J.J. Hardy played 158 games for the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, who won 93 games. He played sparkling defense, as usual, and clubbed 22 home runs. His on-base percentage, though, was .282. Gross, right?
That sound you just heard–scraping chairs, a collective intake of breath, the odd ‘ahem’–was a dozen or so saber-slanted writers I respect, and with whom I usually see more or less eye-to-eye, rising to defend Hardy.
“Hang on,” they’re saying, in my head, “Hardy is a good defensive shortstop. He’s got some pop, he can stick at the most valuable spot on the diamond, and you have to adjust your mental scale. Offense is down everywhere.”
Positional value is an important concept in baseball, but in this case, I am sick of it. Frankly, I am sick of WAR poisoning people who claim to approach the game objectively, without their even realizing it. Here’s the dirty little secret of modern orthodoxy, folks: Offense is down because teams are letting it go down, and J.J. Hardy is the model of the modern overrated ballplayer.
In 1985, batters struck out in 14 percent of all plate appearances. They were still trading power for contact far too often back then. By 1995, they had found a better balance, offensively, and batters fanned in just 16.2 percent of all trips. In 2005, that number had crept only very slightly upward, to 16.4 percent. In 2012, though, it was 19.8 percent. Consider that carefully. Not even 30 years ago, one in seven plate appearances ended in a strikeout. Today, the figure is one in five.
Of course, as I noted, power has become how teams score runs, so it hasn’t been the end of offense. In 1985, teams scored 4.33 runs per game. In 2012, the number was 4.32. The difference? In 1985, only 2.24 percent of all PA were home runs. The league-average OBP was .323. In 2012, 2.68 percent of all PA were go-fer balls, and the league reached base at just a .319 clip.
It’s not the number of runs that score that has dipped; it’s the shape of the offenses generating those runs. Fewer balls than ever are put into play. Tons of strikeouts, tons of home runs.
So why on Earth are teams still playing, not just J.J. Hardy, but Brendan Ryan, Adeiny Hechavarria, Hiroyuki Nakashima, Clint Barmes, Brandon Crawford and their ilk? Why are teams still prizing defense at premium positions, even to the point of being willing to accept huge offensive deficiencies?
The answer is FieldF/X, or something like it. It’s UZR, and the Fielding Bible Awards, and a dozen other methods now available for evaluating defense. Teams feel more confident than they ever had before in the validity of defensive contributions. It’s no longer true, as Branch Rickey once said, that “There is nothing on Earth anyone can do with fielding.” We have the technology; we have the knowledge; we have the power.
Unfortunately, the attendant common sense does not seem to have come along for the ride. Defense has never been less valuable, perhaps the more so because it has never been so similarly valued by all teams. Most crucially, though there were 25,000 or so more plate appearances in MLB games in 2012 than in 1985 (expansion, you know), only 6,886 more balls entered the field of play. A good shortstop doesn’t save what he used to.
Back then, though, Davey Johnson cleverly used Kevin Mitchell at shortstop from time to time, when it seemed relatively likely he would see few balls hit his way. In the modern game, playing Miguel Cabrera at third base is brilliant. Playing Shin-Soo Choo in center field is great, too. Heck, the Chicago Cubs should at least occasionally be slotting Alfonso Soriano back in at second base. Teams are wasting perfectly good offensive talent by selecting players at several positions for a defensive skill set that has never mattered less than it does today.Next post: The Detroit Tigers Should Sign Rafael Soriano
Previous post: Rebuilding is an Odyssey, and the Cubs Are Just Floating By