Recently, Derrick Goold reported that Tony La Russa believes that Colby Rasmus is not necessarily a better centerfielder than incumbent Rick Ankiel. La Russa might be the genius, but statistics do tell us otherwise.
Admittedly, Ankiel is still inexperienced at the position and is full of potential with superb athletism and an extremely powerful arm. But if La Russa were truly shaping his camp in terms of potential, Rasmus would be a slam-dunk member of the Cardinals’ opening day roster.
It is well chronicled the path the 29-year-old has traveled in his transformation from phenom pitcher to power hitting outfielder. Along his path, La Russa has been there with him as one of his biggest fans. On August 9, 2007, no one was happier than his manager when Ankiel capped off his return to the big leagues with a home run and three RBI performance.
Now admittedly, I am not the most sabermatically-inclined writer you will find on the web. But I did find interesting how Ankiel ranked according to some of the top defensive metrics. Unfortunately, it was difficult to find a metric that allowed me to compare Ankiel and Rasmus like apples to apples. But I was able to find two metrics that allowed me to compare the two like oranges to tangerines.
Looking around at the various defensive ranking systems:
An excerpt of the Fielding Bible’s author John Dewan’s explanation of his plus/minus ratings: A total plus/minus score near zero means the player is average. A score above zero is above average and a negative score is below average. (For a more detailed explanation, go to fieldingbible.com)
Looking at the Fielding Bible centerfielder rankings, Minnesota Twins centerfielder Carlos Gomez topped the list with a +32 rating. National League Gold Glove winners Carlos Beltran checked in with a +24 while Shane Victorino scored a +10. Ankiel ranked in the bottom six of centerfielders ranked with a –15. Of note, the third National League Gold Glove winner, Nate McLouth ranked last on the list with a –40.
Probabilistic Model of Range
David Pinto of Baseball Musings explains PMR, “Basically, for each fieldable (non inside the park home runs) ball put in play, six parameters are used to determine how difficult it was to field the ball. A probability of turning the ball into an out is calculated, and those probabilities are summed. That gives us expected batted balls turned into outs. We turn that into a predicted DER (defensive efficiency record), compare that to the actual DER and calculate a ranking.” The two are then compared to create each player’s ratio. (For more information go to Pinto’s site baseballmusings.com)
Of the everyday centerfielders, the Tampa Bay Rays B.J. Upton posted the highest ratio of 104.36. Just as they ranked at the top of the Fielding Bible ratings, Beltran and Gomez were rated next. As a team, the Cardinals ranked dead last in all of baseball according to this metric. Rick Ankiel ranked 41st of the 44 centerfielders rated with a ratio of 94.83.
Interestingly, his teammate Skip Schumaker ranked just below him with a ratio of 94.81. Shumaker did rank as the top left fielder with a ratio of 115.20.
Ultimate Zone Rating
This system created by Mitchel Lichtman was the first system to calculate how many outs each player was expected to make based on play-by-play data, convert that information into run values, and then compare that number to the average. Of note, Lichtman has served as a consultant for the Cardinals.
UZR starts off by looking at the probability that a ball in play will make an out, based on the type of batted ball it is (ground ball, fly ball, line drive, etc.), the zone that ball was hit to, and how hard it was hit. UZR then adjusts for everything under the sun.
According to UZR, Carlos Gomez was once again tops amongst centerfielders who played more than half of their team’s game in center. Gomez’ 15.4 rating ranked him ahead of Mike Cameron, Cody Ross, and Adam Jones.
Ankiel would rank 15th out of the 24 players that met the criteria stated above. His –4.5 UZR would put him ahead of the highly reputable Torii Hunter, -11.3, and Josh Hamilton, -11.9.
UZR does have an added feature, projecting how the player would project over 150 games played at the position. This adjustment predicts that Ankiel would have finished around a –8 if injuries had not cut his 2008 short.
Sean Smith’s Total Zone relates very closely with the Ultimate Zone rating. Though, not a perfect match, it might reveal a little bit about the difference in fielding between Ankiel and the Cardinals’ number one prospect, Colby Rasmus. According to Smith, Rasmus ranked at a +9 in 2008 at Triple-A Memphis. Like Ankiel, he missed significant time due to injury. Smith projects over 150 games, Rasmus would have finished with a +15 ranking.
According to the Minor League Splits site, the meaning of specific numbers varies from position to position, but in general, +10 is a very good fielder, +15 or more is outstanding. Below -10 is not very good at all. To find out more about comparing the Total Zone system with the UZR, check Smith’s article at the Hardball Times. (http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/measuring-defense-for-players-back-to-1956/)
So when comparing the 150 game projections of Ankiel, -8, and Rasmus, +15, that is a drastic difference even when factoring in the slight differences in rating systems.
Best Outfield Arms
The Hardball Times appears to be the only place to find statistically driven ratings of outfielder arms. Writer John Walsh uses “five different situations when a throw from the outfield is important. For those plays, I add up how often the runner is thrown out or else how often the runner is "held," i.e., prevented from taking an extra base. I then compare a players number of "kills" and "holds" with the number that a league-average outfielder would have gotten, given the same number (and types) of opportunities.”
It is no surprise that Ankiel faired much better in this category. He ranked in the top 25% of the centerfielders, finishing 2.3 runs above average. Matt Kemp ranked first with nearly six runs above average. Though no one questions the former pitcher’s elite arm in the outfield, it is quite surprising to find he only recorded four assists in 2008 and two of those came in the same game.
Now, I don’t want this to come across as an Ankiel slam fest. This was not the intended purpose of this study. I just found it interesting how La Russa sees him and how the defensive sabermaticians rate him. There is no doubt that the skipper is a future Hall-of-Famer, but I wonder with all that he and his protégé have gone through if sometimes his subjectivity gets in the way of his objectivity.
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