NL West Defense: 2008 Projections

Brandi Griffith, on her blog "Purple Row", a Colorado Rockies site, has dissected the National League West bullpens and she graciously allowed us to use the study. If you like her work, perhaps we can ask if we could use similar pieces on the starters in the future.

I said I was going to do the bullpens next after having done lineups and rotations already, but I thought it might be important to insert this aspect of run prevention in this spot. Why I do this now is that I was realizing I was trying too hard to factor defense into the starting pitching evaluations I put up recently. Might as well just separate them out.

If I were to do that, LA and San Diego both probably pass Colorado momentarily when it comes to rotational strength and the Rockies drop to the bottom. As you'll see in a moment, I don't believe it will be by far enough to make any team other than the Diamondbacks better than the Rockies at run prevention when starters are on the mound.

In 2007, defense played a critical role in determining the two teams of the four contenders that went to the playoffs, and the two that did not. Don't believe me? Look at the Davenport Translations, FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) for each team from 2007:

1. Colorado +43 2. Arizona +23 3. San Francisco +8 4. San Diego -15 5. Los Angeles -18

That's a 61 run swing from LA to Colorado, a 58 run difference between the Padres and the Rockies.  That's a huge difference, completely erasing the advantage those two teams had on us in pitching in 2007. Taking my crystal ball out for 2008 doesn't show the status quo changing very much.

Catchers :
2007

1. Russell Martin, LA 2. Chris Snyder, AZ 3. Yorvit Torrealba, CO 4. Bengie Molina, SF 5. Josh Bard

I've got some major issues with the stats community's efforts to quantify catcher contributions, but that's mainly because I have some major issues with how catching stats are accumulated in the first place.

Jinaz at "On Baseball and the Reds" does an alright job at evaluating what happened at the position in 2007, but like many sabermetricians, in focusing almost completely on baserunning, he misses other important aspects of catcher fielding.

A couple of suggestions to help quantify this: check out each team's putouts at catcher minus the strikeouts for an idea of how the catcher does at fielding pop fouls and tagging out guys trying to reach home. The latter is a hugely critical play as it's a complete reversal by taking a run away from the offense and creating an out for the defense at the same time. Pop fouls are nifty bonus outs for the defense that are unappreciated but not as important.

The second area to look would be assists minus the caught stealing total as an indicator of the catcher's ability to field bunts and pick off runners. Colorado was better than most teams in both these areas mainly thanks to Yorvit, and I personally think it's enough to make up the difference between him and Snyder, with Martin still being quite a bit better. Look at the numbers and keep in mind that there's not an appreciable difference in the dimensions of foul ground behind home plate when it comes to Chase and Coors:

Snyder: PO-K(prorated): 9.27 A-CS: 29
Torrealba: PO-K(prorated): 23.67 A-CS: 41
Martin: PO-K(prorated): 36.32 A-CS: 44

Shortstop
I was going at this in the order of the Bill James defensive spectrum to show that the Rockies advantage comes from having their strongest defenders in the positions of greatest importance.

2007:

1. Troy Tulowitzki 2. Omar Vizquel 3. Rafael Furcal 4. Stephen Drew 5. Khalil Greene

For 2008, I'd expect another slight decline from Vizquel, but it won't be nearly enough to drop him to the Drew/Greene range. By every advanced fielding stat I've looked at, Tulo was about thirty runs ahead of the two trailers in the division defensively in 2007.

Second Base:
2007:

1. Orlando Hudson 2. Kazuo Matsui 3. Marcus Giles 4. Ray Durham 5. Jeff Kent

Two teams are experiencing some turnover at the position for 2008. Tad Iguchi was below average at second for the White Sox, above average at second with the Phillies, which overall makes him average -right where the Padres were last season. Jayson Nix could be better than Hudson. Since I'm a homer, and I can also figure on age wearing at the O-Dawg a little bit, I'll go ahead and say that will be the case.

Center Field:
Doing this exercise made me realize how lackluster center field defense was across the division in 2007. There are some major discrepancies between STATS, Baseball Info Solutions and MLBAM when it comes to monitoring the play by play data at this position as well and I don't know how to untangle it, so for 2007 this is just a straight up FRAA ranking.

2007:

1. Willy Taveras 2. Dave Roberts 3. Mike Cameron 4. Chris Young 5. Juan Pierre
The Dodgers have made a major defensive upgrade by getting Andruw, at least for 2008, while the Padres have likely lost a good chunk of value by not holding onto Cameron. Young should get better in Arizona. Roberts was either decent or close to terrible depending on where you get your defensive stats. At any rate Rowand should be at least a slight upgrade and Taveras had a down season last year by the standard he set in Houston.

So for next season, I'm going to guess that the Dodgers and Rockies will be vying for best at the position with Rowand and Young being the next tier and whoever winds up manning the position in San Diego (after Jim Edmonds' knees explode) will be way down on the totem pole.

Third Base:
2007:

1. Pedro Feliz 2. Mark Reynolds 3. Nomar Garciaparra, et al in LA 4. Kevin Kouzmanoff 5. Garrett Atkins

Pete Happy was in a class by himself as far as the rest of the division is concerned, with no other third baseman rating as above average. Reynolds came up through the D-backs system as a shortstop and might be just making an adjustment to the position, so he should improve in 2008. LaRoche isn't the greatest gloveman, but he isn't the liability Atkins and Kouzmanoff are or Garciaparra was in 2007.

Names besides Feliz associated with San Francisco will be an automatic downgrade. If they retain Pedro, they retain the top spot, if they go elsewhere, I'll give the slight nod to Arizona, with Los Angeles just behind. The Rockies become the best defensive unit in major league baseball by a pretty easy distance just by replacing Atkins with Ian Stewart.

Right Fielder:
2007:

1. Arizona's committee 2. Randy Winn 3. Ethier/Kemp 4. Brian Giles 5. Brad Hawpe
Brad needs his strong arm to be accurate to have any value as a right fielder, and last season it wasn't, so he ranked near the bottom of the majors at the position by nearly every stat I've checked. Arizona's top rating is in jeopardy for 2008 with more innings to Justin Upton, who for all his tools still takes bad routes and doesn't get very good reads on balls in play.

So for next season I'm going to put Winn on top, Kemp second, Upton third, and then Giles and Hawpe rounding out the bottom. Part of AZ's success in 2007 was liberal use of Jeff Salazar, who might be the best defensive right fielder in the division. Look for him to get a lot of late inning substitute assignments for Upton this year.

Left Field:
2007:

1. Eric Byrnes 2. Matt Holliday 3. San Diego's committee 4. Luis Gonzalez 5. Barry Bonds

Despite his circus flops while throwing, Byrnes has a sizable lead here, and should be the best defender in left in the division in 2008 as well. Holliday does alright for himself. Los Angeles will be good to very good in 2008 whenever Andre Ethier's playing, they won't be so hot when Juan Pierre's out there.

San Fran also will have a substantial upgrade by subtraction defensively, although certainly not enough to make up the loss on offense. San Diego's trying another hodgepodge in left it looks like, however this time the caliber of defense of the players involved appears substantially lower, so I'm expecting them to take up the rear in 2008.

First Base:
2007:

1. Todd Helton 2. Ryan Klesko/Aurilia/Ortmeier 3. Adrian Gonzalez 4. Conor Jackson/Tony Clark 5. Garciaparra/Loney

For 2008, look for Arizona and LA to flip as Loney's a superior defender to Jackson. Everything else should stay about the same as far as ranking goes.

Pitcher:
This is actually much higher on the defensive spectrum, but it's a group effort rather than mostly individual work like the rest, so I've saved it for last.

2007

1. San Diego 2. Los Angeles 3. Colorado 4. Arizona 5. San Francisco

The difference between the three teams in the middle was negligible. San Diego's edge has a whole lot to do with Greg Maddux. None of San Fran's starters field particularly well, so it's a group effort that leads them to the rear of the pack. Arizona had pretty good defense from it's starting rotation, but poor defense by the bullpen.

By contrast, all of LA's starters are just about average fielders, it's their bullpen -particularly Beimel and Saito- that fields especially well. Colorado gets good defense from Cook, Francis and Morales, but not so great D from Hirsh and Jimenez. There's a similar mix in the pen.

2008 figures to see a little change. I think the Padres retain the top spot, but the gap closes between them and the Dodgers as Kuroda's purportedly pretty decent. Livan Hernandez was the second best defending pitcher in the division, and Danny Haren is a poor defender replacing him. With more innings from Morales, the Rockies should move further ahead of the Diamondbacks in third. If Kip Wells sticks the full year, that probably won't be the case.

Summary Projections:
The Rockies aren't likely to get notably weaker at any position in 2008, with a possible exception of an age related step down by Helton. Upgrades appear to be coming at second and possibly center if Taveras bounces back.

Arizona's downgrading on the right side with full seasons of Upton and Jackson, although I know most scouts expect Upton to be a tremendous asset in the field someday. They do figure to get upgrades of experience with Chris Young and Mark Reynolds.

San Francisco figures to be better in the outfield but worse in the infield. I don't know if I'd take that trade-off.

Los Angeles has probably improved itself the most by moving Pierre, but there's still a lot of ground to make up and I really think San Diego has taken a step back this winter.

The Padres might be in the -25 range as far as fielding next year.

So for 2008:

1. Colorado +50? It seems very possible right now if Nix delivers.
2. Arizona +25  After everything, I see them right around the same level they were in 2007.
3. Los Angeles +5 to +15 depending on the playing time of LaRoche and Ethier.
4. San Francisco +0 The Giants are going backwards.
5. San Diego -25 I'm beginning to think the Padres might be the biggest disappointment in 2008.


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