25 April 2007

Durability vs Defense

There will be no Dodger sweep, and there will be no lockdown of the bottom of the Giants order. The bottom four have already been on base nine times, which is what I had hoped their total would be for the entire series. The Giants moved Aurilia over to third to get Klesko into the lineup and the awful Feliz out, a very wise move. Matt Morris was great, with a really evil curveball that he could throw for strikes. I wonder, is it possible that he's finally learned how to really pitch well without the plus fastball he used to have? If so, the Giants come a bit closer to being a threat.

Ethier misplayed a hard hit ball into a double last night. Now it was hit hard, and it's not clear that he absolutely should have caught it, but he certainly should have come closer to catching it. His jump was awful, and in the wrong direction. I have to wonder, is every starting outfielder the Dodgers have a defensive liability?

Pierre and Gonzalez have looked awful out there, both in terms of catching the ball and throwing. Kemp looked awful last year and was injured this year while failing to make a tough catch that he maybe should make. I thought having Lofton out there last year was bad, but so far I'd trust him over at least two of the three Dodger outfielders.

Dodger GM Ned Colletti doesn't appear to make outfield defense a high priority. I'm not saying that he doesn't value it, but that he values other things more, such as offensive production ( or reputation ) and durability. Contrast Ned's outfield acquisitions to previous Dodger GM Paul DePodesta's. Depodesta acquired Jayson Werth, JD Drew, and Milton Bradley, all excellent to good defenders, all capable of playing a decent center field, and all also somewhat injury prone. DePodesta was badly burned by his approach in 2005, and it was perhaps a contribution to his firing. Colletti may yet be burned by his approach as well.

The Dodgers don't have a lot of margin for error ( or errors ) in their quest to be a great or very good team. They don't have any true superstars, no Bonds or Alex Rodriguez in the lineup, no Johan Santana or Jake Peavy on the mound. They have a lot of good players. This is just supposition, but I believe that the Dodgers need to have at least average outfield defense to win 95 games. I just don't think their pitching and hitting is otherwise good enough to compensate for losing so many runs to bad outfield play.

Is it better to make durability or defense a priority when putting together an outfield? Both of these weaknesses will manifest themselves unpredictably, at random intervals. The difference is that injuries are rarer but more devastating events. It's reasonable to hope that an injury prone player could get lucky and go through an entire year without missing significant time. It's not reasonable to hope a bad defender won't hurt the team at all during the year. After some of Luis Gonzalez's worst outfield play, the ball wasn't hit near him at all for about four games, as if he was a nervous little leaguer whose prayer that the ball not be hit to him was granted. So there can be stretches where you get away with bad defense. Some games all the balls hit to you will be easy ones, as well, though we've seen even an easy ball is no guarantee that a Dodger outfielder will catch it. But eventually an outfielder will be tested again.

If durability is a weakness, you can get really lucky, and you can also get really unlucky. An entire season can be destroyed by a rash of injuries, or an entire season can be made by talented injury-prone players somehow making it through the year against the odds. If defense is a weakness, you pretty much know what you'll get over the long haul. You'll get wildly lucky or unlucky with the outfield defense in each individual game, but over the 162 games it will average out of a constant drone of runs leaking into the opponents' score column.

So, what is the answer, if forced to choose between injury-prone or error-prone outfielders? I think the approach of gambling with durability is best if the team wouldn't otherwise be good enough to win 90 games, if the only way to shoot for that total is to roll the dice with injury-risk players and hope they stay healthy. In particular, I don't fault DePodesta's approach in 2005. But if the rest of the team is good enough to carry a weakness, then having the durable, poor defenders is clearly better, since there isn't a catastrophic downside. We'll see if the 2007 Dodgers fit this description.

3 comments:

Charlie said...

A very well-considered analysis. It seems to me that many observers have been surprised by how poorly Juan Pierre judges fly balls...we only knew about his rag arm. It was my impression that defensive metrics generally rated both Pierre and Gonzo average overall, despite their total inabilities to throw. Either (1) that is actually not true (2) those metrics are way off (3) we are witnessing a fluke departure from their normal defensive play (4) their level of ability changed during the off season.

What do you think?

Faramond said...

I have no idea. I'm not sure what to make of all the competing defensive metrics out there, though I don't just dismiss them and insist that what I think I subjectively see is how things are.

I too thought that at least Pierre was supposed to be average defensively. I hope he isn't entering a sudden speed and defense decline. It's not as if he's in his late 30's, though.

This is something to keep looking at as the season moves on.

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