Sunday, June 13, 2004

Dodgers Vs. Red Sox, 13 June 2004

Pokey Reese just made a breathtaking Spud Webb jump to prevent Dave Roberts from hitting a gapper with two men on. I'm reminded of this game. Kip Wells took a no-hitter into the eighth despite not throwing particularly well, largely because Reese made about four similarly amazing plays to prevent base hits.

I was at that game, and I later told Ryan (the quiet one, over to your right) about Pokey's heroics and argued that if Reese could prevent even a half a hit per game, he'd be an above average second baseman overall. Mainstream saber writers at the time (read: Rob Neyer) often argued that the conventional wisdom crowd overvalued defense, and Ryan looked at Reese's anemic offensive numbers and told me I was out of my mind, and that Reese's defense couldn't possibly be that valuable.

Well, the CW crowd and I were probably right on this one, at least given what we know now. Baseball Prospectus thinks Reese saved nine runs more than the average second baseman over the past three years despite missing most of 2003 to injury, and even that seems conservative. Range Factor (a measure of the number of plays a fielder makes per game) says he's made about one more play per game than the average second baseman over that period. There are a lot of problems with Range Factor, such as the fact that it does not account for the number of balls hit in a fielder's direction. The fact that Jack Wilson has a slightly above-average Range Factor over the same period serves as a warning that Pokey's RFs might be a bit overblown, since most serious defensive metrics rate Wilson a below-average defender and Wilson and Reese played behind the same pitching staffs in 2002 and 2003.

So let's look at Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) stat, which not only factors in the number of balls hit a fielder's way but also park effects, groundball-to-flyball ratios of pitching staffs, and the types of balls (line drives, etc.) hit in the direction of each fielder. Reese's UZRs at second base have been fantastic - he was twenty runs above average in 2003 (or he would have been, if he'd played 162 games), and twenty-six runs above average per 162 games from 1999 to 2001.

The point is that by any serious metric I'm aware of, Pokey Reese is simply an excellent defender, excellent enough to more than offset his poor hitting. In the case of his defense, the stats confirm what the observational evidence tells us. His hitting is still another story, of course (although he did hit an impressive drive off the Green Monster today), but there's at least a small chance that even his offense may eventually be respectable. According to Baseball Reference, the player most similar to Reese through age 30 is Tony Phillips. If Reese can learn to control the strike zone like Phillips did, he'll be nearly as valuable with his bat as he is with his glove. Of course, Phillips was a very unusual player; it's much more likely that Reese's career path will follow those of his second- and third- most-similar players, the weak-hitting Andre Rodgers and Billy Martin. Both of them flamed out by age 33. Enjoy Reese's spectacular defense now: there may not be too many years of it left.

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