For months and months, the folks at MLB Advanced Media with access to Statcast data have been showing ways they can map outfielders’ range.
Now, one of the toys they had been playing with is available for public consumption. At Baseball Savant, player pages for outfielders now have a “Defensive Charts” tab, which makes it easy to compare their playmaking abilities.
They’re just getting started, so the information is far from complete and customizable. They don’t yet include every outfielder, and things like overlays are in the works.
The limitations crushed a couple of my early dreams. Because Avisail Garcia is a DH in the system -- he made more than half his appearances there in 2016 — he doesn’t have a “Defensive Charts” tab. So I couldn’t compare Garcia with Adam Eaton in right field, which probably would’ve been gruesome.
For that matter, I also wanted to compare Garcia to Melky Cabrera. Neither is anybody’s idea of a good defensive outfielder, but I’ve felt that Cabrera seldom botches flies he can actually get to, which is why I spare him the “butcher” label. His charts show that he’s not a mess with the easier flies, but some context among below-average outfielders would help. I have a feeling that Garcia misses more of those plays, but I could also be unfair to Garcia because I expect more from his foot speed.
So we’re left with Plan C: comparing the non-Eaton center fielders, Austin Jackson and J.B. Shuck. It’d be fun to include Eaton, but it looks like the first iteration of this data doesn’t let one isolate outfield positions. All of Jackson’s appearances came in center field, and Shuck only played 36 innings in the corners, so Jackson-Shuck is one intra-2016 comparison with a decent sample and minimal noise.
Let’s start by comparing what we’ve seen with what we’ll find out. My impressions, based on watching them and an awareness of their metrics, is that Jackson makes center field look easier, but he isn’t necessarily good. In fact, Shuck might have just as much success on the edges of their range. However, whatever great plays he makes are nullified by poor routes on what should’ve been less-stressful catches. Jackson’s edge in competency would become apparent in a couple weeks, if not sooner.
Here’s how they compared using these traditional and advanced fielding metrics.
That squares up with the impressions so far. Now, let’s look at the new stuff via Baseball Savant.
First, we’ll compare Jackson and Shuck side-by-side in catches using a normalized starting point (you can de-normalize them to get the raw data, but normalizing makes sense, as it tracks distance and direction just the same.)
Advantage: Shuck. Shuck more than held his own on the edges of his range — in fact, he covered more ground on his catches than Jackson did, both to the gaps and behind him. Jackson’s tougher catches — the white/pink/red dots -- are more readily apparent, suggesting a better handle on hard-hit balls, but a few of Shuck’s are covered.
Advantage: Jackson. At first glance, the range of hits seems roughly to be the same size. But on Shuck’s charts, you see a greater number of dots with deeper blue tints, which are the more catchable balls. He especially struggled on balls in front of him, whereas Jackson had more problems on flies where he had to break back, and to his left. (However, Tango notes that some missed “easy” catches near the warning track on these diagrams may be wall-balls, and that’s one of the areas in need of refining.)
At this point, I’d give Jackson the nod, but slightly. Depending on the leverage of the misplays involved, they might even be indistinguishable.
Fortunately, there’s another set of visuals that makes it easier to count misplays. Below the diamonds are charts that categorize all batted balls regardless of direction using hang-time as the y-axis and distance as the x-axis.
Base hits allowed, catches for outs
Advantage: Jackson. Theeeeere we go. These charts work well in concert with the diamonds, because they validate the most apparent aspects while also quantifying what might be hidden.
In this case, you can see that Shuck can hang with Jackson in terms of range. He made more catches requiring 100 feet of ground, and the hits he allowed toward the edges of his range were of respectable difficulty.
Now, look at the top two charts and count the number of dots in the purple and gray. Those are the fly balls on the easier side of the spectrum. Jackson has one clear “easy” catch he didn’t make, and another one in “routine” that borders “tough.” We’ll call it 1½.
Shuck has six misplays that don’t even approach “tough.” While a difference of four or five plays doesn’t seem that drastic, we’re not even working with a half-season’s sample here. Over a full season, that’s about 10 to 15 balls. Think of them as errors. Everybody would notice 10 or 15 more errors from one position rather easily.
Now, I’m more aware than anybody that I won’t win a Nobel in physics, economics and/or literature for this discovery (which sucks, because Stockholm is awesome). All it took was Jackson missing a few games with a toe injury for this tendency to reveal itself:
(And talk about a high-leverage misplay. That should’ve been the third out. Instead, an extra run scored in the sixth inning. The Tigers’ win expectancy jumped by 8 percent, and it would’ve been more if Brett Lawrie didn’t make a great recovery to get the trailing runner.)
As much as I may be restating the obvious, it’s worthwhile to monkey around with the data to see how it reflects things about which we’re fairly certain before we start using it on players with whom we’re far less familiar. By the time the White Sox start adding MLB-caliber outfielders, we should have this stuff down cold.