There are plenty of defensive metrics, making sense of them is the problem

There are some aspects of baseball not up for an argument or debate. It’s simple math and right there in front of our eyes on the stat sheets to see which players won batting titles in each league, or led the league in homers, doubles or saves for instance. It’s clear which team wins the World Series as they decide that on the field.

But some honors are very subjective and up for a vote. And a debate. Like MVP and Cy Young for instance and defensive awards, some of which came out this week.

At this point in baseball we probably have more defensive stats than ever but in my humble opinion, we still struggle as a sport to quantify defense and sometimes there is no consensus about defense. And that is even when intelligent eyes are doing the viewing. And voting.

The finalists were recently announced for Gold Gloves in the American League and the Orioles' Jorge Mateo was not among them at shortstop in the AL. The three finalists were Boston’s Xander Bogaerts, Minnesota’s Carlos Correa and Houston’s Jeremy Peña.

In one advanced metric, Defensive Runs Saved, Mateo ranked ahead of two of the three AL shortstop finalists. While Peña tied for the MLB lead with 15 DRS at short (tied with Miami’s Miguel Rojas), Mateo was next, third in MLB, with 14 DRS. Bogaerts with 4 DRS ranked 11th and Correa at 3 DRS was 12th in the majors.

In the stat Ultimate Zone Rating among MLB shortstops, Mateo ranks second with Bogaerts fifth, Correa 13th and Peña 20th.

But Mateo last Thursday DID win a Fielding Bible award from Sports Info Solutions, and SIS presents one award for both leagues. So he was not among three finalists in one league for one award and he won another honor for both leagues.

Also, per SIS, Mateo tied for second in MLB in Good Fielding Plays with 28. He led all shortstops by converting 72% of his double play opportunities. He’s the first Orioles shortstop to win the Fielding Bible award, which began in 2006.

If you are confused, you are not alone. Some, I will include myself here, have been skeptical for a while about defensive metrics. Some, including me again, remain so. This all is not adding up. How do we know which stats are reliable and which to look at the most? We don’t is the current answer.

A definition of Defensive Runs Saved is the stat quantifies a player's entire defensive performance by attempting to measure how many runs a defender saved. It takes into account errors, range, outfield arm and double-play ability. It differs only slightly from UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) in its formula, but the concept is the same.

Another popular metric is Outs Above Average (OAA), which is a range-based metric of skill that shows how many outs a player has saved. Prior to 2020, OAA was an outfield-only metric. But it has been expanded to include infielders. OAA is calculated differently for outfielders and infielders. Mateo fared well here too in OAA, ranking fourth among MLB shortstops and ahead of all three AL Gold Glove finalists.

And smart baseball people - managers and coaches, vote for the Gold Glove awards. And 75 percent of the award comes from that manager and coaches voting (six from each team, you vote only in your league and can’t vote for your own players). Another 25 percent comes from data and analytics.

The Fielding Bible is voted on by a panel of 15 voters that includes Bill James, Peter Gammons and ESPN’s Eduardo Pérez to name three. They are told to use data, stats, the eye test and anything else they choose in their voting.

In an interesting note, no 2021 Fielding Bible winners won in 2022.

Speaking for one, I still prefer the eye test in assessing defense, but the eye test only works in my opinion, in large samples. You need to see a lot of plays and games to evaluate defense.

At this point, I will always be open to data and metrics to guide me in a sense on how Orioles players and others rank on defense. But at this point I just don’t have much confidence in that data to truly rely on it.  





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