• Is The Best Defense A Good Offense In Baseball?

    Posted by on March 6th, 2010 · Comments (4)

    I’ve been reading The Bill James Gold Mine 2010. And, by the way, it’s a great book, as always.

    There’s one essay in there this year from James where he explains defensive win shares that I found extremely interesting.

    In this feature, James is basically saying that defensive responsibility is both created and assigned. It’s assigned to the player – but, defensive innings are first created by the team. When a team makes outs on offense, it creates a need to play defense. Related, James says that “if a player makes more outs, that gives him a larger responsibility to play defense, because it means that more defense must be played.” And, in a somewhat summary, James says that “…while we are in the habit of thinking of offense and defense in baseball as un-connected, they are in fact not un-connected.”

    If you’re having a hard time understanding this notion, think of it this way: Pretend that Graig Nettles and Wade Boggs, by every defensive measure available anywhere were equal in terms of the fielding ability and results. Bill James is proposing that Boggs is the better defensive player because he creates less outs, while batting, than Nettles.

    Now, in football, we’ve seen this type of logic applied in the past – where a strong offense, that controls the ball, kills the clock and therefore prevents the other team from having more of a chance to score themselves. And, in essence, in this football application, a strong offense is a good defense.

    But, football has a clock – and baseball doesn’t. You still have to collect 27 of your opponents outs to finalize a game in baseball. And, if you need to collect those 27 outs, then you need to provide the other team a chance to make those 27 outs. In baseball, just because you delay your opponent’s inning/turn at bat by not making your own outs on offense, you cannot stop your opponent from having the right to play 9 innings and exhaust their 27 outs. Well, that’s what I’m thinking now, at first blush.

    Maybe I’m wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time. Perhaps…by not making as many outs at bat, you’re creating more runs, and that makes good defensive play less critical and therefore easier to get through your innings in the field? That’s an easy concept to agree with, no? So, by being a good offensive player, you make it easier to play defense, and therefore you’re a better defensive player than an out-maker of equal fielding skills? But, then are we saying that Pat Burrell is more valuable, defensively, than Joe Rudi was as a left fielder?

    In any event, I still find what James is saying here to be extremely interesting and worth more thought. What do you think about it?

    Comments on Is The Best Defense A Good Offense In Baseball?

    1. marmeduke
      March 6th, 2010 | 9:36 pm

      I’m not sure how old you are but judging from your comment you didn’t have much of a chance to watch Nettles and/or Boggs play third. To suggest that they were equal defensively is inane! Boggs was a robot..steady but slow. Nettles was a magician and next to Brooks Robinson, the best defensive third baseman I ever had the pleasure to watch. These two were night and day…like comaring Giambi to Mattingly…though, to be fair, Boggs wasn’t as bad as Giambi. I had the pleasre of watching Nettles for his entire career as well as Boggs. Nettles moved like a cat and was a vaccuum at third. He was the premier defensive third baseman of his time, ahead of Mike Schmidt and Aurelio Rodriguez. Statistics can only tell you so much and possibly their statistics are close though this would be surprising. Personal observation tells the true tale. I’ve watched the Yankees since the late ’60’s and Nettles, along with Mattingly, were the two best defensive players, the Yankees have had. Please do not mention Nettles and Boggs in the same sentence when talking defense!

    2. Rich
      March 6th, 2010 | 10:12 pm

      @ marmeduke:

      You missed the word [P]retend. It’s a hypothetical. Calm down.

    3. Raf
      March 6th, 2010 | 11:11 pm

      If a player can mash, a team will figure a way to get him into the lineup. Not so much the case if the player’s a defensive wizard with not much of a stick.

    4. Eric R
      March 7th, 2010 | 5:03 am

      The best I can figure is if you define offensive capability as Runs Scored per Out, and defensive capability as Outs per Run Allowed. In that framework, Wade Boggs can afford to be less effient in obtaining defensive outs because he’s more efficient in using his offensive outs. You still need 27 outs, but a team with Boggs can afford to spend more runs to get their 27 outs than a team with Nettles can.

      I guess that could make sense, but it seems a pretty roundout way of looking at things.

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