I love Rich Waltz. I remember the day that big-market baseball took Len Kasper from the Marlins, and gave us Rich Waltz. I was sad for a short time, and then Rich Waltz made me forget about Len, (just kidding Len — I still tune in to the occasional Cubs broadcast.) I liked Rich with Tommy Hutton, and now that he’s with Todd Hollandsworth, I still like him. Without creating an abhorrence of a catch phrase or resorting to other cheesy antics, Rich has become an entertaining, furtively pro-home announcer for the Marlins
In their first season, Rich and Todd have proven to be a cerebral pair. Although FOX Sports Florida doesn’t often post statistics beyond a player’s “baseball card stats,” Rich and Todd have engaged in a number of interesting conversations involving interpretation of Sabermetrics, in the interest of evaluating Marlins players. One such conversation took place on Wednesday night, in the late innings of another drubbing from the Nationals, as Rich and Holly discussed Christian Yelich’s chances of winning a Gold Glove for his time in center field.
In such conversation, Rich proffered the argument that Christian Yelich’s numbers in his first year as a full-time centerfielder are suffering a loss in the Gold Glove standings because of the size of Marlins Park’s outfield. The argument was made that because of Marlins Park’s cavernous dimensions, Yelich’s numbers are negatively skewed in comparison to the likes of Billy Hamilton. Without specifically delving into the numbers, the gist of Waltz’s argument was that the same balls that are flying over Billy Hamilton’s head and out of Great American Ballpark are falling in play at Marlins Park, and consequently hurting metrics for Yelich such as Ultimate Zone Rating.
The theory certainly makes sense. I slept on it, and in my need to quench an ever-growing thirst for baseball statistics and writing topics, I took a dive into the world of defensive statistics and tried to make a case for Christian Yelich taking home the hardware in centerfield.
Let’s go to the numbers
Fangraphs.com Centerfielder Defensive Leaderboard
Defensive metrics are weird. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are two different ways to express a fielder’s value in runs above average for their respective position. Both metrics take a number of fielding tools (for example arm, range, etc.), calculate/weigh the player’s performance in a specific manner for each tool, and then add up the totals in order to create one all-inclusive value to express how above or below average a player’s fielding is. While for educational purposes, I have included all of the potential categories that get factored in to calculating DRS and UZR on the graphs, the columns that are left blank refer to non-outfielder, position-specific metrics, such as DPR — how much value a middle infielder adds by turning double plays — or rSB — how much value a pitcher or catcher adds by controlling the run game. Finally, the DEF metric is the defensive component that factors into WAR. When Fangraphs computes the defensive component of fWAR, they take the UZR for all non-catchers and positionally adjust it for the number of opportunities their specific position usually gets to make a play. This allows you to compare defensive value across positions. UZR, DRS, and DEF are all expressed in how many runs above/below value a player is worth (or saves for his team, for DRS.)
Let’s get this out of the way — Christian Yelich will probably not win a Gold Glove this year. With that said, all metrics seem to agree that Christian Yelich has been a more than adequate centerfielder for the Fish this year. After winning a Gold Glove for his efforts in left field in 2014, and spending 2015 and 2016 in left, Don Mattingly this year decided to permanently switch Marcell Ozuna with Yelich, placing him in centerfield. Yeli for the most part has answered the call. From the start, we can see that Christian Yelich is worth one defensive run. That’s got to count for something.
Getting back to topic at hand, it appears that there is indeed some merit to Rich Waltz’ argument, but you have to dig a little deeper to see it. If we cut to the chase and we look at Billy Hamilton’s DRS and UZR compared to those of Christian Yelich, it’s clear that the speedy Red has Yelich pegged in both categories. Among the leaders, Yelich is actually the first centerfielder on the board with a negative DRS and UZR. To express the numbers in words, while Hamilton saves seven more runs than the average centerfielder and is worth 6.6 more runs than the average centerfielder, Yelich actually costs the Marlins four more runs than the average centerfielder, and is worth -1.1 runs less than the average centerfielder. You could also say that Billy Hamilton saves 11 more runs than Yelich, and is worth 7.7 runs better.
With that said, the journey to DRS and UZR for both Hamilton and Yelich are extremely different. For one, specifically in the UZR inquiry, Christian Yelich dominates Billy Hamilton in range. As mentioned by Waltz, this is may be a product of the two centerfielders’ home ballparks.
Overall, the calculation of UZR is pretty complicated. You can read about it Fangraphs’ UZR Primer. In short, it entails shoe-horning batted balls into as many specific categories as possible, measuring the probability that a fielder historically makes a play on said batted ball, and then crediting for making the play/debiting him for not making the play. The question that Rich Waltz poses is this: a batter hits a 405 foot fly-ball to dead centerfield. The ball is a home run in Billy Hamilton’s game at GABP, and therefore doesn’t affect his fielding totals (unless he robs it). The same fly ball in Marlins Park falls two feet short of the wall in centerfield. Waltz believes that Yelich should get credit for the times that he makes the catch at the wall. As it turns out, it certainly he does. Taken into account in the UZR equation is park adjustment:
In the OF, each section, LF, CF, and RF, is divided into two zones, shallow and deep, for park adjustment purposes. Each of those 6 zones per park has their own adjustment factor. For example, the deep zone in LF at Fenway has an adjustment factor of .5, meaning that of all balls hit past a certain distance in LF at Fenway, the overall “catch rate” is only half that of the average major league park. Similarly, in Houston’s LF “short porch,” it is .86. In Seattle, fly balls in all sections of all fields are easier to catch than at an average MLB park, presumably because of the altitude, the cold weather, and the large but not too-large outfield dimensions, and thus have a park factor above 1.0.
This means that Great American’s dimensions are already accounted for in the equation for range. And what do we see? Christian Yelich takes Billy Hamilton to school. Solely based on the balls he is able to get to, Yelich’s range is worth 4.7 more runs than average, and 3.7 runs more runs than Billy Hamilton’s. Yelich’s RngR trails only Ender Inciarte — who leads the NL in plays made out of his zone by 41 — and Odubel Herrera.
Intuitively, range has to play a huge role in the evaluation of a centerfielder — why then do Yelich’s metrics not measure up as nicely compared to Hamilton’s? An answer you may not expect can be found in one category — arm strength value.
While Billy Hamilton’s arm has saved six more runs than has the average centerfielder’s, and is worth 4.8 more runs, Yelich’s arm metrics are both in the negative: negative five by the DRS measurement, and -7.2 by the UZR. This is really where Waltz’ theory on how Marlins Park affects Yelich’s chances comes into play.
Besides making sure that Marcell Ozuna couldn’t put up a -3.4 UZR in centerfield again, one of the factors influencing the position swap of him and Yelich at the beginning of the season may have been due to arm strength. While Christian Yelich by no means has a pea-shooter, we have seen first hand this year that Marcell Ozuna’s strong arm is an asset that needs to be taken advantage of. In 2016, Ozuna and Yelich had the same number of assists, despite Ozuna manning centerfield, and subsequently being further away. This year, Ozuna has cashed in on playing closer to the pads in left — he has eight assists on the season.
Yelich meanwhile has one lone assist in centerfield. While Yelich can track the ball down with the best of them, when there are runners on base, and he is deep in the canyons of Marlins Park’s outfield, Yelich’s arm is little-to-no help.
This year, Billy Hamilton has twelve assists from centerfield. Going to Rich Waltz’ point, with so much less outfield to account for, the throws that Hamilton has to make to get kills are generally much shorter. With less ground to cover and more speed — given the right batter and runners on — Hamilton can probably afford to play shallower than Yelich if he needs to make a kill on a throw. Pair that with the fact that Billy Hamilton is indeed faster to Yelich, and you understand that Billy can get to a ball faster to make a play on it faster than Yelich can.
Going back to the graph and the numbers, recall that DRS and UZR are composites of the values calculated for each player’s individual tools. Billy Hamilton’s 12 assists raises his arm value is 4.8 — a full 1.8 runs higher than the second place centerfielder, Keon Broxton. In stark contrast, Yelich’s arm value is -7.2, by far the lowest on the leaderboard. The deficit is too big — despite Yelich’s above average range, his UZR ultimately comes out in the red. On the other side, Billy Hamilton’s arm carries the day — while his range pales in comparison to Yelich’s, it is still above average, and his UZR proves to be the highest among centerfielders.
Deconstructing these stats to make players’ cases for awards is always interesting. Since say-all-end-all stats like WAR and UZR came into vogue, it has become easier for people to become amateur Sabermetricians, myself included. One piece of advice that I always see however is that while stats like WAR and UZR can be very descriptive, it’s important to break them down, and use them in conjunction with other supporting metrics.
The managers and coaches in the MLB vote for the Gold Glove Award winners. It will be interesting to see who they pick. The question that I would ask is — when you think of a Gold Glove outfielder, do you think of the guy with the most assists? I certainly don’t; I usually think of guys like Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds, whose stats I didn’t know, but who I remember watching in my jammies make diving plays on Sportscenter.
I’m not in any way, shape, or form saying that Billy Hamilton is by any means a bad outfielder — again, the above-average range value proves that he covers ground at an above-average rate. But it’s called the Gold Glove award, not the Golden Arm award. I’m also not saying it has to go to Yelich. But I do think that to ensure that the award is fairly given, the managers need to deconstruct UZR and DRS and truly pick a well-rounded Gold Glove winner.
So was Rich Waltz right? Yeah, he was partly right. While Christian Yelich is getting a raw deal by playing in such an expansive outfield, it’s not hurting his range as much as Waltz believed it might be. But it is hurting his arm value. In the end, Yelich’s other stats don’t make up as much ground as they need to for him to earn the award. While it’s not impossible, I would say that it’s improbable.
Anyway, as a student of the game, I can attest that watching a baseball game with knowledgeable broadcasters can greatly enhance a viewing experience. Rich Waltz and Todd Hollandsworth are no exception; while the Marlins offense has been dozing for the past nine games, tuning in has still been entertaining, thanks in part to the crew of Rich and Holly. There may be less than a month left of Marlins baseball, it’s never too late to tune in. When 7:05 rolls around, don’t be afraid to turn on the Fish — you might just learn something in the process.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com
Best wishes and prayers for all of my family, friends, and other South Florida residents in the path of Hurricane Irma. Stay safe. — Mitch