Blue Jays: Could better defensive positioning help the infielders?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 27: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27, Richard Urena #7, Cavan Biggio #8, and Teoscar Hernandez #37 of the Toronto Blue Jays stand on the field in a break against the Tampa Bay Rays in the seventh inning during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on September 27, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 27: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27, Richard Urena #7, Cavan Biggio #8, and Teoscar Hernandez #37 of the Toronto Blue Jays stand on the field in a break against the Tampa Bay Rays in the seventh inning during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on September 27, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images) /

With the introduction of Statcast’s Infield OAA(Outs above average), can we decipher if the Blue Jays are positioning themselves correctly?

Defense is a very difficult thing to understand when it comes to baseball. Who is good? Who is bad? Historically we used metrics like fielding percentage to rate our fielders. But fielding percentage does not take into account all plays that weren’t made.

Over the last decade or two, the best publicly available metrics to measure defense were DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) and UZR(Ultimate Zone Rating). Both used a system of dividing the field into zones and creating a debit or credit system for plays normally made within each zone. But neither could account for shifts or positioning prior to the play.

In comes Statcast and their Infield OAA. Since Statcast can account for everything on the field and every movement, OAA can account for the distance needed to cover to make plays. Infielder metrics have many variables to consider. Speed of the ball in play. Distance to get to the ball. Time to make the play. And speed of the runner. Here is a full explanation of the metric if you are so inclined. Let’s just say this new metric takes in almost everything that goes on within a play. The Blue Jays ranked just above league average according to this metric.

Obviously this is a Blue Jays specific blog site. I promise I will relate all of this stuff to the Blue Jays soon enough, just bear with me for a few more moments.

The other day I came across an article by Eno Sarris, of The Athletic that I found intriguing. He surmised in his article that since UZR has not been able to account for shifts, it literally just throws out all plays that involved shifts. UZR tells you who is the best defenders from their original position.  But if you look at the differences between UZR and OAA you can figure out who is being positioned better.

A fielder that has a lower OAA than he does UZR would show a better-positioned fielder. The fielder may be a worse fielder, but his positioning is better. Positioning is very important when we are talking about the speeds at which the game moves in the MLB, especially on the infield. After coming across this info, I immediately started wondering how the Blue Jays would stack up.

We can also do the same analysis for the team as a whole on defense. We will be able to see which teams are positioned better than others. Here is a list of all MLB teams and their Infield OAA along with the cumulative UZRs of the infielders on each team.

Team                    IOAA    UZR    Diff
Padres                  -23       0.5    23.5
Mariners              -13       7.3    20.3
Orioles                  -22       -5      17
Yankees               -18      -4.6    13.4
Royals                    -6        7.4    13.4
Athletics                14       27.1   13.1
Mets                      -13       -1       12
Indians                     5       15.6    10.6
Rays                        -8       0.9       8.9
Phillies                    -6       0.3       6.3
Giants                      0        5.8       5.8
Angels                    22     26.8      4.8
Red Sox                  3         6.2       3.2
Tigers                    -2       -3.4     -1.4
Pirates                 -17    -18.6    -1.6
White Sox              0       -1.8     -1.8
Rangers                 4         1.5      -2.5
Marlins                 16      11.9      -4.1
Twins                   -14     -20.1     -6.1
Nationals               3        -3.3      -6.3
Reds                      14        6.8       -7.2
Cubs                      20       12.7     -7.3
Brewers               -1        -8.4      -7.4
Dodgers                 4        -9.6     -13.6
Diamondbacks   20         4.8     -15.2
Rockies                 33       13.6    -19.4
Blue Jays                5      -14.4    -19.4 *27th
Braves                   13     -10.3    -23.3
Cardinals               42        17        -25
Astros                    27        -4         -31

Finally, let’s talk about the Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays had some above-average guys at fielding the ball last year like Galvis, Smoak, Drury, and Biggio and in doing so, they rated above average with the Infield OAA. But according to UZR, the Blue Jays defense was terrible. This means that their fielders were above average at fielding balls, especially when they could get to the ball, but could have been positioned better.

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I understand that a lot of the Blue Jays value by Infield OAA was due to Galvis and he is with the Cincinnati Reds now. Also that Bichette did not rate too highly by the same metric. But I do expect improvement from Bichette in this coming season. And since this is a new metric, we are still unsure of year to year correlation. IE.

There could still be some distinct year to year differences.  Also if the Jays were positioned poorly, Galvis derived more value from making plays that were lower percentage plays thus creating more OAA value. He had a -1.8 UZR and a 12 OAA. The traditional metric did not show his true value. Many of us noted he was incredible defensively and OAA proved that.

He is a very good infielder and I can now see why the Reds are choosing him as their starting SS for the 2020 season.  If he was positioned better his UZR would have been higher and would have been able to make more plays.

We also know that Vlad Guerrero Jr. rated was the worst qualified infielder by OAA in 2019 as well, and could only be a matter of time before he is moved to first base. I imagine they stick it out one more year with him at third, but Travis Shaw is on the roster now and has rated as an above-average defender by OAA each of the last three years.

But the biggest take away for me is that with better positioning this team could be above average defensively. I understand the term “average” seems very mediocre. But the Blue Jays do not need to be elite defensively to be a great team. The Marlins were above average defensively and look where that got them, the Twins were terrible defensively and they won the AL Central. Also, Bill James always said that if you showed him a team full of league average (2-3 WAR players) and he would show you a playoff team. So when I say “above league average”, I mean it as a compliment. And if you don’t know who Bill James is, he is worth looking up.

The book is outdated now due to the changes in the game, but “Big Data Baseball” by Travis Sawchik talked about making improvements with talent already in the organization. The book specifically covered the 2012 Pirates team. The team that broke the Pirates playoff drought that dated back to 1992 when Barry Bonds was on the Pirates.

Making these internal improvements are free to the organization and can help add a few wins.  The Blue Jays have far more information than I, as Statcast does not give away all their info to the public. But the teams get it all, every terabyte of data. If they can take this Statcast information and position their infielders better, I am sure they can produce a few extra wins for free with the talent they already have.

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I do not view this as a bad thing. This is something that can easily be fixed with a couple of little tweaks. Just look at the Padres, they were terrible defenders according to OAA with Tatis and Hosmer and were not giving runs away according to UZR.  I am optimistic that the Blue Jays can improve on their position in the upcoming season.