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Last winter the Tampa Bay Rays made a trade with the Minnesota Twins. It was notable mostly because the Rays sent Delmon Young, once the No. 1 prospect in the game according to Baseball America, to Minnesota in exchange for Matt Garza, a promising young pitcher in his own right. Included in the deal, but largely forgotten, were four other players, including Jason Bartlett.
Yet, for the same reason that Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu struggled to find a contract to their liking this winter, Bartlett wound up being a vitally important piece of that deal.
It all has to do with defense, and if Moneyball, Michael Lewis' 2003 profile of A's general manager Billy Beane, ushered in an era where major league teams and fans suddenly became concerned with sabermetrics and on-base percentage, then fielding guru John Dewan and others like him could do the very same for advanced defensive analysis.
"Ten or 15 years ago, all we had [to measure defense] was fielding percentage," Dewan, who released the second volume of The Fielding Bible this February, tells FanHouse. "That might only tell you 5 percent of the information you want."
Fielding percentage, of course, is problematic because it only accounts for plays missed because of an error (a subjective designation in the first place), not because of things like poor range or positioning.
Dewan, who first published The Fielding Bible in 2005 and has been studying defense for the past six years, speculates that his work can tell us about 60 percent of what we want to know about defense. And he speaks excitedly about the ability to convert that work into the hard currency of baseball, runs, an ability that allows him to compare the value of defense and offense directly and in simple terms.
Once the president of STATS Inc., Dewan now has an ownership stake in Baseball Info Solutions -- a company that counts a number of major league teams as clients and whose singular mission is to break America's pastime into digestible bits of data. Because of that, you might think that he's working with complex proprietary formulas. In reality, the evaluation of defense is a painstakingly simple process.
Dewan and a team of video scouts chart and categorize every batted ball in every major league game every season, doling out credit for a play made that the average player at a position wouldn't make and likewise taking it away when a play isn't made. In the end, they get a plus-minus rating that tells how many plays in a season an individual player has made above or below average and relative to position. That can in turn be converted into runs.
"We even have a category that's called 'fliner,'" Dewan says as he attempts to describe how detailed the process is. "It's for those balls that don't really fit as a fly ball or a line drive."
It's heady stuff, but it's also the next wave of analysis, a wave only beginning to cascade through the major leagues.
"There's a lot of room for improvement from major league teams," he says, rattling off examples in support.
He predicts that a select group of right-handed hitters who pull the ball on the ground almost 90 percent of the time will face an infield shift this season similar to what left-handed sluggers Jim Thome and David Ortiz see routinely. He talks about how Gold Glove Pirates star Nate McLouth is actually suspect defensively on balls that are hit deep, likely a result of playing too shallow in center.
Don't be surprised if teams begin to lean heavily on that kind of analysis in the near future.
The acquisition of Bartlett (coupled with the ascent of Evan Longoria) helped the Rays go from one of the worst defensive teams in the majors to one of the best, bracing the development of an emerging young pitching staff. The best defensive team in the majors last year according to Dewan? Naturally, it was the Philadelphia Phillies, who took down Tampa Bay in last year's World Series.
"The difference between the best team and the worst team defensively last year was 130 runs," says Dewan. "The difference offensively was 260 runs, so defense is about 50 percent the value of offense.
"With an average defense [the Phillies] wouldn't even have made the playoffs."
And with the margin for error so slim and the potential payoff so big, clubs have little choice but to start focusing their attention on defense as the analysis of it evolves rapidly.
As for Dewan, he's constantly looking for new ways to improve his information. That includes analyzing pitcher and catcher defense, positioning and a myriad of other as yet unexplored factors in glovework.
"I spent 10 years in insurance, now I consider myself a baseball actuary," he says. "We're always looking to analyze data and find a way to make it mean something."