Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Did Dewan (and company) diss Denard?

The Fielding Bible Awards results were released this week, outlining the final ballots for each position in baseball. Notably absent from the center field list of vote-getters was the Twins anchor, Denard Span.

Now, I'm not suggesting Span should have won as baseball boasts several superior players in that position, but I do believe Span's defense should have be highly regarded, especially by the voters of this particular award.

The voting was conducted with a ten-person panel including such distinguished, forward-thinking baseball minds as Bill James, Rob Neyer, John Dewan and Peter Gammons as well as columnist/Gardy-lover Joe Posnanski. The voters could rank their top ten players at each position but not one member of that panel gave one of their ten votes in Span’s direction in the center field category. Twenty-two other center fielders received votes. Twenty-two.

How is it possible that all these well-established baseball men came to the same conclusion that Span’s center field defense is worst than 22 others, particularly when some of the defensive metrics that they invented suggest otherwise?

Most of the advanced fielding metrics (those promoted by Bill James and some devised by John Dewan) actually portray Span’s 2010 season as a top ten defender. For instance, Dewan’s own Plus/Minus system, the one that most of the Fielding Bible Awards are based on, ranked Span at +14 runs above average, the seventh-best at the position. Meanwhile, Ultimate Zone Rating (or UZR) located at Fangraphs.com states that Span’s number (6.3 UZR) is the fifth-best among his counterparts while his .935 revised zone rating was the best in baseball. What’s more, he did all this while logging the second-most innings in baseball at his position.

Span’s Fielding Metrics (2010)

CF Rank
Revised Zone Rating
Fielding Percentage

It is curious that someone like Dewan, who touts his Plus/Minus system as one of the most advanced, more or less voted against what his own system suggested was a defensive talent. According to Dewan’s website:
“My book, The Fielding Bible, goes into great length (ad nauseum to some) describing the new fielding system we developed at Baseball Info Solutions, the Plus/Minus System. Video Scouts at BIS review video of every play of every major league game and record detailed information on each play, such as the location of each batted ball, the speed, the type of hit, etc. Using this in-depth data, we’re able to figure out how each player compares to his peers at his position.”
Essentially, the Dewan-designed defensive rating system says that Span compared very favorably to his peers. Roughly the seventh-best. Dewan and company simply chose to ignore all that. So as all these metrics and nerd numbers inform us that Span should be hailed as a glove pimp, those that used the power of observation (also known as “scouting”) were underwhelmed by his performance in his first season as a full-time center fielder.

Admittedly, Span appeared to lack the confidence to take control as the quarterback of the outfield. For all of his closing speed that helps him compensate for the lack of agility from his flanking co-stars, Span didn’t appear to be in command. On various occasions this past season, when balls were hit towards the gap in that no man’s land region between center and the corner outfielders, Span deferred and pulled up rather than track it down himself. This was a scene that we hadn’t seen with Carlos Gomez in center. He treated every fly ball like a real-life game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos.

In addition to that, Span also has a fairly weak arm. According to Dewan’s stats, Span finished the season at -1 runs saved by his arm – 24th among center fielders. Likewise, Fangraphs.com’s ARM accounting system suggested that his wing was worth -2.0 runs below average (fifth-worst among qualified center fielders). Because of this, runners have been able to advance bases more frequently (move up on 58% of total opportunities on Span).

Did the subjective nature of Span’s defensive prowess as well as his arm stats influence the voters to drop him behind the likes of Carlos Gomez, Torii Hunter or Aaron Rowand? Because their votes are public we know that some very data-oriented people decided to go against what the numbers say. In the end, because they do not offer commentary behind their votes, we will never really know the reason behind why Span was omitted across the board.