Pitching and defense

By Jason Wojciechowski on April 10, 2005 at 5:08 PM

I watched a number of games (Chicago at Arizona, 4/4; Atlanta at Florida, 4/5; Boston at New York, 4/6; Atlanta at Florida, 4/6; Los Angeles at San Francisco, 4/6) this week on the old tube, so as a capital-B Blogger, I'm legally obligated to tell you the kinds of things I was thinking about while I was watching.

First, the pitchers. It seemed like every time I turned around, someone or other was getting smoked: Javier Vazquez for the Diamondbacks, John Smoltz making his starting re-debut, Mariano Rivera continue his long painful descent against the Red Sox, and the whole San Francisco bullpen giving up laser after laser to the Dodgers. Each pitcher seemed to have a different reason for struggling, though, which is what makes the game so great.

Vazquez didn't have any kind of curveball, so the Cubs just sat back and waited for the fastball, which was only mediocre, and hammered it. And they really were hammering it, too, hitting line drives all over the place, not getting bloops to just drop in or anything.

John Smoltz, on the other hand, didn't look terrible, despite the results. In the first inning, he had Luis Castillo down before he walked him on some close pitches, Rafael Furcal nearly took away Miguel Cabrera's single, and Mike Lowell had two strikes before he fouled off a number of pitches, then dumped a weak hit into left. Fouling pitches off until they got one to hit really seemed to be the Marlins's M.O. in the first inning. Well, except for Juan Encarnacion. He simply hammered a terrible hanging pitch from Smoltz for the grand slam that essentially ended the game before it really got a chance to get going.

I didn't really get any notes on Rivera or the Giant bullpen. Rivera was just off, his usual pinpoint control with the cutter not really there, and the results reflected that. The San Francisco relievers ... well, maybe they're just not any good.


The other common thread that seemed to run throughout these games was defense, some good, some bad, and some that left me scrambling for stats.

First, Miguel Cabrera. I had the pleasure of getting to watch two games worth of the young left fielder at the plate, and the pain of watching him lumber around in the outfield. Twice balls flew out to left that I thought would be easy outs but dropped in for hits in front of him. It's hard to tell from TV what kind of jumps he's getting, but he really seems to run awkwardly, and, if the Marlins hadn't acquired Carlos Delgado this off-season, I might start wondering about a move to first base in the near future. On the other hand, Cabrera's defensive statistics calculated by Baseball Prospectus don't really back up my observational skills: he has a 103 Rate (i.e. he's three runs above average every hundred games) in 114 games in left, so he's essentially been an average defender out there. On the other hand, in 34 games at third base, his rate is just 93 and in 100 games in right, it is 92. Basically, it looks like he's a natural left fielder. He's good enough to rumble around out there and not hurt his team relative to other left fielders because they all rumble just as much as he does. Any move to the right on the defensive spectrum could hurt the Marlins, though.

Next, the Yankees. Oh, it's always fun to pick on a team like New York when they can't assemble a half-way decent defense up the middle. Bernie Williams is visibly slow in center field and just doesn't get to balls he used to get to. In the fourth inning of the game, Doug Mirabelli hit a single to center that the old Bernie or any decent center fielder would have gotten, but the zombie version could only watch it helplessly drop in.

Tony Womack is at least as shaky as Bernie, though it's not age-related: he's got a career Rate of 96 at second base, and it's only that high because of a great 112 season in 1998. In no other season was he even over 91. As you might expect, he's not much of a shortstop, either, with a career rate of 92. To be that bad, you've got to have bad range, but what I noticed with Womack was bad hands. He just doesn't seem comfortable scooping up a ground ball of any kind, in stark contrast to, say, Jeff Kent, who I'll talk about later.

Finally, Derek Jeter. What else is there to say? A career Rate of 91 at short, buoyed by a career year of 102 last season, with visibly awful range. He's not just not making tough plays that good shortstop make in the hole: the play that prompted my note was a slow roller hit by Kevin Millar. Jeter made his classic dive, getting dirty and looking pretty while doing absolutely nothing to help the team, while Millar cruised in to first base.

Back to Jeff Kent: I'm not really aware of Kent's defensive reputation in the mainstream community. I'd guess that people who haven't seen him play or who don't know the numbers would look at his size and his hitting ability and figure that he's a butcher, a guy who only plays there so he can give his team offensive value. Of course, they couldn't be further from the truth. Kent has a career Rate of 100 at second, which is dragged down by three pretty bad years with the Mets early in his career. It looks to me like some infield coach in Cleveland or San Francisco got ahold of him and turned him into a good defensive infielder. It's not quite an Eric Chavez-style turnaround, but he went from Rates of 86, 92, and 92 with the Mets to 104, 96, 99, 106, 113, 104, 97, and 108 in his last eight seasons. No, he's not always above average, and he had only one really great year, but he's gone from a guy you might want to consider moving to first base to someone who at worst will provide an average presence at second. He's actually a case where the eyes match up with the numbers, too. He doesn't look like he does an outstanding job out there (no cannon for an arm, no otherworldly range), but he looks very smooth and in control all the time, and you really start to notice that he gets to balls. Even when he's ranging into right field and throwing off balance to first base, the throw is on the money, not rushed, and makes the out.