Sunday, January 30, 2005

Nat of the day, Jan. 31

Cristian Guzman: Statdork dupe?

Continuing on with the series after a five-day absence . . .

Name: Cristian Guzman
Position: Shortstop
Age: 27 in March
Height/weight: 6-0, 205
Bats/throws: Both/right
Relevant 2004 statistics: 576 at-bats; .274/.309/.384 batting line; 10-15 in base stealing; second among nine regular American League shortstops in fielding percentage; pretty good with the advanced defensive metrics too (see below)
Garden variety scouting report: Slappin' swifty at the plate; uses whole field, little patience or power; steady fielder but has lost some agility after 2001 shoulder (?) injury.

The Inquirer wants to know:

1. So what's this about Guzman's defense?

It stinks. Next question.


Just kidding.

Anyway, his fielding percentage is solid, but there seems to be some issue with how many balls Guzman actually gets to. I'll readily admit that I know very little about the sabermetrically-inclined defensive metrics; I know so little that I don't even know what some of the acronyms stand for. So, when discussing Guzman's defense, I'll have to play the inquirer role a bit more strictly.

Chris (Capitol Punishment) analyzed Guzman's defense in general, and his defensive performance in 2004 specifically, at length back in
November. Chris thusly described the Guzman defensive puzzler:

Defensively, is where the problem comes in. Bowden claims he signed him because of his defensive value. But, up until this year, most of the defensive metrics have rated him at, or near, the bottom of the league. This year, however, he jumped up towards the top on most of them. Win Shares even had his as worthy of the Gold Glove.

What precisely did these defensive metrics say? I'm not sure I'm qualified to assess that, so I'll turn to the internet's resident Twins expert,
Aaron Gleeman. Summarizing his findings, we have Guzman (compared to his positional peers) as:

---greatly improved in Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average (from below average in 2002-03 to 17 runs above average in '04);
---the major league leader in Bill James' Fielder Win Shares;
---ninth in the AL in STATS Inc.'s Zone Rating (same as in '03);
---improving from abysmal in 2002-03 to below average in '04, according to Baseball Think Factory Chris Dial's Player Index (DPI);
---improving from just plain awful in 2000-03 to above water in '04, according to Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating.

Except for Zone Rating, which I understand is the "least advanced" of the metrics above, Guzman showed vast improvement in 2004; he was very good according to the first two metrics (which estimate defensive opportunities) and quite improved according to a great consensus of the others, which employ actual play-by-play data in one form or another.

That's like Jeff Hornacek going from a walk-on at Iowa State to an NBA all-star guard. What gives? Well, I see at least four possibilies:

1. Those metrics aren't worth a dog's feces steamin' on frosty grass;
2. Guzman had a fluke defensive season;
3. Guzman actually improved as a defensive player in '04;
4. Some changed circumstance made it easier (or less difficult) for Guzman to performance as a defensive player in '04.

I am as certain I am not qualified even to touch No. 1 as I am certain that Jim Bowden loves to look in the mirror. I suppose No. 2 is possible, but I don't have any way to determine it at the moment.

So that leaves Nos. 3 and 4, which might just be two sides of the same coin. And perhaps they go hand-in-hand with what I'll call the "FieldTurf Theory."

Let's go back to Chris' analysis:

What happened? I think it comes down to the turf. I think that this year is the first year that the Metrodome went to the field turf. They were one of the few teams holding out with the old concrete artificial turf. The turf game is dramatically different than the game on grass--with different positioning required. The field turf aims to replicate the grass game, pretty dramatically
changing how the game is played.This is all just conjecture, but I’d anticipate that Guzman’s reaction times--his read off the bat--aren’t exceptional and that balls were getting ripped through the infield before he could get a glove on them. With the slower speed of batted groundballs on the new turf, he could use his speed more effectively to make up for the lack of instincts, accounting for
the increased performance. His double play partner, Luis Rivas, whom the defensive metrics also hated, also say improved numbers across the board. Unless there’s something in the water in Minnesota, it’s gotta be something else. The field seems as likely as anything, to me.

Gleeman raises the same possibility and adds another possible element, a change in the composition and tendencies of the Minnesota pitching staff:

Now the numbers show that he made a complete turnaround in just one year, going from horrible to great in FRAA, average to great in Fielding Win Shares, and horrendous to above average in UZR. Only DPI shows him as still being below average. Now, it's certainly possible that those numbers are legit, but I have a hard time believing it's just a coincidence that Guzman's gigantic improvements came in the same season that the old, fast Metrodome turf was replaced with new,
slower turf, and the Twins went from having a fly ball pitching staff to a ground ball pitching staff.Perhaps in past years Guzman was unfairly penalized for having few opportunities (because of the fly ball pitching staff) and those opportunities being very difficult ones (because of the fast turf). Or perhaps now Guzman is being unfairly credited with having lots of opportunities (because
of the ground ball staff) and those opportunities being easy ones (because of the slow turf). Or maybe it's neither of those things, but either way something just doesn't seem right to me.

What do I think? I think I need an aspirin. But I'm going to soldier on and look at the "FieldTurf Theory" from another perspective, if you don't mind.

2. Whither the triples?

Guzman, you might have noticed, has displayed a Neon Deionian proclivity for hitting triples. It all started in 2000, when an otherwise weak-hitting Guzman smacked 20 three-baggers. He followed that performance with an especially potent (for a shortstop) .477 SLG in 2001, a seasonal line that included 14 triples. He "slumped" a bit in 2002, dropping down to six triples, then bounced back in 2003 with another 14 triples.

And then, last season, in the season in which Guzman purportedly displayed tremendously improved range (and, while recognizing much of range is instinct and positioning, presumably agility is a factor in the equation too), Guzman declined all the way down to four triples.

Well, I think we've reached a genuine, Jerry Seinfeld, "What is the deal . . . with THAT?" moment.

Could be a fluke, sure. Anything can happen in one baseball season---and if not "anything," then certainly "a lot of weird stuff."

Then again, my instinct is---in light of the change in the Baggie Dome's surface to mark the 2004 season---to look at home and road splits. I am at something of a disadvantage, because ESPN.com's splits stats only provide three-year totals. I have some old STATS player profile books dating from 1999-2001 lying around in a box somewhere, but I'm afraid that if I start trolling through my book boxes, I'll also find my old Evidence casebook, and I don't want that.

But I do have the 2002-04 data, and I suppose it is at least marginally, eh, probative:

2002: 6 triples (4 home, 2 road)
2003: 14 triples (11 home, 3 road)
2004: 4 triples (0 home, 4 road)

And why I'm at it, how about Twins home games in general?

2002: 44 total Metrodome triples (26 Twins, 18 opponents)
2003: 39 total Metrodome triples (25 Twins, 14 opponents)
2004: 20 total Metrodome triples (11 Twins, 9 opponents)

Well, that's interesting. I'm sure other factors could contribute (e.g., as Gleeman notes, greater groundball emphasis among Twinkie pitchers), but it's still interesting.

I'm not sure if it means anything, and even if I did, I don't think I've approached the subject with enough precision and vigor to be qualified to say so. Still, if I were to voice a "Grand FieldTurf Theory"---interconnecting every living Metrodome thing not unlike The Force---I'd say that slower turf slows down balls in the outfield just as it down in the infield, and it's not inconsistent to say that Guzman's triples could go way down and his range could go way up.

Whether that means that Guzman's a good defender who was previously hurt by his home park or is a substandard defender who was helped for a year by his home park, again, I cannot say.

3. Geez, way to take a position, buddy. Not that anyone outside of Bill James' beard cares about that stuff. What do you actually think of Guzman, as a Washington National?

A) Maicer Izturis---we should pause and mention for Tom Boswell's benefit that he was traded to Anaheim with Juan Rivera---is young, cheap and hit well at Triple-A. Not to say that means the guy would have been an all-star for us, or even established himself at shortstop. Then again, there is something to be said for being cheap and young enough to improve.
B) The good thing about a longer contract for Guzman is that it provides some cost certainty. The bad thing about a longer contract for Guzman is that, if he flops, it brings cost certainty.
C) Guzman is entering his "magic age-27 season," although it would be pretty hard for him to top 2001.
D) Age 27 peak issues aside, get ready for tons of outs from Guzman---on the offensive end, for sure. Defense is still an open question, of course.


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