BILL JAMES ONLINE

Carl's Defense

August 10, 2020

 

 

It is my understanding that Carl Yastrzemski (a) was generally regarded as an outstanding defensive left fielder, but (b) does not have very good defensive statistics, very good range numbers, because he played in Fenway Park, where the left field area is small compared to other parks.   Let us accept for the sake of argument that these assumptions are true and move on; it doesn’t actually matter whether they are true or not, they are just here to illuminate the problem.  IF that is true, what does the analyst do about it? 

 

 

 

            Sabermetrics is not generally about "what if" questions.   Sabermetrics does not generally worry about what if questions.  It does not and cannot answer them with confidence.  Suppose that we start with Carl Furillo, Dodgers.   (I thought we were starting with Carl Yastrzemski?)  Suppose that we start with Carl Furillo.   Carl Furillo could have played Center Field for that great Dodgers team, rather than right field.  We know that he could have, because he did, for most of three years, until the Dodgers came up with Duke Snider.  Furillo was the Dodgers’ #1 center fielder in 1946, 1947 and 1948.  As much as we can judge, he was pretty good; the Dodgers were 84 games over .500 in those three seasons (96-60, 94-60, 84-70), and Furillo’s putout numbers were good.  He made 276 putouts in 764 innings in center in 1946, and 274 in 781 innings in 1948.   The league average was less than one putout for every three innings in center, so a guy making more than one putout every three innings for a championship team looks like a good center fielder.   In 1948, when Snider and Furillo split the center field job with others, Furillo made easily more putouts per 9 innings than Snider did. 

Furillo moved to right field, and that is what we know him as, that is what we evaluate him as, but what if he had stayed in center field?  Might he not then be a Hall of Famer?

It’s impossible to answer.  We can’t evaluate him as a center fielder.  We can’t evaluate him based on what-ifs.   It doesn’t make any difference—and further, if you DO go down that road, you find yourself wandering lost in a forest of unanswerable questions.  What if the Royals had come up with Willie Wilson before they came up with Amos Otis?  Otis would have had to play left.  How would we evaluate him then?  What if Hal McRae hadn’t destroyed his ankle in the minor leagues in 1968?  He would probably have been the center fielder on the Big Red Machine—the job that went first to Bobby Tolan, then to Cesar Geronimo after Tolan snapped his Achilles Tendon.    Wouldn’t McRae clearly be in the Hall of Fame if that had happened?   What if Tolan hadn’t gotten hurt?  How would we evaluate him then?  What if Denkinger had called Iorg out?  What if there had been replay?  What about Gil Hodges?  People who watched that team would say that Hodges could have played shortstop.  The Dodgers had Pee Wee at short and Jackie at second and needed a first baseman, so they put Hodges on first, but should this decision keep him out of the Hall of Fame? 

The number of what-if questions that pop up if one attempts to shoot them down is endless, and trying to answer them is not what sabermetrics is about.  In this form, people understand this and accept it.    The question of "What if Carl Yastrzemski had played in some other park?" is a what-if question, on a certain level no more legitimate of a subject for sabermetric evaluation than any other what-if speculation.  The confusion comes from the overlap of questions.  The overlapping question which confuses the issue is "How good of an outfielder was Carl Yastrzemski?" 

Sabermetrics does not and cannot directly answer questions like "How good. ..?"  "How good" is (a) comprehensive, (b) unlimited, and (c) a value judgment.  "How good" includes EVERYTHING.   What Sabermetrics does is to define the more limited questions which give us valuable information about the unlimited questions.   Sabermetrics creates a pathway toward understanding.  Value is in Wins; wins are created by runs, losses are created by outs.  The pathway toward evaluating Carl Yasztremski’s defense—or Carl Furillo’s, or Carl Crawford’s—is built by posing a series of limited and answerable questions, like this:

1)     How many runs did Carl save for his team?

2)     How many runs did he have the opportunity to save?

3)     What was the win value of each run saved? 

The question of "How many runs did Carl save for his team?" breaks down into about 5,000 other, smaller questions.  I have been working on all of those questions for the last four or five months.   After we have a consensus understanding of that one, then we can go on to the next one. . . .or you can go on to the next one; I’m an old man and won’t necessarily be around to participate in all of these discussions.   The question of how the park effected his ability to save runs can also be studied in hundreds of different ways.  You can take 50 years of Fenway Park box scores, and look at how many plays per game the left fielders made in Fenway and how many they made on the road, and how many plays per game opposing left fielders made in Fenway and how many in the Red Sox road games. 

A big thing is the doubles.  Fenway Park is a great park for doubles, because of the Green Monster and also because of the right field wall curving rapidly backward from the Pesky Pole.   There are a substantial number of balls which would be fly outs in another park which become doubles in Fenway because they hit the Monster before they hit the left fielder’s glove, and there are also a substantial number of balls that would be doubles or homers in another park which become singles in Fenway because they ricochet off the wall too quickly to allow the batter to get to second.  But there is also a range of in-between balls in Fenway, unlike plays in other parks, which can be doubles off the wall or singles with the runner thrown out at second, depending on how the left fielder plays them.   Yastrzemski’s reputation as a great defensive left fielder was mostly based on those either/or plays.   Documenting that ability, finding a way to measure it, is not a what-if exercise; it is a real-life problem.  It is also not easy.  It would be a lot of work.   But it is a legitimate sabermetric issue, rather than a what-if problem.  

You can think what you want to about it, but my understanding of this issue derives from discussions in the late 1970s.  We were exploring and documenting park effects, which had not previously been documented for the most part, and we were becoming aware for the first time of how differently some players would be evaluated if it were not for the parks that they played in.  We were trying to adjust players into a neutral context, which is a what-if exercise, and this was leading to unresolvable problems.  Eventually the discussion settled on the comparison of Elston Howard to Bill Dickey.   

Bill Dickey and Elston Howard, both Yankee catchers, both played their best years in the same park.  Yankee Stadium’s park effects relative the league were essentially the same in Howard’s era as they were in Dickey’s era.  Their careers are of roughly the same length, and Howard won an MVP Award, which Dickey never did. 

The park, however, was great for Dickey, and terrible for Howard.  Dickey hit 135 career homers in Yankee, 67 on the road.  Howard hit 54 in his home parks, 113 on the road.  There are three reasons Dickey is in the Hall of Fame and Howard is not, none of which have anything to do with ability.  The three reasons are:  (1) Yogi Berra blocked Howard during what would have been Howard’s best seasons, (2) the park helped Dickey and ruined Howard, and (3) the hitting numbers were much bigger in the 1930s than in the 1960s, which misleads people in their evaluation.   If you project both Dickey and Howard into a neutral environment and given the same opportunity, let us assert for the sake of argument that Howard is clearly greater than Dickey.  

But the problem is (a) it is the same park, and (b) in establishing the value of each player, you cannot adjust real wins and real losses out of existence.   If Dickey is able to take advantage of that park and Howard is not, there are real wins and real losses that result from that ability.   The foundation of sabermetrics is that individual production by players explains wins and losses.   If you blow up that bridge between performance and wins, you’re not doing sabermetrics, you’re just farting around with statistics.

What matters is not what Dickey or Howard "would have done" in another park or in a neutral park.  What matters is, In the time and place where he played, how many games did he win for his team?   How much opportunity space is there for him, and what did he do with it? 

The sabermetric pathway for a hitter is:

1)     How many runs did he create?

2)     How many outs did he make?

3)     How many wins resulted from those runs? 

That is as close as you are going to get to the question of "How good was he?"—and it involves no what-if questions.  And my answer to the question of "How many runs would Carl Yastrzemski have saved, playing in another park?" is "It doesn’t make any difference.  He did what he did.  He created the number of runs that he created; he saved the number that he saved.  That’s the best answer you can get that has value.   The what-if stuff is not creating knowledge; it is just farting around with statistics." 

If you start with the question "How good of a defensive outfielder was Carl Yastrzemski?", then you are forcing yourself to address a question that you cannot answer.   If you use the sabermetric pathway, you have an explanation for Yastrzemski’s defense:  Yastrzemski saved relatively fewer runs than other left fielders, but this was not because of his skills.  It was because the park limited his ability to save runs."  But if you start with the question "How good of a defensive outfielder was Yastrzemski?" then you have left the sabermetric pathway, and you will never reach your goal.   That’s what I believe.

You will note that I have left three doorways open here.   The three doorways are:

(1)  That there is still much work that could be done in documenting Yastrzemski’s defense, such as his ability to prevent doubles, and

(2)  That sabermetric methods may be useful in addressing what-if questions, even though what-if questions are not a part of sabermetrics.   What-if questions are not a part of sabermetrics because they do not and cannot produce knowledge, and sabermetrics is a process of building pathways to understanding based on knowledge.

(3)  What-if questions are vital to a baseball team in real time.     In looking at the future, not at the past, but in looking at the future, everything is a what-if question.  What if we move this starter to the bullpen?  What if we move our shortstop to second base?  What if we sign this man as a free agent; what will he hit in our park?  What if we bring this player out of the minor leagues?  

The future is a long list of what-if questions.  My point is that the past is not.  Carl Yastrzemski is retired.  Carl Furillo is dead; he’s been dead for 30 years.  Asking what-if questions about them, in my view, is no longer of any value.    

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (16 Comments, most recent shown first)

KaiserD2
Leaving aside the question of whether Furillo might have made the Hall, I agree that the Dodgers would undoubtedly have been stronger with him in center field and Snider in right. He was a substantially better outfielder.

David Kaiser
9:24 PM Sep 9th
 
tjmaccarone
I think there are at least three peculiarities of defense in left field in Fenway from the Wall's location. The runners thrown out at second on would-be doubles (or even would be homers) is the obvious one. But the fielders who field the Wall well also turn doubles into singles where the runner pulls up at first, and this probably happens a lot more often than the outs. This is probably the hardest thing to pull out of the older statistical data.

The other thing that happens is that some guys who really aren't fast play very shallow there -- the Wall is close in, but there's also almost no foul ground, so balls hit hard down the line can't get away from a fielder, either (and often ricochet into shallow left, anyway). Manny Ramirez played extremely shallow for a few seasons, and for all his flaws defensively, Manny also had a strong and accurate arm, and threw a lot of guys out at home, and probably caused runners starting on second to get held up at third on singles a lot, too.
11:51 AM Sep 9th
 
garywmaloney
Re Yaz's performance in the field -- there is something that might prove useful for anecdote and observation.

About 20 DVDs of 1966-71 Boston Red Sox clips, many from home games in Fenway, now circulate in the hands of private collectors. A few of these have appeared on youtube already. The source is the local Boston TV station that broadcast Sox games during the period.

These represent excerpt from more than 70 different games. This unusual cache likely provides considerable evidence of Yaz's adeptness (or lack thereof) in the field. To these might be added the clips (from the same source) in the 1967 "Impossible Dream" film.

Someone like John Dewan and his team of +/- fielding analysts could probably make some excellent judgments on plays missed / made in left field.
8:59 PM Aug 13th
 
shthar
is the 23% difference in PO's unique to Carl, or is this something that happens to ALL outfielders at Fenway?

Same question for the assists.
5:32 PM Aug 12th
 
pgups6
Tremendous! To this point, when it comes to Hall voting, we should be judging them on their actual accomplishments and not be so hung up on context neutral. You hear all the time if player X didn't play for team Y then he wouldn't have been as good blah blah blah. He did what he did. And then the sabermetrics help us better understand the extent of those accomplishments and whether they warrant praise.
12:53 PM Aug 12th
 
MarisFan61
Hey, you're right!!

("Dane Iorg" had seemed pretty good to me.)
4:41 PM Aug 11th
 
isaaclightstone
Wasn't it Jorge Orta and not Dane Iorg?
6:20 PM Aug 10th
 
bjames



BTW, thanks to the magic of retrosheet, I did a quick analysis of Yaz's stats for his career. There was definitely a measurable effect. For his career, he averaged about 171 POs per 80 games on the road versus 139 at home which is a 23% increase. He also had 30% more assists at home to the point of his ability to throw out hitters going for doubles.



This is very helpful. Thanks.
11:02 AM Aug 10th
 
evanecurb
NY at KC, 1963. Great shot of Elston Howard home run at 3:40 of this clip. What a beautiful swing! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FHafsz-p-k
10:37 AM Aug 10th
 
jwilt
I don't think there's anything wrong with doing analysis to gain insight into questions that don't tie directly back to past wins and losses. It's interesting to think through questions like Dickey's vs. Howard's overall abilities in a neutral context.
9:30 AM Aug 10th
 
3for3
Dickey vs Howard for the Hall: Reason 4: Far more players from the 1930s are in the Hall than the 1960s.​
9:00 AM Aug 10th
 
evanecurb
Very good explanation of the difference in the use of baseball statistics to interpret past performance and the use of baseball statistics to project future performance. I found this to be valuable.

I also enjoy farting around with statistics. It’s good to remember that it’s not sabrmetrics.
7:37 AM Aug 10th
 
337
Your argument about Howard and Dickey (or Howie and Richard, if we want to reverse the informalities) is cemented by adding another hypothetical: what if Yogi had had an even longer stardom? If Yogi were (somehow) to have played an MVP-level full-time catching role for a Fisk-like period of time, catching 140 games into his early 40s and thus reducing Howie to a mere glimmer of his actual career, would we even be discussing the comparison of Howie to Richard? Since that's a very clear No, it makes your point even clearer.
7:25 AM Aug 10th
 
willibphx
Bill

To your point, as I understand it, you are working to measure the value a player created in a season measured by runs prevented for that team in the conditions played under. This would allow you to compare which player added the most or least value to his team. The question of who was a better player is a different question. It is not just semantics and a lot many people immediately leap from one to the other. BTW, thanks to the magic of retrosheet, I did a quick analysis of Yaz's stats for his career. There was definitely a measurable effect. For his career, he averaged about 171 POs per 80 games on the road versus 139 at home which is a 23% increase. He also had 30% more assists at home to the point of his ability to throw out hitters going for doubles.
6:40 AM Aug 10th
 
MarisFan61
P.S. Forget the little thing about Gil Hodges.
The thing I was getting at was just a mistake.

It looked to me from his baseball-ref.com pages that he never played in the minors, but as I walked away, I thought I remember that he did (and that maybe his main position was actually catcher), so I looked harder, and I see that he did have 1 year in the minors.
(Baseball-ref doesn't show what position he played there, but that's not the point -- I was going for a punch line that was based on a mistake.)
5:51 AM Aug 10th
 
MarisFan61
Love it, through and through.
Given that I know that my views are often outlying in an environment like this, I think the kind of material in this article is more important for the field at this moment than any concrete analytic advance, because (I think) it so much emphasizes basic conceptual aspects that are relatively lacking. This isn't to doubt the importance of concrete analytic advances (i.e. in methodologies), but to emphasize how much it seems most work in the field lacks sufficient recognition of the conceptions in this article.
I'll highlight this in particular: Sabermetrics does not and cannot directly answer questions like "How good. ..?" "How good" is (a) comprehensive, (b) unlimited, and (c) a value judgment. "How good" includes EVERYTHING. What Sabermetrics does is to define the more limited questions which give us valuable information about the unlimited questions. Sabermetrics creates a pathway toward understanding."

------------

P.S. The material about Gil Hodges made me wonder what position he played in the minors, before the Dodgers put him at 1B, so I checked.
I wonder how many of our members know, without peeking..... (I sure didn't)
5:18 AM Aug 10th
 
 
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