There can be, I’ve come to learn, beauty in numbers, and the beauty in advanced baseball numbers is that they can reveal something we saw but didn’t quite see. (If that makes any sense.) For instance: If you asked, “Which Brave was more likely to swing at balls out of the strike zone — Martin Prado or Freddie Freeman?”, I’d have recalled all the times I saw the latter swing really hard at the first pitch and said, in a heartbeat, “Freeman.”
And, at least on this point, I’d have been right. According to Carson Cistulli of the ever-useful FanGraphs, 31.6 percent of Freeman’s swings came at pitches off the plate. (In sabermetric argot, those are known as “O-Swings.”) Prado swung at 26.8 percent of pitches off the strike zone. But if we ask, “Who was the more selective hitter?” … well, here’s where we’d have been fooled.
Cistulli reveals that Freeman swung at 75.4 percent of the strikes he saw,while Prado swung at only 48.4. (A swing at a strike is a “Z-Swing.”) Cistulli — who’s also a poet, FYI — writes: “It seems fair to suggest that a batter who demonstrates the greatest difference between his O-Swing and Z-Swing tendencies would be the league’s Most Selective Hitter.” Using that methodology, Freeman ranked No. 4 on the list of baseball’s most selective hitters. Prado was No. 1 — No. 1! — on the least selective chart.
Maybe you find this stuff unbelievably boring. There was a time, I must confess, when I’d have Z’d out at the mention of a Z-Swing. But the older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know, and sites like FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus help fill the massive gaps in my knowledge. Which brings me, albeit in a way not unlike the circular routes Ryan Klesko took when chasing fly balls, to the Gold Gloves:
Jason Heyward won one, and he should have. But so should Michael Bourn and the aforementioned Prado. If we consult Baseball-Reference.com, we note that the three Braves’ outfielders led the National League at their respective positions — left, center, et cetera — in “Total Fielding Runs Above Average,” which is to say in runs saved. What’s more, the three Braves’ outfielders were, according to B-R, the three best outfielders at saving runs in the entire National League. Bourn saved 38, Heyward 23, Prado 16. (Actually Prado tied for third with the Giants’ Angel Pagan, who’s a center fielder.)
Back to FanGraphs: All three Braves’ outfielders ranked among the National League’s top 11 players in WAR (wins above replacement) index, by which sabermetricians swear. And here we see that the three Braves ranked 1-2-3 among all NL’ers at all positions in FanGraphs’ overall fielding (FLD) ratings.
The Gold Glove for National League center fielders went to Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, whose FanGraphs FLD number was minus-6.9. (This isn’t golf; miinuses aren’t good.) The Gold Glove for left fielders went to Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez, whose FLD number was minus-8.5. Bourn’s number: Plus-22.4. Prado’s number: Plus-17.8. To borrow from the great Tennessee announcer John Ward: “Not … even … close.”
Managers and coaches vote on Gold Gloves, and not many among them are sabermetrically inclined. They use charts and numbers, sure, but they also rely on what their eyeballs tell them. And that’s my point: Sometimes in sports and particularly in baseball, our eyeballs deceive. We who watched the 2012 might not have grasped that we were observing one of the greatest defensive outfields ever assembled. But we were, and we did.
Further reading: Check the comments below this FanGraphs post on the Gold Gloves.
Still further reading: Remembering Pascual Perez, the Brave who made us smile.
By Mark Bradley