Oh yes, we're discussing fielding. That can of worms that doesn't seem to get measured right, credited appropriately, or appreciated properly as far as building a team goes. There's a lot of debate on who are the best fielders, which metric does the best job, who are the best judges, and are Gold Glove awards complete tripe, or recognition of truly, the best gloveman?
Well, none of this really applies to pitchers, so you might as well close the can. A position player has a zone they're supposed to cover or what have you, have to play balls and field them to make outs, turn complicated plays, etc etc etc. If a fielder can't field, they'd better be able to club the ball, and vice-versa. However, a pitcher's job is to pitch the ball. Being a solid fielder is somewhat of a bonus, but not really a make-or-break kind of situation, as most balls that a pitcher actually needs to properly field aren't going to fall in the gap for doubles or rattle around in the corner; that is to say that typically, the worst thing that can happen by a pitcher not getting to a ball is an infield single. Definitely not ideal, but could be much much worse. Of course, I'm excluding throwing errors, which are such a huge deal, but that's another story, and we'll touch on them later.
Back to the issue of zone ratings and such, they don't apply to pitchers. Pitchers may be the only fielder that we can actually look at the basic metrics and get an idea of how well they did.
So let's dive in.
Now, I have all of the pitcher fielding stats from Baseball-Reference (God Bless that site) all sorted into - you guessed it - a big ol' spreadsheet. I started by narrowing it down to only pitchers who faced more than 500 batters this season, basically eliminating relievers and longmen, leaving us with the guys who were starters most of the season - 62 of them. The top 5 on this list are Adam Wainwright (STL), Jason Marquis (COL), Bronson Arroyo (CIN), Ubaldo Jimenez (COL), and Danny Haren (ARI). These guys all faced 942 or more batters this season. The rest of the top-10 are NL West pitchers as well. Note the lack of NL East pitchers...sissies. The bottom 5 are Dave Bush (MIL) with 523 PA, Kyle Lohse (STL), Homer Bailey (CIN), Mike Hampton (HOU), and Hiroki Kuroda (LAD). This kind of is a combination of longevity and inability to get outs. I'm sure you can figure out who is who.
Next, I want to take a look at % of balls in play - meaning anything that isn't a K, BB, HR, or HBP. Top 5 there are Joel Pineiro (STL), Zach Duke (PIT), John Lannan (WAS - hey, an NL East candidate, finally!), Aaron Cook (COL), and Braden Looper (MIL). 81% or more of plate appearances these guys were involved in resulted in a ball in play. The bottom 5 are Tim Lincecum (SFG) at 64%, Jonathan Sanchez (SFG), Yovani Gallardo (MIL), Clayton Kershaw (LAD), and Rich Harden (CHC). Jorge De La Rosa was 6th from last at 66%, and Ubaldo was 12th from last at 69%. Adam Wainwright checks in at 44th, with 72% BIP. What this part tells us that these guys punched out a lot of guys to get their outs, possibly got in trouble with walks/HBP, and generally didn't rely on their defense for too much.
So far, not very interesting. Probably not going to get any better, either. We're just kind of trying to paint a picture of how pitchers do their job, namely Ubaldo. Let's keep plugging on.
Next thing we should look at is how many balls in play a pitcher actually fields - not how many balls a pitcher can successfully turn into an out, mind you, but getting to the ball is half the battle. In terms of just number of balls fielded, Ubaldo leads the pack with 57 fielded balls, followed by Marquis with 52 and Cook with 44. Ryan Dempster (CHC) and Paul Maholm (PIT) fill out the rest of the top 5 in that category. Wainwright snatched up 35 balls, good for 14th overall.
But raw numbers don't really tell us much there, because these pitchers may be completely different in how their plate appearances end up. Ubaldo was pretty near the back end in terms of BIP% and yet let the NL in fielded balls. So I took their Ball-In-Play% and PAs and found out how many balls were put in play. Then I went to find out what percentage of balls in play were fielded by the pitcher, because it's kind of hard to field a ball when it ends up being a strikeout. Leading this category is our boy Ubaldo, who gets a glove on 8.77% of balls put into play, as expected. Trailing are Cookie, Marquis, Livan Hernandez (NYM), and Ryan Dempster again. The least gloveworthy pitchers are Aaron Harang (CIN) and Jonathan Sanchez, tied at 3.34%, followed by Todd Wellemeyer (STL), Manny Parra (MIL), Johnny Cueto (CIN), and Dave Bush.
So now that should seem like a good enough point to hang our hats on, but I thought a bit harder about this: What if a guy isn't a bigtime groundball pitcher? Ubaldo got 52.5% Groundballs on BIP in 2009, while Aaron Harang only saw 34.9% of BIP on the ground. Should we penalize Harang for not having as many opportunities? I mean, how is a pitcher going to field a flyball to right-center? No, the only balls a pitcher can really get to are ground balls or bunts, and for the sake of this part of the analysis, we're going to just use non-bunts - or at least balls that weren't deliberately bunted.
I reworked that percentage to just see what percentage of GROUND BALLS in play a pitcher was able to get his glove on, and the numbers changed a pile. Livan Hernandez now leads the pack, fielding 18.12% of balls put into play on the ground. Ubaldo trails him, followed by Barry Zito (SFG), Kenshin Kawakami (ATL), and Johan Santana (NYM). The bottom 5 in terms of groundball grabbing are: Hiroki Kuroda, John Lannan, Dave Bush, Johnny Cueto, and Manny Parra. Wainwright ranked 44th, at 10.11%.
So simply put, we've established that Ubaldo is at or near the top in terms of being able to get a glove on balls that are hit his way. That's pretty impressive stuff, being able to carry a K/9 over 8 and also be agile enough to field his induced grounders.
But that's not the name of the game of defense, now is it? The goal of defense is to take batted balls and turn them into outs.
So who's the best at that? Well, I suppose the best way to look at it would just be the number of outs converted based on the number of balls fielded, or at least a good starting point. The top 5 on this list is as follows: Carlos Zambrano (CHC) at 96%, followed by John Lannan, Bronson Arroyo, Kenshin Kawakami, and Kevin Correia (SDP). Bottom of the list has Homer Bailey at 71%, Rich Harden, Jamie Moyer (PHI), Manny Parra, and last, Ted Lilly. Ubaldo and Wainwright tied for 32nd at 86%.
So this is kind of closed and finished now, right? Best fielding pitcher in baseball is Carlos Zambrano, right? Well, you could easily make the case that Big Z did the best job on average with the balls he fielded.
But there's other good to be drawn from the numbers we have. How many assists was the fielder responsible for? How good of a job did they do in covering 1B on 3-1 putouts? How often did they start double plays, how often did they make a 1-6 (or 1-4) putout? These are all pretty advanced fielding plays for a pitcher to make, given that they're completely off balance from pitching and probably a bit wary, watching for comebackers.
So for starters, the 3-1 putout. Wainwright and Pineiro led the majors with 23 "3-1" putouts, showing that they did a fine job covering 1B on those bouncers up the line. Chris Carpenter (STL) fell right behind them, followed by Bronson Arroyo and Kevin Correia. Ubaldo comes in at 44th, with only 6 such putouts. The highest Rockie in this category is Aaron Cook, with 15. Does this mean Ubaldo doesn't cover 1B well enough? I don't think so; I think it rather speaks more to the fielding ability of the 1B. Albert Pujols is still arguably the best defensive 1B in the game, so there's a good chance he's making more absurd grabs at 1B that Todd Helton may not be able to get to that enables him to start the 3-1 putout. Considering 3 groundballing STL pitchers are on top of the list, I don't think that's too much of a stretch. Anecdotally, I know that I see him at or near 1B when these plays occur pretty often. But "Anecdotally" only counts for the people actually making the decisions, I need evidence. So let's move on.
I'd argue assists are a pretty huge part of a pitcher's job as well. Being able to get that simple 1-3 out can be a make-or-break kind of play during an inning. Just in terms of assists, Ubaldo leads the NL with 47, followed by Marquis, Paul Maholm, Cook, and Zach Duke.
What's more interesting than the cute little underhand or alligator arm toss to 1B is the plant-and-throw to 2B to nail the lead runner. Ubaldo is 2nd in the NL with assists made to 2B, with 4. Kenshin Kawakami ranks 1st with 6, and then Duke, Arroyo, and Wainwright are tied with Ubaldo at 4 2B assists to round out the top 5. Additionally, Ubaldo leads the NL in Fielder's Choices, with 3. Wainwright only has 1.
To take the 2B assist farther, you can then look at how many 1-6-3 (or 1-4-3) DPs are started by pitchers, but I don't put nearly as much credit on that as I would the 2B assist, simply because the 6/4-3 turn can be more indicative of the fielder. But then again, it could also be a result of a perfect (or errant) throw that causes (or undoes) the double play.
Zach Duke leads the NL with 1-6/4-3 double plays, with 4. Kawakami, Arroyo, Cook, and Brian Moehler (HOU) follow with 3 apiece. The leaders in groundball double plays where the pitcher was involved in any way, shape, or form offer no real surprises, as the top 5 are Ryan Dempster, Zach Duke, Aaron Cook, Brian Moehler, and Kenshin Kawakami.
Finally, errors - and I promise this is almost done - play a big-ish part in pitching fielding, but only in certain ways. If a pitcher can't field a ball cleanly or what have you, typically that results in "everybody's safe", but not much more damage than that, given the fact that the ball was hit about 60 feet, tops. However, throwing error, those are the big ones. Those are the ones that let guys score, give extra bags, and make everyone look dumb. Tied for the MLB lead are - you guessed it - Jorge de la Rosa and Doug Davis (ARI) with 5. Following them are Aaron Cook and Jon Garland (ARI) with 4, and 5 people tied with 3. Ubaldo and Wainwright are tied for last with 0, along with a bunch of others. HOWEVER, Ubaldo does have 2 fielding errors, being his only blemish in this category, while Adam Wainwright is spotless as far as his errors go.
So this needs to wrap up, I've rambled about rankings for long enough. Let's draw some conclusions.
Just comparing Ubaldo and Wainwright, both are as good at converting the balls they field into outs. Good for them. Ubaldo fielded the most balls in the NL this season, hands down. Ubaldo also led the league in assists. He muffed 2 balls to Wainwright's 0, while neither of them committed a throwing error.
Simply looking at the number of "leads" or "top-5" categories Ubaldo falls into as compared to Wainwright, I'd give it to Ubaldo over Wainwright. But I just can't get past that "% of balls fielded turned into outs" ratio that Ubaldo ISN'T leading in. He's clearly good at getting to the balls, but it would seem he's eating a decent number of them - which can be the best fielding decision in itself.
So to conclude, if you asked me who I'd award the Pitching Gold Glove award to, which is the stupidest category (pitcher fielding) of the stupidest postseason award anyhow, I'd be torn between Bronson Arroyo, Kenshin Kawakami, and Ubaldo Jimenez. I don't think Wainwright is bad, but I don't see him making the smart plays, nailing the lead runner, etc, and I feel as if a lot of his putouts are just because Pujols is able to turn a single to RF into a 3-1 out. Not to say that Wainwright doesn't hustle, but come on, who doesn't? I'd probably give it to Kawakami over Arroyo, but Ubaldo's clearly showing his agility in the sheer number of balls he's able to get to.
Ubaldo Jimenez: Out Machine.
If you'd like to see the raw data, check it out here.