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White Sox notes from The Fielding Bible Volume IV

Defensive reference guide says positioning is why Gordon Beckham's metrics have never matched his ability

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

My primary purpose in picking up the fourth volume of The Fielding Bible was to examine the way Robin Ventura increased his usage of shifts. It accomplished that purpose, sure, but it turns out there's a ton of other valuable information, both statistical and observational.

Take Gordon Beckham. for instance. Over the years, we have listened to Hawk Harrelson tell us that he's the best second baseman in the American League. Most of us won't go that far, but the general consensus around here is that Beckham is a good second baseman, and great on the pivot. Likewise, the Fans Scouting Report on FanGraphs reflects this solidifying reputation.

Yet the metrics haven't been nearly as enthusiastic about his overall defensive value. Whether looking at UZR or Defensive Runs Saved, he has always graded out at average, give or take a couple runs from year to year. It's never really made sense, but there's enough of a sample size that something must be holding him back.

The most valid theory pertained to where he set up on the field, perhaps in order to cover for the massive range deficiencies that plagued the first basemen next to Beckham (Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn, mainly). Indeed, The Fielding Bible says positioning is the problem -- but not laterally.

The write-up for Beckham's defense is lengthier than the others, mostly because this divide also shows up in TFB's own metrics. Beckham was three runs above average according to DRS, good for only 14th in the league. However, TFB's Scout's Defensive Rating showed that Beckham saved 10 plays in 2014, good for fourth-best in baseball. So what gives?

The discrepancy is a matter of poor positioning and instincts. Gordon plays shallower than almost every other second baseman, costing him a valuable fraction of a second before a hot grounder rushes by him. Though his athleticism is as good as it gets at second base, Beckham's lack of instincts have kept him from stepping ahead of the pack.

The Strong Arm of Beckham should have allowed him to play deeper, so this tendency still seems somewhat incongruous as described. Maybe the Sox ignored it. Maybe Beckham played where he was comfortable. Maybe the Sox' own metrics and reports say differently. Or maybe the problems at first base -- or Konerko's gravitational pull -- kept Beckham closer than most second basemen had to play.


Along the same lines, it also confirmed what we had learned about Tyler Flowers' ability to catch the low strike, along with an unintended consequence (or knowing tradeoff).

"The first aspect that most will notice about Flowers' game is his pitch framing and the distinct low target that he gives to each and every pitcher that he works with on the staff. Flowers will set up with a target consistently below the strike zone in hopes of establishing the lower part of the zone. [...] This works for Flowers in terms of the lower half of the strike zone, but he has trouble convincing umpires of the high strike."

Regarding his throwing, Flowers  had one of the slowest pop times in baseball (two seconds from the catcher's mitt to the infielder's glove), but he compensated with the fifth-most accurate arm, according to the amount of time it took for the infielder to apply the tag. His first two throws of the 2015 season might have put him in a little bit of a hole in these departments.


Five more observations that stood out for one reason or another:

Bad news, Jose Abreu: "Abreu's first season defensively was one of the worst by any first baseman in baseball in 2014."

Good news, Adam LaRoche: "Possesses the calmest defensive approach in baseball. He has the ability of making every out made seem effortless, which makes for some of the most aesthetically pleasing defensive play at first base. LaRoche picks baseballs out of the first with a subtle flip of the glove." (It then goes on to criticize his declining playmaking ability on grounders, but hey, the guy can scoop.)

Mostly good news Adam Eaton: "Eaton saved the Sox 11 runs with his range and positioning in 2014, the fifth-highest total in baseball.  ... In 2014, he cost the team two runs with his arm, while baserunners advanced an extra base 60 percent of the time on balls to hit to him."

Bad news, Melky Cabrera: "Cabrera still has enough speed to cover up for some of his mistakes, and he has pretty good range when he does get a good jump on the ball. Overall, though, his struggles in getting to catchable balls negate any positives he brings with his arm and athleticism."

Good news, Melky Cabrera: "To put it bluntly, Dayan Viciedo is one of the worst defensive corner outfielders in baseball. Both visual evidence of well below average athleticism and Viciedo's poor defensive numbers indicate that he is unable to cover ground at an acceptable level."