Cutting the ball off in the gap

A quick study.  A ground ball through the right side of the infield.  The right fielder runs over to try to cut the ball off before it gets past him and get it back into the infield before the batter gets any ideas about trying to go to second.  Will he get there and prevent an extra base hit?  And who is the best in the business at this particular skill… at least who was in 2006?
There’s plenty wrong with my methodology, but I’ll be happy with “decent approximation” on this one, given the limitations of my data set.  I’m using the Retrosheet event file for 2006.  I’m selecting for all ground balls that were fielded by one of the outfielders.  Not surprisingly, all but six of the 10,000+ balls in this category were hits.  The key variable is what sort of hit were they?  If the end result was a single, then the fielder has done his job.  If the ball goes for an extra base hit, then the fielder has failed.  The rest is just calculating a simple success rate.  I restricted the sample to players who dealt with at least 20 ground balls in their direction in 2006.  This left me with 54 left fielders, 50 center fielders, and 46 right fielders.  Players who logged significant time at two (or three) positions were eligible to repeat in multiple categories.
The problems are that Retrosheet’s data do not tell us where the fielder was at the start of the play, and hit location data are pretty scarce, so we don’t know how far the fielder had to go to get to the ball (was it simply hit at him or did he really have to hustle to get that one?)  There are also park effects to consider (which I will not for this study).  Outfields are, of course, all shaped differently, and some have much more ground to “defend” than others.  There’s also the issue of a fielder actually getting to the ball to cut it off, but a fast runner taking second anyway.  We also don’t know where the ball is when the fielder reaches it, which is important information when looking at events that involve baserunning.  I also didn’t take into account liners that went through the infield, but then dropped in the outfield, effectively becoming ground balls, because they can’t be teased apart from the straight out liners in the Retrosheet data.  It’s not a perfect study, but let’s see what happens.
When sorting the data, something odd appeared.  The center fielders were all almost perfect.  I can appreciate that CF are usually better fielders and faster than their LF and RF brethren.  They also have the advantage of playing deeper in terms of physical yardage from the plate, so they have more of a chance to react, plus they don’t have to guard both the foul line and the alley.  Perhaps there’s also a bias in the way that Retrosheet notes who it was that fielded the ball.  So, let’s stick to LF and RF.
The five best LF of 2006 in terms of ground balls to them that became singles instead of XBH:
Hideki Matsui (94% success)
Jay Payton (91%)
Matt Diaz (91%)
Angel Pagan (89%, and the best name in baseball!)
Matt Holliday (89%)
The five worst LF:
Kevin Mench (59%)
Scott Spiezio (66%)
John Rodriguez (68%)
Preston Wilson (68%)
Scott Podsednik (69%)
It must have been a bad year to be a Cardinal LF.  So Taguchi is actually 8th from the bottom.  This leads to the question of whether this is a park effect or if the Cardinals front office doesn’t care about defense in left field.
Moving over to RF, the five best:
Jason Lane (98%)
Ryan Freel (97%)
Nelson Cruz (96%)
Franklin Gutierrez (96%)
Jacque Jones (95%)
And the five worst:
Chris Snelling (75%)
Ichiro (76%???)
Emil Brown (76%)
Aubrey Huff (77%)
Geoff Jenkins (78%)
A few observations: Right fielders are generally better than left fielders at turning ground balls into singles, rather than XBH.  This probably has something to do with the fact that RF usually have better arms (so batters aren’t as tempted to try for second), and for a man wearing a glove on his left hand, cutting a ball off down the right field line is a more natural pick up motion than down the left field line.  For a ball in the alley, the RF has a more difficult pick up motion, but also has the CF to help him out.  More batters are right-handed, and probably more likely to pull the ball, and can probably hit it faster/harder down the line than the ball hit down the right field line.  Maybe RF are just better fielders in general.
Ichiro makes a surprise visit to the worst RF list.  It could be that because he was patrolling RF in spacious Safeco that he was simply a victim of his own home park.  Maybe it’s the real reason he’s in CF now.
How much of a difference does it make?  The most extreme left fielders are Kevin Mench (59%) and Hideki Matsui (94%).  Matsui had 32 balls hit to him, Mench had 39.  Split the difference and call it 35.  That’s an extra 12.25 balls that Matsui got to that Mench did not.  Assuming that those 12 and a quarter balls went for doubles with Mench instead of singles.  Using a linear weights/runs created approach, a single is worth .47 runs, while a double is worth .78 runs (roughly, the exact numbers aren’t all that important right now.)  So, 12.25 balls that turn into doubles rather than singles represents 3.8 runs.  So, the spread from best to worst is 3.8 runs, just from handling ground balls to left field.  Might not seem like much, but the actual effect is probably understated by my inability to distinguish between liners that dropped and liners that went over someone’s head.


6 Responses to Cutting the ball off in the gap

  1. Sean Smith says:

    I can understand why centerfielders are almost perfect, If its a ground ball through the infield, its hard to see it still having enough speed to get to the gaps in the outfield. The ones that turn into xbh are going to be hit down the lines.
    Perhaps Ichiro’s low rating can be blamed on playing behind Richie Sexson, a first baseman with very little range. I’ll bet the Oakland LF (I see Payton is there) do very well thanks to Mr. Chavez.

  2. Sean Smith says:

    Which makes it even more strange for the Cardinal leftfielders….Rolen is supposed to be pretty good.

  3. tangotiger says:

    I think you’d have to focus on the “gap” groundballs. That means, they have to go exclude zones 3,5. Or at least separate them.
    As well, as noted, split by home park.
    Finally, multi-years.
    The run value would like be 0.17 runs, not 0.30 runs. A ball hit whereby it’s possible leg double will advance the runners on base the same number of bases. A runner on 1B will end up at 3B in most cases. If a runner on 1B ends up scoring on a play where an OF *may* be able to hold the batter at 1B… well, those are fairly rare. Pizza tells us exactly:
    0.1% of the time.
    So, you could also remove any plays where the runner on 1B scored, as those were “obvious” doubles.

  4. Pizza Cutter says:

    Tom, the big problem is that Retrosheet doesn’t have hit location for later years. If they did, I would have done it. This is the problem with being poor and working with what the net will give you for free. The park FX stuff could be done, as could multi-year stuff (checking to see if the skill is consistent across years.)

  5. Guy says:

    Another factor to consider is batter handedness (and maybe pitcher as well). John Walsh has shown (THT), for example, that 3Bmen will convert GBs down the line into outs at a lower rate against LHB than RHB. StL faced an above-average percentage of LHB last year (43%), presumably because StL used virtually no LHPs. So the GBs hit down the 3B line against Rolen were likely harder to field than average.

  6. Sean Smith says:

    For the few cases where the CF fielded the ball, it was a ground ball, and the result was an XBH, did they happen in Tampa, Minnesota, or Toronto?

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