The Good – The Bad and the Ugly – Defense

Derek Dickey stops by with his second article on the Reds this month.

“The Twins are the model for me.”
-Wayne Krivsky, on how he plans to rebuild the Reds, 2/7/06

When Krivsky referred to the Twins “model,” he meant one of six things:

1. Young and cheap
2. Building through the draft
3. An offense based on speed and bat control
4. Ace pitchers
5. Good defense
6. All of the above

This thread focuses on Door #5.

The Minnesota clubs that Krivsky helped construct were teams based, in large part, on good defense. The Twins had built a consistent winner by placing outstanding defenders on the field-guys like Torii Hunter, Christian Guzman, Doug Mientkiewicz, Luis Rivas, and Jacque Jones, among others.

Reds Defense, 2004-2006

The Reds club that Krivsky inherited was, quite bluntly, a beer-league softball team. You couldn’t find a team more diametrically opposed to what the early-2000s Twins brought to the table.

For the historically challenged, the Reds sported two of the worst fielding regulars in the majors, c. February 2006-Griffey and Dunn. Krivsky inherited a poor-fielding shortstop who, at best, was an average fielder in his career year. He had a poor-fielding utility guy slated at 2B. He had a rangy 3B, although that 3B had annually made dozens of throwing errors in the minors. Oh, and he had four OFers and no 1B to speak of. . . What a mess.

So Krivsky’s plan to transform a beer-league softball team into a pitching-and-defense club was built on great aspirations, to say the least.

Defensive win shares (DWS) is one tool to help identify the holistic quality of a defense. In general, a great defense will give you 50+ DWS, an average one will give you ~36-44 DWS, and a bad one will give you ~30-32 DWS. Take a look at what the Reds defense did in 2004-05:

2004    DWS    26.6
2005    DWS    26.6

For a point of reference, the 1999 Reds had a great defense and had 52.8 DWS. The 2001 Reds ushered in the beer-league era in Cincinnati, and the club only had 28.1 DWS. And these clubs were both worse than the 2001 edition. The empirical evidence above supports the notion that the 2004-2005 Reds defenses were historically inept.

Consequently, Krivsky immediately got to work on the defense by trading away one of the four outfielders, signing a “true” 1B (converted from catcher, but okay), and trading for a slick-fielding project 2B.

The results in 2006 were quite impressive. True to Krivsky’s plan, the 2006 Reds made the leap from horrific to mediocre:

2004    DWS    26.6
2005    DWS    26.6
2006    DWS    42.6

And this leap is no small feat. To provide a little historical context, only five teams from 1988 through 2001 had made the leap from pathetically awful to mediocre in a three-year time span:

TEAMS            Bad Year 1    Bad year 2    Good year
PHI (1991-1993)        42.9        26.5        39.9
SD (1994-1996)         24.2        30.8        41.4
DET (1995-1997)        28.8        24.5        40.2
FLA (1998-2000)        22.9        32.5        38.2
ATL (1989-1991)        34.9        27.0        47.4

Average              30.74        28.26        41.42

So the Reds’ defensive improvement (and defensive awfulness, generally speaking) put them in rare company indeed.

Reds Defense, 2007

Fast forwarding to 2007, the Reds signed Alex Gonzalez at short, moved Griffey from center to right, and retained Brandon Phillips at second for a full season. I thought these moves, collectively, would help this defense progress into a fine unit. Here is what I said on 1/7/07:

“For the first time since Pokey left, the Reds defense had two plus infield defenders. And while the offseason pickup of Gonzalez has considerable risk, it probably adds a third plus defender to the infield–Gonzalez is an average defender, at worst. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Reds end up with the best defensive infield in the NL in 2007.”

I really thought these moves put them on the Braves, c. 1991 road to improvement. I couldn’t have been more wrong. . .

YEAR		2004    2005  	2006	2007
DWS		26.6   	26.6  	42.2	??
DER		0.696  	0.683	0.691	0.680
DER(out/30	20    	28    	21	29

As of 25 May, the Reds are next-to-LAST in the majors in Defensive Efficiency Rating (DER). The club has the most fielding errors in the majors. The club is 2nd-worst in the NL in unearned runs. Collectively, this is one of the worst defenses in the majors, if not THE worst.

The Cincinnati/Covington Twins

So, on the road in transforming this club into the Cincinnati/Covington “Twins,” what happened??? I have four hypotheses:

1. Encarnacion has been awful. Hopefully he bounces back.

2. Gonzalez hasn’t been as good as predicted. I suspect his defense will bounce back, which it has when he has had bad fielding years (like it did after 2003). Plus his skill set strikes me as one that will age gracefully-a strong accurate arm, with below-average lateral quickness. Even when he loses a step (and he will), he will make up for it with very good plays from the hole.

3. If he had enough innings to qualify, Hatteberg would be last in the NL in range factor and in the bottom quartile in zone rating. And this is not a one-year drop. Hatteberg has never been a good 1B, even though he was average in 2006. John Dewan’s Fielding Bible had Hatteberg ranked 23rd out of 32 first basemen, at -11 plays from 2003-2005. And he just isn’t good enough to make a nice target at first.

In contrast, Pujols, Derrek Lee, and Doug Mientkiewicz serve as great targets for infielders and can dig throws out of the dirt to make outs. Especially Pujols. In 2005, he saved 42 bad throws from his defense.

Wow.

And in case you wanted to know how their defenses are performing this season, the Cards, Cubs, and Mets are at +12, +6, and +19 on grounders, respectively (as of 25 May). The Reds, on the other hand, are at -10 on fielding grounders. First base defense matters.

4. Look again at the list of those defenses that transformed from bad to mediocre:

Year1    Year2    Good    Nxt/Yr    Delta +/- (Good year - Year after)
SD (1994-1997)    24.2    30.8    41.4    26.2    -15.2
PHI (1991-1994)    42.9    26.5    39.9    28.0    -11.9
DET (1995-1998)    28.8    24.5    40.2    35.0    -5.2
FLA (1998-2001)    22.9    32.5    38.2    36.2    -2.0
ATL (1989-1992)    34.9    27.0    47.4    46.4    -1.0

Average    30.74    28.26    41.42    34.36    -7.06

CIN (2004-2007)    26.6    26.6    42.2    ??

All of them declined in the year following their spike. And only two of the five provided similar defensive outputs in the year after their good year. The 2001 Marlins were a young and improving team, while the 1992 Braves made sustainable tweaks to the defensive fabric of the team.

I assumed the 2007 Reds would be more like the 1992 Braves than the 1994 Phillies. I thought the quality additions to the defense would make the leap sustainable, but it is hard to build a quality defense after a one-year spike in quality. There must be some structural issues here-like the plexiglass principle for defenses.

Three concluding thoughts:

1. If Krivsky wanted to build the Cincinnati/Covington Twins, why didn’t he go route of the fire sale? If he truly wanted to transform a beer-league team to a defensive one, why hasn’t he made dramatic changes to the fabric of the team?
2. Did he consider the home park? Building a defense in a HR-hitters park with natural grass is much different than building one in a neutral dome with Astroturf. Warrants mentioning.

3. Can one build a *good* defense (slippery term, I know) while littering the diamond with below-average defenders? More of a philosophical query than anything else, although that is the route that this club appears to be heading.

The good: Ross has been huge, Phillips has been very good, double plays perhaps???

The bad: Encarnacion, Hatteberg

The ugly: ONLY one or two plus defenders this year (ugh)

Next up: the pitching. I promise fewer stats. 🙂

For the previous article on the hitting, see this link:

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