Opening Act: Stats and scouts evaluate rookies’ defense
Nearly a month into the MLB season, the signal in the Defensive Runs Saved data is beginning to break free of the noise. The elite defenders are steadily climbing toward the top of the leaderboards, while the less talented gloves are falling to the back of the pack. With that in mind, this seems like a good time for a (very) preliminary evaluation of this year’s crop of rookies.
We don’t have nearly as much data to go on at the minor league level, so there is very little about a player’s defensive game we can be confident of statistically before he reaches the majors. This is where scouts come in, using their highly trained eyes to fill in the gaps in the data and providing a honed but still subjective understanding of what the player is and what he could be. With some of those rookies off to excellent starts and others struggling as they acclimate to the speed of the major league game, it’s time to compare what scouts saw from the player in the minors to what he’s shown in his small sample of chances in the majors.
The Rookie: Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks
The Scenario: Framed as the bat-first option in contrast to Didi Gregorius’ slick glove, Owings (the club’s top positional prospect) won the starting job in camp.
The Scouts: Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks graded Owings out with an average glove and a plus arm, while Baseball America’s Bill Mitchell called him “an average defender at short with enough range, solid infield actions and an average arm.”
The Numbers: Owings’ defensive numbers have outpaced the scouts lukewarm projections, as his six Runs Saved trail only Troy Tulowitzki for the lead among all infielders so far. Owings has made eight more plays than we would expect from an average shortstop, suggesting that so far, his range has surpassed the scouts’ projections of a near-neutral performance.
The Rookie: Jackie Bradley Jr., CF/RF, Boston Red Sox
The Scenario: Last season, Bradley won the job out of Spring Training only to lose it after a disastrous April. Jacoby Ellsbury’s departure and Shane Victorino’s early-season injury woes have forced Bradley into a key role on a club with hopes of repeating last season’s October success.
The Scouts: Parks hung a 6+ (on the 2-8 scouting scale) on Bradley’s glove to go with a 6 arm, and Baseball America’s Alex Speier agreed that Bradley’s instincts allow him to provide plus defense in center despite lacking the elite speed generally associated with the best defenders at that position.
The Numbers: Thus far, Bradley’s Defensive Runs Saved totals back up the scouts’ assertions, as he’s been three runs above average between center and left. Between the two positions, Bradley has accumulated seven Good Fielding Plays against five Defensive Misplays and Errors.
The Rookie: Billy Hamilton, CF, Cincinnati Reds
The Scenario: The undisputed fastest man in organized baseball made the switch from shortstop to center last season and will roam the outfield at the Great American Ball Park in 2014.
The Scouts: BA’s JJ Cooper and BP’s Parks agree that Hamilton’s transition to the outfield in 2013 was a success, with Parks noting his “easy plus potential” at the position and Cooper stating that “while his jumps and routes can continue to improve, he has the speed to outrun mistakes.”
The Numbers: Thus far, Hamilton saved one run for the Reds in center, while committing two Defensive Misplays and recording one Good Fielding Play. He still has a lot to learn about the position, so it would not be a surprise to see his Runs Saved total climb as the year goes on and he grows more comfortable in the outfield.
The Rookie: Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox
The Scenario: The $68M Cuban slugger was a star in his home country and a former Serie Nacional MVP but faces a clean slate and high expectations stateside as he takes over for longtime face-of-the-franchise Paul Konerko.
The Scouts: Largely limited to scouting Abreu based off of looks in international tournaments, scouts developed a wide range of opinions regarding his glovework. ESPN’s Keith Law suggested that without a strong commitment to conditioning, Abreu could end up at DH, while Law’s ESPN colleague Jerry Crasnick spoke to a number of scouts who suggested his size belies respectable athleticism that could make him a “solid” first baseman. BA’s John Manuel’s opinion was similar to Crasnick’s source, although he shared some of Law’s concerns, calling Abreu “an adequate defender… as long as he maintains his fitness.”
The Numbers: Abreu has displayed below-average but not atrocious glovework, costing the South Siders three runs at first base through his first month. Six Defensive Misplays and Errors have more than neutralized the positive value provided by his nine Good Fielding Plays. However, three of those six negative plays occurred in his first five games, so it’s possible that he’s begun to adjust to the American brand of baseball after a rocky introduction to the league, at least as far as his glovework is concerned.
The Rookie: Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox
The Scenario: The Aruban phenom, a consensus top prospect in the game, was handed the reins at short after the departure of Stephen Drew.
The Scouts: Parks grades Bogaerts as an average shortstop with a plus arm, suggesting his less-than-elite range plays up due to excellent instincts. Writing for Baseball America, Sox beat writer Alex Speier expressed confidence in Bogaerts’ performance at short despite a body much larger than the prototypical frame for the position.
The Numbers: Bogaerts’ performance thus far has not been up to par, as the five runs he’s cost his team land him with the worst fielders in the league. However, Bogaerts’ performance is at the toughest defensive position, an excuse not available to other bottom-dwellers like Ryan Howard and Torii Hunter. While he’s generally made the plays he’s gotten to, Bogaerts’ range has been well below average among shortstops, resulting in a Plus/Minus of -5 that accounts for most of his low Runs Saved total. His outstanding bat and tremendous upside will keep him in the lineup, but if Bogaerts can’t make significant improvements to his defensive game, he could very well end up shifting to the hot corner.
For most of these rookies, their statistical performance thus far largely mirrors previous reports from the Internet’s most respected prospect writers. For Bogaerts, who has largely underperformed the scouts’ expectations, there’s a long season ahead and still a chance to establish himself as the defensive asset he was projected to be. Each of these elite prospects has a long career ahead of them, with their defensive value a story that has just begun to be written.