Raul Ibanez: Horrible defender.
That’s one of the main things we’ve heard since the Phillies signed Ibanez to a three-year deal. And yes, Ibanez isn’t the most stout defensive player in baseball, but, I’m here to dispell the notion that Ibanez will cost the Phils a bunch of games because of his glove.
Beyond the Box Score rated the top players at each position earlier in the offseason, and this is what they found in left field:
9. Pat Burrell: 37 VORP offense, -7 VORP defense
14. Raul Ibanez: 44 VORP offense, -24 VORP defense
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, Tim, that value over replacement player is horrendous! Of course Ibanez will cost the Phils wins in 2009!” But wait, wait …
David Pinto at Baseball Musings has a statistic called Probabilistic Measure of Range, which determines how many plays above or below expected a player made during a season (it counts balls batted to the player, and determines what is an expected out). In that stat, we see:
Raul Ibanez: -9.07 plays against expected
Pat Burrell: -21.39 plays against expected
Consider almost 100 more expected outs were hit toward Ibanez, and that’s a staggering deficit. Burrell’s number of 223.39 expected is actually less than Carlos Quentin’s number of 228.42, and Quentin played 58 fewer innings in left field. Now, Burrell’s expected outs are low because of three things: Early substitution, Citizens Bank Park, Shane Victorino.
Burrell was taken out of a game before the ninth inning 71 times in 2008; surely Ibanez won’t have the same fate, but it’s possible he’ll get the axe before the ninth a bunch of times. Next, the ballpark played a large role in Burrell’s range — most balls hit toward Burrell were either singles or home runs; a few balls became doubles, but that’s always the case in the corners. Finally, Victorino covered more ground than maybe any center fielder in 2008. When Vic is in center field, it allows the left fielder to patrol a smaller area, and that’s especially true with the speedy Jayson Werth in right field.
Basically, there’s no need for a high defensive priority in left field. So all the Philllies needed was a player who can field left field with a touch more consistency, and Ibanez does that.
The charts show Ibanez had the most trouble fielding balls closer to the third base line. Well, with Victorino in center, Ibanez can afford a few steps to the left, giving him an opportunity to improve on that statistic. (Ichiro played center until June, when the more inept Jeremy Reed took over duties with Wladimir Balentien.) Is it any trouble to ask Vic to step to his left a bit more?
The answer: No. Both Victorino and Werth were pretty consistent fielding balls at all ends of their position.
On the contrary, Burrell had his most trouble fielding balls toward center field, or, somewhat out of position.
But what about that pesky VORP? What about those 24 fielding runs? Well, if the defense is aligned to give Ibanez more out chances near third base, and less in Victorino’s land, you’re likely decreasing 10 runs from that number, and suddenly you’re looking at a more manageable 14 runs under. Meanwhile, consider Citizens Bank Park against Safeco Field — the smaller, easier-to-handle Citizens (329 to 374 is well … a bandbox … compared to the spacy Safeco (from 331 to 390 in left field, on a sharp outward diagonal). Take away another three or four runs. Suddenly we’re at about 10 runs under. And let’s say Ibanez gets pulled from a full more games. Take away another two runs. Eight under. Right there with Burrell’s seven under.
So, by bringing in Ibanez, you shore up all ends of the outfield while betting on a guy who will be somewhat consistent in his play. Meanwhile, you give him improved defensive numbers. Sure, we’ll have our battles out there, but it probably won’t be any worse than Burrell; in fact, it may be better. And that’s the point.