to do is give up line drives. During one of our many off-season debates, Rob G dug up the fact that Marmol gave up very few line drives in 2008, which accounted for some of his luck with BABIP (which remember, is essentially the same thing as DER). So maybe it wasn’t the Cubs fielders, but maybe their pitchers gave up fewer line drives than other staffs (staves?) and their position players and DER were merely happy beneficiaries of this skill. That would certainly explain at least a large part of the gap between the two measures.

Line Drives - Cubs 20% League Average 20.7% the best being 19% and the worst being 22%. The Cubs were roughly middle of the pack.

Well, fly balls are not as bad, but they can be bad, how did the Cubs and their diving-for-balls-that-Carlos-Beltran-gets-to-in-a-jog pitching staff do? 39%. League average is 35.2%.

So we can see that the Cubs staff gave up a little fewer line drives, and a pretty good chunk more fly balls than the average NL team. With my amazing math skills I can now conclude, without serious number crunching that the Boys in Blue gave up fewer of the best outcome (groundballs) than the average pitching staff.

But there still is those three guys with their tapes of the games, and their computer screens and they say the Cubs fielders were no good.

Well, maybe the Cubs advance scouts and coaches were just really good at determining where the fielders should set up, you might say. And that may be true, but the Plus/Minus system goes by fielding zones, so if the right fielder is told to stand on the foul line, and a screecher is hit right to him (which he catches), he gets a +, just like some poor schmuck who had to make a diving grab and slam into the wall. So, that cannot be it. That can explain the good DER score, but it cannot explain away the bad Plus/Minus score.

At this point, I am starting to call ‘bullshit’. But maybe it’s true. Maybe even with a sample size of 5600 plays, the Cubs pitchers just happened to have a knack of getting the hitter to hit it at the fielders. (Totally different study, but if there are league and park factors to determine how good leagues are and how easy parks are to hit in, then why aren’t there any factors to determine if different teams are better at hitting away from fielders). I’ve got 5600 plays, and I’ve got three guys with a VHS and a laptop. Call it intuition, but I am going to lean towards the 5600 plays.

But still, it’s nagging me. Luck, I know it exists. Can it exist for that many plays? Or could it be that my suspicion about the dubious likelihood of the Fielding Bible reviewers being able to be objective is valid.

We know that with Golden Gloves, the voters (MLB players and coaches) have problems being objective. They’re heavily influenced by an occasional flashy play, and more bizarrely, hitting prowess. Why are these guys, professional players and former professional players more likely to be biased than the three guys with the VHS machine? The answer is of course simple, they’re not. The Fielding Bible Plus/Minus system tries to be objective. They make the people chart very narrowly where a ball is hit, and they enter how hard it is hit. The ‘where’ part bothers me a little, because different cameras can be positioned slightly different at each ballpark, and a play that looks like a zone 3Z at Wrigley, could be recorded as a 3X at Busch. The inherent objectiveness of how hard the ball is hit bothers me a lot more. Some guy may decide it takes a 75 MPH line drive to be a hard hit ball, while another guy evaluating a different team may set his ‘hard’ line at 90 MPH. Then take the fact that these guys know that Albert Pujols is a supreme player and that Rafael Palmeiro is a Gold Glove deserving first basemen, and that when they dive to make a play, it must have been a hard hit ball.

Let’s say, just for kicks that reputation plays a part in the Plus/Minus system just like it does in the flawed Gold Glove evaluations. How can that be shown?

In statistics there is something called the ‘Variance’. Essentially it gives us a number that describes the change from one set of numbers to the next. If you believe that team fielding is relatively constant from one year to the next, then it stands to reason that a fielding rating system which has a lower variance, will ‘feel’ more accurate than a system with a higher variance. The Hardball Times Baseball Annual, again courtesy of the guys over at The Fielding Bible, give the Plus/Minus team rankings for 2007 and 2008. The average variance between teams’ rankings (1 to 30) for those seasons is about 118.

118! That’s it? No, obviously something is needed to compare it to. By referring to Baseball Prospectus you can find the DER for 2007 and 2008. The Variance for those two years is about 109, or less than the Plus/Minus. The variance for 2006 to 2007 for DER is also less, at 86. Those aren’t really huge differences, but they’re what I have freely available.

I really wasn’t comfortable with the three guys and their VCR’s overcoming the 5600 data points that DER gives me. But now, to believe the Plus/Minus system, I’ve got to ignore some 500,000 data points (all plays from 2006 to 2008). This isn’t by any means conclusive proof that Plus/Minus system is bad, but it’s definitely something to think about.

Then there’s the final kicker. How did the Cubs do in 2006? At DER 4th, in MLB. In 2007, they were 2nd, and they were 2nd again last year. So breathe easy Cubs fans and Carlos Zambrano. The Cubs can field noticeably better than The Fielding Bible can guestimate fielding prowess, and you can be pretty confident they’ll carry that forward into 2009.


the whole idea of searching for these fielding stat holy grails just don't interest me...maybe if i was into math or something on a hobby level. i understand why it's happening, but the massive pimping of these early results i'm not into.

scouting fielding quality of a player is something that's just so easy to do with the human element vs. what's currently available on the stats side, but i guess you have to start somewhere.

unlike quality hitting scouting which requires a full on warmed up game-quality pitcher...fielding can be replicated outside the game situation pretty makes scouting their tools/flaws/gifts/etc. one of the easier ones to evaluate.

as far as gold glove voting you brought up...yeah...there's too many voting who pay no attention. no voter involved in the palmeiro GG will never live that one down.

If this is all your original analysis, quite impressive

Do any of the statistics you looked at discern between fly outs and pop outs? I believe that is a very telling stat in determining the effectiveness of a pitcher. A pop out is clearly the worst form of contact a hitter can make, as it nearly always results in an out and makes advancing any runners virtually impossible.

In my experience a pop out is almost always a result of the hitter being jammed or looking for a different pitch.

I think that the Plus/Minus system added a trajectory of fly balls this year for the first time. A lot of the systems just disregard pop-ups when looking at the plays. WebAdmin, most likely known and Rob G lists some of the other popular fielding stats. I've never actually heard that a particular pitcher caused more pop-ups than others, but I would bet the guys that are the same guys who get the most fly balls.

When I first started reading about defensive stats and pitchers' tendencies I had trouble believing what they said, that for the most part all pitchers give up hits at the same rate - once you factored out K's. I knew Kerry Wood was always up near the top of BA against, and his stuff is so nasty he got lots of jam balls and ugly swings, but then when you look it up, he's not better than anyone else.

Hardball Times stats page has IF/F (infield fly percentage numbers)...

Leaders for NL pitchers for 2008

1. B.Arroyo (17.7%)
J. Peavy (17.1%)
J. Santana (13.9%)
T. Lilly (13.2%)
A. Cook (12.9%)
C. Zambrano (12.4%)

hmm, B. Arroyo also led in 2007 and was up there in 2006. Z was in the top 6 in 2006 and 2005 as well.

I have no idea what this all means.

It's why Z is always doing this.

Thanks, that's a super interesting piece of data. Some great pitchers up there, I'm pleasantly surprised to see Lilly. Gives me added confidence that we will win 55 to 60 percent of the games he starts this season.

Quantifying fielding frustrates even the most die-hard of Sabermatricians, but they try and try again. For now, I agree that scouting is the preferred judge or predictor. The stats don't take into consideration the kind of route an outfielder takes to the ball (which was a challenge for Fukudome the few times he played center last season), or the field conditions (tall grass, bad infield, etc.). And there are other nuances involving the pitching staff, such as pitchers who are pulled to the left or right on a regular basis.

It's really great to see the stat people taking a serious look at defense. I've long felt it's been largely ignored by the sabers due to a lack of a reasonable quantum, which is unfortunate because defense is such a huge part of the game.

I'm not sure if this is going to be that "holy grail" like crunch said... I'd still trust Lou's gut over the numbers any day (insert fat joke here). Still, it's great to see the stat people talking defense.

And if they ever do find that silver bullet, it could transform fantasy baseball in a big way.

Fantasy baseball aside, it does make a huge difference. The reason the Rays were in the playoffs this year is that they 'learned' to catch the ball.

When you're throwing around $50 million contracts to players, it's important to know who the best fielders are, and maybe just as important to know which pitchers took advantage or were abused by teams that could or not field well. So there's a huge financial incentive towards doing that. The Cards hired MGL (of UZR fame) as a consultant, and have over the last few years done two things well - fielded and got better than expected results out of pitchers.

Eventually they'll probably use those lazers they do on home plate to cover the entire field and get crazy-acurate fielding stats. For the time being though, if a guy ranks well in all those mentioned stats, he's probably pretty good.

I like the fact that the stats take out the 'scouting' eye. Cubs fans crucified Murton and Soriano's defense in left, because they had trouble going back on balls. One play in 20, is enough to make up people's minds, even though those two guys were fair to excellent on the other 19 plays. That's what the statistics do for you. They keep you from overreacting about a guy being able to make a certain kind of play.

"I like the fact that the stats take out the 'scouting' eye."

with fielding that's totally unnecessary, though.

you can accurately scout fielding outside the game with enough confidence to call it as it is.

1- how you get to the ball from where you start
2- what you do and how well/quickly you complete what you do after #1 to finish the play

#2 is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much more important than so so much more.

yes, you can't have #2 without number #1, but #2 is where your double plays become a man on 1st and 1 out...where deep infield contact becomes a hit or an out...

no one cares mike bordick made a career sitting on the outfield grass scooping up almost everything hit at him at SS cuz 1- he played so deep to make up for his own shortcomings 2- he wasn't that great at finishing up plays (though he wasn't bad) once he got the ball.

It seems more that people use the "better defender argument" when the stats don't back up someone's own personal opinions.


Milton Bradley is a far superior player to Bobby Abreu because of his fielding prowess in the 19 games he played in the Outfield last year.

Example 2:

When Jim Hendry attempted to justify giving Neifi Perez a 2 year contract by explaining that he "Really loves guys who can "Catch the ball"."

Example 3:

Fukudome will be a huge addition to the team whether he hits or not. Because Right field defense will be the difference between 90 wins and 75 wins.

A couple strange ones here...

Milton Bradley is a far superior player to Bobby Abreu because of his fielding prowess in the 19 games he played in the Outfield last year.

Who said that?

Because Right field defense will be the difference between 90 wins and 75 wins.

Again, who said that?

It doesn't help your argument to make things up.


I respectfully disagree. Taking the scouting data out is exactly what you DON'T want to do. Players are often better or worse than their stats say, and it's important to know how they WILL perform, not what they've done in the past.


And I don't consider Cub fans crucifying Murt or Sori scouting data.

Scouts don't watch every play of every game. They have limited time just like the rest of us. Scouts can turn in a report that says 'lack of range to his left' which can influence a GM or his aids to downgrade a player's defense. When you look at all the plays over one or multiple seasons, you're able to realize 'even though he doesn't go well to his left, he charges bunts hard, turns the double play with ease and always gets popups hit to short right', but two scouts who watched a guy for three games may not see all of that. They may see one ball they thought he should have gotten and mark him as limited.

it's called UZR (Fangraphs), the Fielding Bible or Baseball Prospecutus Fielding Runs Above Average. The system Bill James used for Defensive Win Shares is pretty decent too even if the final number is a bit weird to translate.

whoops that was me...

according to espn 1000 z was playing indoor softball in schaumburg last week with his traier.

Overweight guys growing a mustache and playing softball in the Winter? Why am I not surprised it was in Schaumburg?

Z with mustache and Schaumberg softball outfit...

Kind of humorous, but what is Jake supposed to say? He REALLY wanted to be a Cub, but that didn't happen so he has to show up to work for his current team/employer. Any competitor would rather play for the Cubs over the Padres, just on the better chance to get to October. I hope we do get Peavy down the road, but I applaud Hendry for not getting fleeced at the Winter Meetings, because the asking price then was RIDICULOUS.

"Any competitor would rather play for the Cubs over the Padres"

Sorry, that's just nuts. Absolutely nuts.

I'm sure everyone is a competitor, but my assumption is that each guy to a man playing at the highest level of baseball has the ultimate goal of winning a ring, and the odds are much greater in Chicago than SD. Do you believe Peavy when he says that he'd rather stay put than come to Chicago? I don't, but he doesn't really have a choice at the moment, does he?

I don't believe that one bit, but you have to admit, the weather is better.

SD Forecast: 72 on Thursday. *jealousy*

Players play in different locales for different reasons. Brian Giles loves San Diego, so he's there. Not the best chance to win, but he likes it there. Loads of others play in different cities or different teams out of preference knowing they might not sniff a Series with that team. Doesn't detract from their competitiveness. And playing for the Cubs might have lost some luster recently because of the way some of the fans have treated the players.

Another fluffy piece about the Cubs rotation going into this season and the dreams of having Peavy...

"Lou says will try soriano in middle of order this year but that he's still the main leadoff guy."

"Lou says will try soriano in middle of order this year but that he's still the main leadoff guy."

Does Lou read the paper?

The one thing, the only thing, Soriano said he wants is to NOT be moved around in the order during the season. Just pick a place and keep him there.

Oh, sure. That will keep Lou from moving him down...

Here is a pic of Z in a few years, if he decides to keep the 'stache...

Where did the other half of CC Sabathia go?

Holy Tae Bo, Batman!


Where did the other half of CC Sabathia go?
losing weight never worked for Rick Reuschel either

He's wearin' it proud. I respect him for it.

Dark colors and pinstripes are slimming.

Also, just leaving Milwaukee has to account for at least 20-30 lbs.

lol dd

Cheese curds & brats... I just gained 5 pounds thinking about it.

I resemble that remark, being from Wisconsin... going to see the Bucks/Bulls game on Wednesday at the Bradley Center, so I'll probably indulge there on a couple of brats and wash them down with some Miller products!

"It's his job to lose," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said of Hoffpauir. "I plan on giving him some playing time at first to rest Derrek [Lee] and also at both corner outfield spots. The kid swings the bat. I don't see any problems there."

sweet...looks like lou/hendry/etc. aren't after that "4th IF" bench guy.

the bench could use the power, imo.

That was great to read. Six outfielders is a lot to carry, though, especially with Ramirez as your starting third basemen. Maybe Gathright's job is not as secure as we think. Has Nomar signed yet?

Nomar or Durham instead of Gathright makes all sorts of sense to me, except perhaps from a money standpoint. Oh, and I guess it's possible neither of those guys wants to be a bench player.

This tells me Miles is going to be backing up all IF spots except 1st then, assuming we carry Gathright, ReedJ, Bako, Miles and Hoffpauir for the bench and 12 pitchers.

Does anyone here have a feel for whether we will be going after Peavy again once the smoke clears on the Cubs/Padres ownership? I'm sure you guys have talked about this ad nauseum back in Nov/Dec, but I'm new to the blog and have 3 kids, so I don't want to go back and re-read everything said on the topic.

If the Cubs are in trouble starting pitching wise, I think they will revisit the deal no matter who owns the team. One other thing to watch I think is the trading deadline and how the economy affects it. Not presenting this as an original idea, I've read and heard several talking about teams that may be suffering at the gate in July who would be anxious to unload some money. San Diego could certainly qualify.

If I had 3 kids at home all I would be doing is reading TCR archives and current comments.

if you're one of those people who think nobody would take a job with the lowly Padres if they got an offer from the Cubs.

PEORIA---Padres manager Bud Black announced that Greg Maddux would be returning to the Padres on Wednesday, albeit in a supervisory role, as a spring training instructor.

The move comes two months after Maddux, who ranks eighth all-time with 355 career wins, officially announced his retirement after 23 seasons in the major leagues. The four-time Cy Young Award winner spent all of 2007 with the Padres and was with the club until he was traded to Los Angeles in August.

"The experience he brings, you can't simulate that in any way, shape or form," starting pitcher Chris Young said. "It can only help us."

Black said that he and Padres general manager Kevin Towers spoke to Maddux throughout the 2008 season and asked him about his future plans. The pair also made inquiries after the season ended, as did the Chicago Cubs. Despite overtures from multiple clubs, Maddux opted to rejoin the Padres beginning later this week.

"Last year a lot of our conversations were about the future," Black said. "I said 'Greg, you have some freedom to explore. I'll tell you what I'm thinking about before, during and after the game. ... His role is undefined. It gives me and Kevin (Towers) and the other coaches a great resource."

this will be really useful.

greg can tell all the guys where the closest mcdonalds is in any direction and end up keeping the guys on the field instead of in traffic.

I'll tell you what, if Maddux's goal is to help out the pitching staff, he can do a hell of a lot more good in SD than in Chicago. Plus the weather is better in SD for a retired old fart like Maddux...

Sorry for overgeneralizing - it'll never happen again!

if it's just as a spring training instructor, then they are both in Arizona. My guess is the Padres have better access to golf courses.

Also, Maddux is from Vegas. So if he is needed during the season it's a much closer trip.

Maddux played more recently for the Padres, so maybe he knows and is friendly with more of the players, or is more excited about their young pitchers?

Or, maybe Maddux doesn't think much of Cubs management/coaches?

Maybe the Padres have nicer facilities or a better locker room spread?

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  • RIP Arnie. We could use a lot more like you -- a man who succeeded and failed on his own terms, a true original, and, finally, a remarkable example of graciousness towards others.

    billybucks 7 hours 17 min ago view
  • Cubs finish 33 over at home. I was, personally, one game over at 3-2, which was one of my better years in a while.

    I do hope that's the last time we see the Cardinals this year. A lot of power, which is dangerous, particularly in a short series, and they have really shut down KB all year.

    Oh, and Jon Lester? Damn!

    billybucks 7 hours 29 min ago view
  • Yes. Boating accident at 3AM. Very sad, but stupid. Young men do stupid things.

    billybucks 8 hours 25 min ago view
  • lester puts 2 on and is taken out at 96 pitches. oh well.

    edwards in.

    crunch 9 hours 9 min ago view
  • 2 out in the 7th, lester at 84 pitches, ross taken out for the standing O.

    it's possible contreras will catch lester for another inning+.

    crunch 9 hours 16 min ago view
  • What a weird day.  Jose Fernandez and Arnold Palmer, but then Scully and, on a much more modest level, Ross....

    Transmission 9 hours 49 min ago view
  • d.ross gets his 2nd standing O on the night (last home game of the season)...hits HR #10...curtain call. baseball.

    crunch 9 hours 52 min ago view
  • as a fan, he only "owes" us the game on the field and not getting in the way of others on his team being ready to play (imo).

    it's exponentially worse to his family and friends, but this dude most likely had 15+ years of play left and even though he just turned 24 a couple months ago he had already established himself as a top guy in the game.

    crunch 13 hours 14 min ago view
  • Carrie Muskat [email protected]

    Updated #Cubs probs vs Pirates: Mon, Hendricks vs Kuhl; Tue, Lackey vs Vogelsong; Wed, Arrieta vs Taillon; Thu, Zastryzny vs Nova

    crunch 13 hours 36 min ago view
  • I know what you're trying to say, Charlie, that none of us feels what his loved ones must be feeling.

    On the other hand, what makes a death like this tragic is precisely the loss, based on Fernandez's youth and brilliance, to the baseball world.

    So, for example, we can say that Princess Diana's death meant more, in aggregate, to millions of admirers who didn't know her personally than to her loved ones.

    VirginiaPhil 13 hours 37 min ago view
  • boston pitching snags a couple of mlb team records...

    "Over nine innings of play, Boston's staff struck out 11 straight Tampa Bay Rays hitters Sunday, breaking the major-league record for most consecutive strikeouts in a game.

    The previous record was held by former New York Mets right-hander Tom Seaver, who struck out 10 straight hitters in 1970.

    Not only that, but with a strikeout to end the ninth, sending the game into extras, Boston's staff also struck out an MLB-record 21 batters over nine innings."

    crunch 14 hours 2 min ago view
  • What a loss to baseball, which I'm sure pales in comparison to the personal loss to his loved ones.

    Charlie 15 hours 46 min ago view
  • Somehow I am sensing alcohol was involved. The highest number of boating accidents by a wide margin...

    The E-Man 16 hours 29 min ago view
  • crunch 18 hours 11 min ago view
  • Reports this morning that Marlins' pitching ace Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident - just horrible news.

    Eric S 22 hours 4 min ago view
  • Check out John Arguello at Cubs Den for great analysis & photos from Cubs AZ Instructs


    Arizona Phil 1 day 10 hours ago view