A few days ago, the Rockies PR Twitter account served up some interesting information for those of us without television, cable, time to watch cable television, or all of the above. It was also for those of us without access to Statcast's route efficiency metrics, a description that can be applied to the majority of baseball fans and followers:
One of the first things to take note of is that Mike Trout, whose defense was thought to be falling off from his rookie season, leads the pack. The second thing to note is that Austin Jackson hasn't played for the Tigers in over a year. And the third thing to note—the detail that will most interest readers of this website—is that Charlie Blackmon is third in baseball among center fielders in route efficiency.
I noted a few weeks ago that Blackmon's offense has improved this season. He's better at the plate this year than he was last year, though he might end up being remembered more for his All-Star 2014 due to his blazing hot start. I didn't mention his defense in that article. The figure above indicates that he's having a good year in center field. I believe that the eye test confirms that. Interestingly, however, other advanced defensive metrics are more skeptical. Let's dive in to his defense to see what we can say about all of that.
We have to acknowledge a caveat about the Statcast data. Namely, there's not a lot of analysis to do for the figure above. The information isn't publicly available, so we don't know things such as gap between best and average and average and worst. We don't know what the run value difference is between, for instance, Trout and Blackmon. Have they been more or less the same, or is the discrepancy meaningful? We also don't know how important route efficiency is with regard to a total defensive profile. Is it more or less important than, for instance, having a good arm?
We don't know the answers to these questions, but what we can say with a good deal of confidence is that taking good routes to the baseball is an important part of playing center field, the most important and most difficult of the three outfield positions.
Let's look at an example of what looks to me like a good Charlie Blackmon route. I unrigorously identified this because it fit two criteria. First, I remembered it. Memorability is a good thing. Second, I really like outfield to infield double plays.
A couple of things in this video stand out. First, it looks like Blackmon was playing Buster Posey deep. This was likely an efficient route, but we have to also recognize that outfield positioning might have also played a role. If that was the case, that's a good thing. It's better to maximize the talents of the players with effective coaching rather than rely on raw ability. We also have to note that Drew Goodman says that Angel Pagan misread the play, which led to him getting doubled up. Nevertheless, the strong and accurate throw that finished the play highlights another of Blackmon's outfield talents.
That play gives us one bit of eye test evidence that Blackmon has been good in center field. The Statcast data, at least in terms of what we know about it, supports that case. Interestingly, advanced fielding metrics are not a fan of Blackmon in center field. FanGraphs' UZR gives Blackmon a -4.4 rating in 2015. UZR is best used in a large sample though, but the bigger sample is still below average. In over 1600 center field innings, Blackmon's UZR is -9.3. Baseball Prospectus's FRAA similarly rates Blackmon as a below average: -3.8 this season and -4.7 for his career in all outfield positions. Finally, according to DRS, Blackmon has cost the Rockies nine runs in center field this season.
There are more data points. Inside Edge rates each outfield chance according to the likelihood the fielder records an out. There are six categories. "Impossible" plays have a zero percent chance of being made, "remote" plays one to 10 percent, "unlikely" plays 10 to 40 percent, "even" plays 40 to 60 percent, "likely" plays 60 to 90 percent, and "routine" plays 90 to 100 percent. According to these measures, every play Blackmon has made has either been routine, likely, or even. He hasn't made a single play that was unlikely, remote, or (perhaps obviously) impossible. Not only that, but he's successfully turned only one of four "even" chances into an out. Per Inside Edge's scouts, Blackmon is pretty good at making easy plays, but he doesn't make the difficult, or even moderately difficult, ones.
In visual form:
So how can we reconcile all of this with Statcast's route efficiency data? On the one hand, it's possible that Blackmon's efficient routes cause Inside Edge scouts and other fielding metrics to see "likely" plays that are more difficult than they appear. The top five center fielders in route efficiency are all within one percentage point, so it's easy to accept that the human eye can't make some of these distinctions, and that route efficiency is a better indicator of Blackmon's year in center field.
On the other hand, it's possible that the fractions of percentile differences don't signify a meaningful separation of ability. Where, for example, are Kevin Kiermaier and Lorenzo Cain, who look like they are among the best defensive center fielders in baseball? If route efficiency differences aren't that important, or even if route efficiency isn't that important, then maybe things like DRS and Inside Edge data are better barometers of Blackmon's season.
Say it with me: the truth is probably somewhere in between. Things like route efficiency are exciting to see, but it's shallow right now. The fact that the route efficiency evidence in this article is a tweet of a screen shot is evidence of that. Hopefully, route efficiency and other Statcast data points will soon be public and integrated into existing defensive metrics. Until then, we can grab these nuggets and try to envision how something like route efficiency might interact with the information we do have.