(Originally posted on 4SportBoston.com )
Just how obvious is it, Terry Francona?
By "it" I mean the re-arrangement of the new-look Red Sox outfield. With new addition Mike Cameron patrolling the center field triangle, and every pink shirt’s favorite, Jacoby Ellsbury, now patrolling the same hallowed ground as Mike Greenwell (the best left fielder in the history of Red Sox outfielders, in my opinion), some questions have arrose.
According to Amalie Benjamin , Tito said the shift of Ellsbury from center field to left field to accommodate Cameron was “kind of obvious to (him).” Owner Theo Epstein was also quoted as stating that, based on Ellsbury’s past experience in LF, this move just made more sense. But does it?
The first question that needs to be answered is “How good of a center fielder is Jacoby Ellsbury?”
Disregard the advanced defensive metrics for a second (don’t worry, we’ll get to those shortly), from the fan's vantage point, did Ellsbury ever strike you a below-average center fielder, let alone a bad center fielder?
No, no, and hell no.
Just last year, in watching the Sox day in and day out, I thought Ellsbury was an excellent defensive center fielder. By excellent, I mean Coco Crisp-good. There were at least 5-10 catches by him that made me scream out loud in amazement. Sure, he has a weak arm, I’ll grant you that. But from a pure Joe Morgan-esque perspective, did he play the part of an above-average center fielder who caught nearly everything he could get to?
So, given that, why did the Sox go out and sign Mike Cameron to replace Jason Bay, and furthermore, move our beloved center fielder of the future to accommodate Cameron?
Because apparently, Ellsbury just ain’t “all that.”
Let’s take a look at two different statistics, which realistically measure close to the same defensive stats. One is Revised Zone Rating (RZR), created by John Dewan of Stats Inc., which measures the proportion of balls hit into a fielder's zone that he successfully converted into an out.
The second is Ultimate Zone Rating 150 (UZR/150), which is the number of runs above or below average a fielder is in both range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined, extrapolated over an average of 150 games that particular year.
Let’s look at the three year trends in center field only for Ellsbury (keep in mind 2007 and 2008 have much smaller sample sizes than 2009):
That 2009 number of .894 puts Jacoby at No. 16 in all of Major League Baseball, squarely between Matt Kemp and Vernon Wells, two center fielders that aren’t necessarily celebrated for their defense. The 2008 number, had he qualified, would have rated him fifth in all of MLB, above who else—Mike Cameron.
Now, let’s examine Ellsbury’s three year trends from a UZR perspective (remember, UZR’s baseline of 0.0 is considered “average” for the position):
What do these trends establish for us? Well, for starters, it shows a definite regression for Ellsbury in terms of his defensive metrics last year. Why exactly is that? Could be a number of things, really. Most advanced scouts and statheads (cough, not myself, cough) point towards Ellsbury struggling with balls hit over his head, showing he is having trouble judging the deeper flies one would see often in center field.
Also, all of Ellsbury’s highlights that I remember, for the most part, involved line drives he was charging in for, or plays he had to make laterally.
Both of these situations allow him to use his incredible foot speed to catch up to balls that many other center fielders wouldn’t be able to get to. But balls hit over his head? Even his speed can’t compensate for balls hit there. Being able to make plays on balls like that requires proper positioning, quality breaks, and overall ability to play CF, not just be fast.
Which brings us to our second question…
Michael Terrance Cameron. Just how good is he?
For years, Cameron has been considered one of the premier defensive center fielders in all of baseball. And rightfully so. Look at the parks he’s manned over the years:
That’s three of the largest outfields in baseball that Cameron has had the responsibility of patrolling.
How has that translated into his defensive statistics?
What exactly do these numbers mean? Well, there’s a clear gap in the 2009 numbers between Ellsbury and Cameron. From an RZR perspective, it shows about a 6-7 percent increase in the number of balls Cameron got to in his zone in 2009 compared to Ellsbury. As for UZR, Cameron bests Ellsbury by a factor of over 28 runs. Is this significant? Well, yes, I’d say so. I believe Theo and Tito would agree.
Let’s also take a look at Ellsbury’s stats in his limited time in left field in the 2008 and 2007 seasons:
(*Mind you, the RZR numbers are based on a sample size of 58 games in left).
So what does this tell us?
Basically, if these trends were to hold true for an entire year, the Red Sox would have an incredible left fielder defensively in Ellsbury. His .932 RZR number (a true sample size would likely correct it down somewhat) would have been tops in all of baseball in 2008. His 30.3 UZR/150 stat would have placed him first in the league that year as well, had he qualified. (Note: only Carl Crawford would have come relatively close).
Let’s take a look at the bigger picture. One would argue that, because of the increase in numbers that naturally comes from a shift from center field to left field (some stats people say its about 10 runs or so in UZR), wouldn’t the Sox be just as well off moving Cameron to left field, and keeping Ellsbury in center field?
Yes, sort of.
I mean, would it kill the Sox defensively?
No, likely not.
You’d have a Gold Glove OF in left field instead of center field. But then you would still have your center fielder sporting a -18.3 UZR. Whereas, now, with Ellsbury in left field, the Sox could have a guy who would be among the league’s best in any defensive metric category in left field (if the trends from 2008 hold true), in addition to bringing a true Gold Glove CF to Fenway.
It's clear, looking at it this way, that this is the right move for the Sox in 2010 and 2011, unless Cameron’s defensive metrics rapidly deteriorate this year (can’t see that happening unless injuries catch up to him, which, at his age, is possible).
The added benefit of Ellsbury saving his legs from the pounding they’d take in center field and utilizing them moreso on the basepaths surely is what tipped the Sox brass over to the side of making the move.
Which brings us to our third and final question…
Just how good can the Red Sox outfield defense be in 2010?
Um… really good. Like, historically good. Like, off-the-charts, nutty nutso good.
We’ve already looked at left field and center field. If those numbers hold up, you’d have arguably the top LF/CF combination in all of baseball. But how about the most under-appreciated man in all of baseball, David Jonathan Drew?*
Can someone explain to me how you turn “David Jonathan” into “J.D.”? It’s been over 11 years, and I still am unable to comprehend this. I bet he hated D.J. Tanner and the rest of Full House. That’s really all I’ve been able to come up with.
JD Drew in 2009 was, by either statistic, the No. 1 ranked right fielder in all of baseball. Yes, higher than Ichiro. Here are his three year trends:
What does this show you? It shows us that, dammit, $14M per year IS worth it. (Note: JD Drew is my favorite player on the Red Sox. I admit to an incredibly large amount of bias in this regard.)
But it also shows us that, just by using these simple defensive metrics (and lord knows Theo and Co., who pay a lot of people a lot of dollar bills to come up with proprietary data the sabermetricians have no idea about), the Red Sox outfield in 2010, providing everyone stays healthy, could be the best in all of baseball.
Long gone are the days where we sit and are forced to suffer through watching catchable balls fall into the gaps, opposing runners churning around the bases, and, in turn, being forced to win games by scoring six or more runs. Gone is the anguish or Red Sox nation who considered Manny Ramirez's defense an affront to the game of baseball. Gone are the days of watching Johnny Damon bounce a ball on four hops to 2nd base from short center field.
Which is good… because with their offense they’re going to have to win a lot of 1-0 games.