Is defense the missing piece?

March 5, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized 

What matters at the end of the season for every team is the number of wins. Individual player performance and obsessive accounting of obscure offensive and defensive metrics are interesting fodder for lively discussion, but ultimately it is all about runs. More specifically, how many you score and how many give up. Both run production and run prevention are influenced by an almost infinite number of factors (e.g. runners on base, defensive positioning, quality of opposing pitchers, bad luck, etc.). Despite this somewhat obvious fact, can valuable information be gleaned simply from looking at team run totals? This is the question the Soxwatcher attempts to answer here.

Team run totals for all American League clubs for the period 2000-2009 were analyzed. The run totals were organized into three categories:

  1. Runs For (RF): the total number of runs scored;
  2. Runs Against (RA): the total number of runs given up;
  3. Run Difference (RD): the difference between Runs For and Runs Against (RF – RA).

For each of the ten seasons, the totals were ranked from 1 to 14 in each category. The objective was to find a correlation between runs and qualifying for the playoffs. The table below summarizes the number of playoffs teams finishing the season ranked in the top 5 in each of the three run categories. They have been further broken down by division.

DivisionPlayoffsRFRARD
East1614916
Central11558
West1371211

The first thing of note is that 26 teams out of the 40 playoff qualifiers (65%) ranked in the top 5 in RF while the same number also ranked in the top 5 in RA. 35 of those teams (87.5%) also ranked in the top 5 in RD. This seems to support the logical contention that run production and run prevention are equally important (i.e. a dominant offense or a dominant defense will translate into wins). The last decade has been dominated by the AL East with 16 teams making the playoffs. Of those 16, 14 ranked in the top 5 in RF, 9 in RA, and all 16 in RD. Furthermore, though not shown in the table, only 4 of those teams had an RA rank higher than their RF. The obvious conclusion here is that a dominant offense has been the hallmark of AL East playoff teams during the last 10 seasons.

The 2010 Red Sox have publicly employed a strategy that emphasizes reducing RA. In 2009 Boston ranked third in both RF and RA despite abysmal starting pitching. Apparently they also ranked third to last defensively according to Theo Epstein. No metric is ever given regarding how the “sub-par” defense of 2009 is quantified. However, the idea that the pitchers suffered because of this bad defense does not add up. The Red Sox starting pitching ranked 8th in the American League with an ERA of 4.63. The relievers, on the other hand, ranked 2nd with a cumulative ERA of 3.80. Apparently our defense yielded almost 1 full run less per game less when guys like Smoltz, Penny, and Masuzaka grabbed some pine.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s accept the premise that the defense was terrible last year and much improved in 2010. Moreover, the starting pitching will be better, and the team RA will decrease enough to be ranked first in the AL this season. In keeping with the theme that runs are the key to winning more ballgames, we quantify run production (RP) as follows:

RP = RF – HR + RBI

The rationale here is that RBI are an important indirect element to run production (despite ESPN Keith Law’s characterization of them as “totally useless”). Home runs are subtracted because they are already accounted for in RF. Finally, RP is divided by plate appearances (PA) resulting in run production average (RPA). In 2010 the Red Sox had an RP of 1482 and an RPA of 0.234. The departures of Bay, Gonzalez, Lugo, Green, Baldelli, and Lowell (essentially) represents a loss of 460 in RP over 1877 plate appearances. By replacing them with Beltre, Scutaro, Cameron, and Hall, who totaled a combined RPA of 0.199 last season over 2019 plate appearances, and pro-rating it over the missing 1877 PA’s translates to an RP of 374. Thus, there is a net loss of 86 in RP translating to a net loss of 51 in RF. This simply means that all things being equal to 2009 performance the Red Sox will score 51 fewer runs in 2010. Incidentally this would still rank them 3rd among 2009 AL clubs (4 runs ahead of Minnesota).

If the defense improves by surrendering 51 fewer runs, the net effect is zero. The performance in the critical category of run difference will be unchanged. The fact is that the starting pitching, even without the addition of Lackey, should perform better than last season with a healthy Dice-K and an increasingly effective Buchholz. Replacing a run producer like Bay (RP of 186) with a similar player likely would have had a more positive impact on RD by keeping RF more in line with 2009.

The problem with the 2009 Red Sox was starting pitching. It was nicely masked by the fact that the bullpen was excellent (during the regular season), and the offense generated enough runs to compensate. One interesting note: the RD in 2009 was +136 ranking 2nd in the league, however, +62 (45%) was accrued versus the Baltimore Orioles.

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