The book: “Wizardry: Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Fielders Revealed”
The author: Michael Humphreys
The vital stats: Oxford University Press, 432 pages, $19.95
The pitch: Quick, how do you calculate someone’s fielding percentage? Putouts plus assists, divided by total chances (putouts, assists and errors added together).
Very lame, apparently.
Humphreys, who by day “advises on tax aspects of international capital markets transactions at Ernst & Young LLP,” calculates in a way that he can “quantify the fielding value of every player in major league baseball history.”
You’re familiar with DRA, right? Defensive Regression Analysis, which Humphreys figured out in 2003 after seeing what else was out there and then crunched some other numbers himself. His empirical approach is deciding who, in the course of the last 130-odd years, handled the glove better than anyone else at their position.
Go ahead. Knock yourself out.
Or, on page 32, throw out a formula discussion that made us think we were back in our high school Honors Math calculus class. Can you say: XY.abc=XY-lgXY*(ABC/lgABC).
That means something to someone. Just not much to us on our sequestered world.
In much the same way our previous book at PRG tries to quantify performance, there is some practical use to having these deductions applied to previous records and produce some findings worth consideration.
Like, Manny Ramirez was the greatest all-time fielding outfielder in the history of the game.
Uh, no. Just seeing if you were paying attention.
Gold Glove awards, however, are quite bogus in Humphreys’ eyes. Especially the five given to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter over his career, for his occasional “SportsCenter” worthy catches and heads-up cut-off throws. “Jeter is only the most spectacular case of why Gold Gloves should be given almost zero weight in evaluating fielders throughout major league history,” Humphreys writes.
We’ll believe him, especially when his number crunching produces such findings as:
== The Dodgers’ Steve Yeager is the No. 3 all-time defensive catcher in the game’s history, behind Ivan Rodriguez and Bob Boone. What about Johnny Bench, considered by most to be the one everyone is measured by? He’s honorable mention. Behind No. 7 Brad Ausmus and No. 10 Gary Carter, for that matter. Seriously.
== One-time Dodger Brian Jordan is No. 6 all time among right fielders (with Roberto Clemente asserted at No. 1).
== The best defensive center fielder of all time isn’t Willie Mays. He’s No. 2. Behind, ahem, former Dodgers washout Andruw Jones, who Humphreys claims may have saved more than 200 runs during his career. Former Angels Gary Pettis (No. 5) and Devon White (No. 7) and former Dodger Willie Davis (No. 9) make the Top 10.
== Among second baseman, former Angel Bobby Grich is No. 4 overall.
== The greatest fielding third baseman? If it’s not Brooks Robinson, something doesn’t add up. Thankfully, he passes through here without second guessing.
== At shortstop, the gold standard isn’t Ozzie Smith (he’s No. 3). Try the late great Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson’s sidekick for 16 seasons with Orioles, a .228 career hitter who somehow finished his career with the Dodgers in 1982. In 1,942 games over 18 seasons, Belanger had a traditional fielding percentage of .977 (211 errors in more than 9,000 chances). He even made the 1976 AL All-Star team. With eight career Gold Gloves. For whatever that’s worth.
In closing, Humphreys writes:
“The likely reason fans have never cares about fielding statistics is because they were so poorly designed that they never effectively conveyed value, or even components of value. Traditional offensive and pitching statistics left a lot to be desired, but you could still be pretty sure a batter with a .300 average, 30 homers and 100 runs batted in was a good hitter, and a pitcher who won 20 games was a pretty good pitcher … There have been various ad hoc defensive formulas developed over the past thirty years, but none with the kind of robust mathematical structure that made the various methods of estimating offensive runs perfectly respectable statistical models from the perspective of any professional statistician. …This book has presented a system to solve this oldest and toughest puzzle of baseball statistics, perhaps the oldest well-known problem in all sports statistics.”
We’ll take his word for it. And back up a few steps so we can see whatever is coming at us from a better angle.
How it goes down in the scorebook: We like what Allen Barra of the Wall Street Journal has to say: “Michael Humphreys does for fielding what Neil deGrasse Tyson does for astrophysics: he takes an incredibly complex subject and makes a reader who once felt dumb feel smart.”
Although, we think we could have spent $19.95 on a couple gallons of ice cream and felt better about life in general. Until the astrophysics took hold of our stomach.