Lies, damned lies and statistics are purported to be the three types of untruths in the world, and in the world of baseball there are plenty of statistics to misrepresent the truth.
One of the great misinterpretations of baseball’s Moneyball age is that it’s all about super-sized players hitting monster home runs. True, the brand of small-ball preferred by traditionalists has been picked apart with glee by the seamhead community, where scrappy is just another word for unproductive. But the smart ones know that you can’t have a five-tool player without running, catching and throwing.
The question for seamheads and handicappers alike is how to evaluate these precious commodities. It’s fairly simple on offense; stolen bases are part of the boxscore, and thanks to the work of Bill James, we know that a success rate of about 70 percent is required to make the effort worth the risk of getting caught stealing. That means a team like the Seattle Mariners only derives a small benefit from Ichiro’s thievery at 10-of-14 (71.4 percent).
Ichiro’s ability to leg out infield singles is more important to Seattle’s success, which again can be seen in the boxscore using his on-base percentage (.396 at press time). But this is still one base at a time we’re talking about. Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder (.418 OBP) doesn’t have to have great wheels when he’s circling the bases, which he’s already done 15 times this year. Maybe speed isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Make the switch to defense, and you’ll soon discover differently. Statisticians are still trying to figure out how to put a number on the value of run prevention. In my opinion, it’s a red herring: you can only quantify runs scored, not runs prevented. The existing metrics for defense (fielding percentage, UZR, FRAR) do a very poor job of telling us how just how good a fielder Ichiro is. But watch a game, and you’ll see his speed, his route selection and his arm strength in full display.
Ay, there’s the rub. Although advanced statistics have made baseball a potentially lucrative betting sport (if you interpret the numbers correctly), a truly sharp handicapper will also develop a scout’s appreciation for the art of defense. The real lesson of Moneyball is the same as that of value-based handicapping: Exploit the difference between perceived and real value. Now that every general manager and his dog pay attention to stats like OBP, sharps are looking for that difference by shining their light on defense.
That means doing a lot of research. Scouting reports are readily available on every player on every team, thanks to the power of the search engine. Is it really worth all the legwork to profile hundreds of players this way? Defense is still a distant third to pitching and hitting when it comes to prioritizing your research time. But the baseball experts have already done a lot of the work for you by posting those scouting reports. And I’ll put in my two cents by singling out five defensively undervalued teams who are worth a second look against the betting odds.
Milwaukee Brewers Mike Cameron is one of the league’s great center fielders. J.J. Hardy and Bill Hall are vacuuming up the left side of the infield, while Ryan Braun has found a home in left.
Cincinnati Reds Willy Tavares (.283 OBP) can’t hit for beans, but he can motor in center. Jay Bruce in right and Brandon Phillips at second base both make life much easier for Reds pitchers.
Pittsburgh Pirates Even without Nate McClouth, this low-profile team is 2.76 units in the black thanks in part to the stellar defense of Freddy Sanchez at second and Andy LaRoche at third.
Texas Rangers They’ll get some pitchers one of these days. In the meantime, you won’t find many better double-play combos than SS Elvis Andrus and 2B Ian Kinsler. Nelson Cruz has a howitzer for an arm in right.
Detroit Tigers Catcher Gerald Laird has thrown out 12 of 32 would-be base stealers. Former catcher Brandon Inge can flash the leather at the hot corner, and Curtis Granderson could track down a gazelle in center.