Saturday, March 13, 2004

UZR for Dummies: Ty Wigginton 

[Edit: a revised version of this article can be found published as a featured article at Amazinz.com]

To the naked eye it looked like Ty Wigginton did a good job at third base for the Mets last year. As a converted second basemen, 2003 was Wigginton's first full year manning a hot corner and he exceeded many Mets fans expectations. At the end of the season Wigginton found himself in the top half of many defensive statistics among everyday MLB third basemen. Considering that only about a year ago Wigginton could not afford to go out to eat at McDonald's with his teammates, I'm sure he was thrilled just to be an everyday Major League third basemen. Wigginton was right in the middle of the pack in fielding percentage. Thanks to a Mets pitching staff that put the ball in play, Wigginton had the fourth most chances among third basemen. And with all those chances, Wigginton only committed 16 errors, which was only three more errors than NL Gold Glove third basemen Scott Rolen and only two more than AL Gold Glove third basemen Eric Chavez. In addition, Wigginton was second in put outs behind only Chavez and sixth in assists, placing him tenth in range factor. Wigginton was eighth in turning two as well. Not to mention Wiggy lead the Mets in BOC (barreling over catchers). Are these Gold Glove numbers? Probably not. At the very least, however, they show that while learning on the job, in only one season, Wigginton somehow managed to mold himself into a solid defensive Major League third basemen. Or so I thought until I noticed that Wigginton ranked second to last among third basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating, or "UZR." (see UZR Part I and II).

I understood the broad concept of UZR but how it actually works was really quite alien to me. My original understanding was that UZR broke the field down into zones and assigned each position player his own series of zones. The player's ability to convert balls hit in a zone of responsibility into an out is good. Not converting such a ball into an out is bad. In light of the statistic showing up in a few mainstream sports media articles recently (NY Post and ESPN.com) combined with my surprise to see Wigginton so low in its rankings in relation to his rank in other more traditional stats, I thought I should study up and try to get a better understanding of the metric as well as try to figure out the Wiggy discrepancy. Hell, I'm a smart guy. My mom always said I was "special" before she put me on the short yellow school bus in the morning. I can figure this out, right? Ugh, not really.

Mitchel Lichtman, who developed UZR, is obviously pretty damn smart. Maybe too smart. Perhaps he wrote his two part UZR article as a sabermagician for sabermagicians, and that's all well and good. But let us non mathematical wizards join in all the stat geek games will ya. What I really need is a UZR for Dummies. I need something that finds a happy middle-ground between the Tim McCarver and Joe Morgans of the world and the Mitchel Lichtmans. It just seems sabermetrics as a whole would have much better success in being accepted and implemented, which would be a good thing, if the sabermagicians did a better job "dumbing it down" for the rest of us every so often (to their credit, Baseball Prospectus does a good job of this in their new BP Basics series). Give me a chart, a picture, a graph, anything other than,

Now, just like the "extra" positive value of a "caught ball" is 1 minus .57, the "extra" negative value of a hit is the .57 itself (an average ball hit into zone 56 gets caught 57% of the time, so when a ball isn't caught, the responsible fielders, in this case the SS and third baseman, get "docked" .57 balls).

As I was reading the article I started to feel really stupid for not knowing what "lwts hit values" and "non-ROE errors" were. But I found a glimmer of hope when I noticed that Mr. Lichtman, the UZR-BMOC, even made a slight error in methodology in his article. This made me happy. But there is still no Idiots Guide to UZR so I had to give myself a crash course using the gobbly gook (yes, I know, very scientific term) and see why it is that Wigginton can post such respectable traditional fielding stats but be God awful in UZR. Basically, whether I'm right or wrong I have come to the conclusion that Wiggy does not have great range but looking at UZR in isolation does not appear to be the best way to measure a corner infielders' defensive abilities.

Using some kind of flex capacitor bolted onto a Delorean, UZR reveals that Wigginton actually cost the Mets 24 runs over 162 games. I understand that Wigginton plays with a football player's mentality, but damn Wiggy, 24 runs is three touchdowns and a field goal! Using traditional fielding statistics and our own eyes, Wigginton seemed like he did a decent job last year in displaying the three most critical skills of a third basemen: quick reaction; a strong throwing arm; and soft hands. Not to mention that he did a good job turning the double play. But UZR appears to either ignore or undervalue some of these skills. For example, UZR does not look at an infielder's ability to turn two or the ability to snag line drives. Let me repeat that. UZR does not take into consideration the scorched line drives rocketed off bats toward or in the general vicinity of a third basemen who, other than the pitcher, is usually closest fielder to the batter. They don't call the position the hot corner for nothing yet UZR does not take these balls into consideration.

Also, third basemen's throwing ability appears to be undervalued in that his throw to first base is weighed the same as a shortstop's and second basemen's throw, despite the fact that the third basemen's throw is significantly more difficult. Some argue that the third to first throw is the most difficult throw to make on the field. At the same time, even though the difficulty level in the three throws is different, the throwing errors appear to be weighed the same. So, to me at least, it seems a third basemen's arm can never help him in UZR but only hurt him. With these exclusions, as the UZR article states, when analyzing infielders "only ground balls, including bunts, are looked at." Therefore, some of the most critical skills of a third basemen - quick reaction on hard hit line drives, a strong and accurate throwing arm, and the ability to turn a double play - go virtually unnoticed and unrewarded in UZR. UZR seems like a great tool, perhaps the best metric, in measuring middle infielders and outfielders, particularly center fielders, since these are positions whose players must cover a lot of real estate. The more ground a center fielder can cover, the more valuable he is. However, relying on UZR alone is inadequate in measuring a third basemen's defense whose priorities are different.

While important, a third basemen's ability to range to his left or right to field a ground ball is secondary to his combined abilities to handle the ground balls scorched at him, his ability to turn the double play, the line drives hit at and around him, and his ability to throw runners out at first. Even if you disagree that these combined skills do not trump the single ability to range for ground balls, you can't disagree that these are skills that are more important to middle infielders. Yet second basemen and shortstops appear to be analyzed using UZR the same as first and third basemen. Also, doesn't a third basemen's skill at ranging to his left becomes even less important when the infield has a shortstop that is above average at ranging to his right? If Kazuo Matsui is as good as billed, the importance of Wigginton's lack of range should be diminished, or hidden, by Matsui.

Nevertheless, UZR shows us that Wigginton has a hole in his defensive abilities. Wherever you think a third basemen's skill in ranging for ground balls lies on the list of skill priorities, everyone can agree that if given the choice we would rather have a third basemen that can do it all. There is an interesting article in Newsday featuring Wigginton and the defensive drills the Mets are having him do to improve his game in the field. In Covering the Angles, we learn that Mets infield coach Matt Galante, who I think I saw on the season premier of The Sopranos, has been employing an interesting technique with Wigginton. No, he's not improving Wiggy's range by sending him to Little Italy for cannolis. Instead, Galante makes Ty get on his knees (no dirty thoughts) at third base while he smacks grounders at him. Speaking about the drill, Wigginton said,

At the time, I couldn't understand what it had to do with playing third base. Then I realized that in order to stop a ball when you're on your knees and can't move your feet, you have to put your glove down quickly and at the right angle. Now it's one of my favorite drills.

While this seems like a worthwhile drill, it also appears to be a drill that plays right into Wigginton's strength while ignoring, and perhaps even exacerbating, his range problems. The last thing I want to see is any drill that forces Wigginton off his feet. I trust, well I hope, that this Dorf On Third Base drill was the focus of an entire article due to its unorthodoxy and not a reflection of where the Mets think Wigginton's defensive problems lie. Galante said of Wigginton, "I thought he'd be average in his first year and above-average this year." Looking at the entire picture, not just UZR, The Godfather of Infield was right; Wigginton was average last year. If he intends to go from average to above average Wiggy needs to get off his knees and onto his feet.
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