If you've been a member of the Purple Row community for several years, you're probably aware of some of the skepticism expressed from time to time when it comes to defense metrics. Specifically, outfield defensive metrics. This was a particularly hot topic two or three years ago when Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez received unfriendly grades from some of these metrics when they appeared to be very good according to the eye test.
The theory went something like this: The Coors Field outfield is so large, and the ball travels so differently at altitude, the defensive metrics underrate Rockies outfielders and can't be trusted when it comes to this team. The idea's interesting, but it's also hard to test. However, following the 2014 season, we have new information that sheds some light on the subject.
Dexter Fowler has now spent a season away from Coors Field; Brandon Barnes and Drew Stubbs meanwhile came to the Coors outfield after years of playing elsewhere, and in addition to this, we also have more information piling up when it comes to Charlie Blackmon and Michael Cuddyer.
So let's take a look at what the defense metrics have to say. In the following tables I've listed the player, the number of games they played each of the last three seasons, their outfield (and only outfield) defensive metric scores according to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), and Total Zone, and finally their average defensive score each season between those three metrics. (I did not do a table for Corey Dickerson because he was only called up in the middle of the 2013 season and doesn't have as much major league data here as the other players. He'll be an interesting guy to look at after next season.)
It's only one season, but this is a big win for the defensive metrics. Not only do they continue to insist Fowler is a below average defender, but they also unanimously think Fowler had his worst season ever after leaving Coors Field. In addition to this, look at the agreement between all three defensive metrics each year when it comes to this player. This doesn't automatically mean they're correct, but if they are correct, these are exactly the type of things we would expect to see. The case for Fowler being anything but a below average glove in the outfield is getting harder and harder support.
Barnes represents the flip side of the Fowler journey. If the Coors Field outfield defensive metrics theory is correct, we would expect to see a big drop in the numbers for Barnes in 2014, but for the most part that doesn't happen. Both the Defensive Runs Saved numbers and the average between the three metrics indicate that Barnes is a pretty consistently solid defender. There is however a drop in the Ultimate Zone Rating score, but it's also alone in its thinking.
In some ways, Stubbs is the most interesting test subject we have, because he's spent the last three seasons with three different teams. He's also the most interesting test subject we have because the results vary widely from year to year. One thing is certain however, his defensive numbers did not get worse when he put on a Rockies uniform. Instead, it seems like Stubbs just had a really poor year in 2013 and the Rockies scooped him up at a good buy low time. All three defensive metrics agree that Stubbs had his worst season defensively in 2013.
Moving on now to the outfielders who have spent each of the last three seasons in a Rockies uniform, Blackmon's an interesting guy to evaluate. Sometimes he's up, sometimes he's down, and in large sample size he comes across as league average, which actually seems pretty reasonable when you watch him play every day, both offensively and defensively for that matter.
No real surprise here. The eye test says Cuddyer is not a good defender, and the metrics say Cuddyer is not a good defender. He didn't rack up too terrible a score in the outfield in 2014, but he also didn't play many games out there. Either way, I don't think there much of a case for these scores being a result of odd metrics at Coors Field. Cuddyer likely earned these numbers.
Some of Cargo's early career numbers don't make much sense when compared to the eye test, but his average defensive score over the last three seasons actually fits the real life narrative quite well. Cargo was visually tentative defensively in 2012 after a wrist injury wrecked the second half of his 2011. He definitely became a more cautious player on that side of the ball that season and didn't know how to perfect that line yet. He then got better at it in 2013 when he became more aggressive before his knee injury likely hurt his defense in 2014. From what I watched, these 2012-2014 number as a whole make sense.
The one thing that does not make sense however is that -9 Total Zone Score in 2013. I think we can certainly question that one particular figure.
* * * * *
I don't want to draw any hard conclusions off this data, but I do want to point out that there's more and more reasons to trust these defensive numbers, even in Coors Field. I'm not saying to trust the exact figure, but the general number they average is probably somewhere in the right neighborhood. In short, don't take these metrics as gospel, but definitely use them as guides.
One more thing I'd like to point out here before I wrap this up. Take a look at what the Dodgers have done this off season. Everybody wanted to see what the "geniuses with money" would value, and interestingly enough, it seems to be defensive metrics.
They swapped Dee Gordon for Howie Kendrick at second base, they let Hanley Ramirez walk so they could trade for a more reliable glove at shortstop in Jimmy Rollins, and they did everything they could to ship Matt Kemp and his terrible defensive numbers out of town. This indicates to me that the new folks in the Dodgers' front office not only value what the defensive metrics have to say, but are willing to build an off season around them.