Tuesday, August 11, 2015

MLB GMs Undervalue Defense

The book Moneyball has gotten a lot of media coverage over the last decade, often being credited (incorrectly) for the growth of advanced stats in the game. I'm not even going to talk about the movie that had almost no relation to the book. But the main point of the Oakland Athletics strategy in Moneyball was to find skills that other teams were undervaluing. At the time the book was written, on base percentage was very undervalued. That's no longer the case, so teams need to find new ways to find undervalued players.

Defense continues to be an extremely important part of the game but it doesn't seem to get the credit it deserves, both from the media and the salaries great defenders get from their teams. While last year's Kansas City Royals "small ball" approach drew the ire of the advanced stats crowd (myself included), their elite defense all season fits right into the advanced stat mold. 

Preventing runs can be just as valuable as scoring runs, but in today's fantasy centric world, offensive numbers are all the rage. Being an elite defender is basically as rare as being an elite hitter, but elite defenders that can't hit rarely receive large contracts. However, elite offensive players that are black holes defensively continue to receive massive contracts from teams enticed by their 25 home runs.

Darwin Barney, the former cubs second baseman who's now with the Dodgers, has been a great defender at second base dating back to 2012. Using Fangraphs UZR/150 rating, Barney saved 17 runs per 150 games in 2012, 15 in 2013 and 17 again last season. Every 10 runs saved is generally worth 1 win, so over a full season Barney's defense at second base has been worth about a win and a half alone. He signed with the Dodgers this past off-season for $2,500,000 for one season in his second round of arbitration.

Barney has never been a good hitter, but major league second baseman in general aren't good hitters. In 2012, second baseman posted a respectable .714 OPS, better than shortstops and DH's that season. Barney's OPS was just .653, but he did steal 6 bases in 7 attempts to help add a little more value. His defense was elite, and WAR ranked him as worth more than 4 wins above replacement. That's a great season.

In 2013 Barney's offense fell, as he posted just a .569 OPS in 141 games. The average offensive second baseman had a .711 OPS that season. Barney became just a part-time player in 2014 following his poor offensive performance the year before, but that's where GM's seem to make mistakes. A poor offensive season almost always means the team is looking for a replacement, but a league average hitter with no defense will often get to keep his position for years, like Torii Hunter as he ages.

Daniel Murphy of the Mets is a good example of this. Since 2012, he's posted a .736 OPS, above average each season for second baseman. Unfortunately, he's been horrible defensively in that time, negating almost all the value his offense creates. In 2012, Murphy's UZR was -13.3, meaning his defense was costing his team more than 1 win a season. His offense was worth about 2 wins above the average second baseman, so Murphy wasn't without value. But his overall season, when factoring in offense and defense, was considerably worse than Darwin Barney's 2012 season.

Murphy has posted basically identical OPS' each season since. .733 in 2013 and .734 in 2014. He did improve his defense from brutal to just below average over the last two seasons, but his offensive contributions continue to be negated by his poor defense. Following the 2013 season, Murphy received a $5,700,000 contract in his second season of arbitration. That salary was based entirely on his offensive production. Barney was better over two years than Murphy overall, but because Murphy's offense was better and that's overvalued, he received more than double Barney's salary. (Both players made about $2.3M in their first arbitration season)

Murphy and Barney have been similar players when given the same amount of playing time, but because of the emphasis on offense, teams can find cheap production and extreme value by targeting elite defenders that have never really hit well in the big leagues. Murphy continues to play every day for the Mets, while Barney's been demoted to AAA by the Dodgers. LA has a lot of depth, but Barney is deserving of an opportunity. Again, his offense is being overvalued while his defense is being undervalued, which is a bad combination for someone with Barney's skill set.

While Barney and Murphy are only examples, there are undervalued defenders and overvalued offensive players at almost every position. Rather than going after a league average offensive player, teams need to begin targeting elite defenders with below average offense. They will not only get better production for winning games, they'll also get a cheaper player, allowing the team to add more talent with the savings. Players like Torii Hunter, veterans who are league average offensive players but horribly defensively, shouldn't be paid $10 million a year. Even if Hunter is the world's greatest leader (he's not) that's still too much money when the team could have gotten the same kind of overall production for a fraction of the cost. As fans, we like to watch the team score runs, but even more importantly, we like to watch a winning team. It'd be nice if the decision makers would use common sense instead of emotions when adding players in the off-season. Don't count on it though.