Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kuechel wins second Gold Glove, Altuve gets one too.

The Constable has been doing a sterling job this offseason keeping us all up to date with the news around Astros baseball.  The major news that came out today was around the winners of the Gold Gloves, and I am sure that he will make further comment later today.  Around the three Royals that were being honoured, Dallas Keuchel won his second consecutive Gold Glove, and Jose Altuve won his first.

These awards, of course, occurred after a stunning turnaround for the 2015 season, where the Astros looked the most likely of the playoff teams to roll the eventual World Series champs.  Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of the Astros' turnaround was around defence - the 2014 Astros were the worst defensive team in baseball (via the Ultimate Zone Rating, or UZR).  The standard disclaimer that defensive stats kind of suck certainly applies here.

But how bad were the 2014 Astros??  FanGraphs combines the UZR with DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), and in doing so, calculated that the Astros were worth minus-74 runs in the field, or about minus-7 wins.  The best defensive team in baseball was the Royals, who were worth about +74 runs in the field, so potentially the difference between the two teams in 2014 was 14 or 15 wins.

Fast-forward to 2015, and the Astros suddenly became a middle-of-the-pack defensive outfit.  According to Fangraphs (and, again, defensive stats be damned), the Astros were worth minus-7.6 runs overall on defence.  Their UZR improved to minus-0.6, and their DRS was the fourth in baseball, well into positive territory with a value of 30 runs saved.  It may not seem like much, but according to the numbers (and, if you trust them), the Astros improved around six wins in 2015 over 2014, and trailed the best defensive team in baseball by 6 wins, instead of 15.

The standard caveats around shifting, and whether DRS and UZR know what to do with a third baseman standing to the right-side of second base apply, of course.  But, as someone who watches the Astros regularly (and has to write about them afterward), they were certainly a better defensive team from a visual perspective.  Much of this was due to the outfield that, at times, could consist of three legit CF-able players - them being Rasmus, Marisnick / Gómez and Springer.  Swapping Matt Dominguez out with either Luis Valbuena or Jed Lowrie was also probably a bonus.  Chris Carter didn't suck at first, and Valbuena got his lefty-glove a workout at first late in the season.  And Carlos Correa visually proved that he has the defensive chops to at least stay at short for the foreseeable future.  Just like that, you have a much better run-prevention team.

So that improvement is likely reflected in a couple of Gold Gloves being directed the Astros' way.  Keuchel's award is certainly deserved - via DRS, he is the best fielding pitcher in baseball, edging out fellow Gold Glover Zack Greinke by 4 runs, or just over one-quarter of Keuchel's total defensive value.  But Jose Altuve wasn't close - he ranked at 15th in baseball on DRS (Ian Kinsler was first, a whopping 16 runs ahead of Altuve) and 55th in baseball on UZR (although many of the players on the UZR list played a very small number at second base... like Carlos Gómez, who ranked 74th in his one inning of work while in Milwaukee there).  Combining the two measures helps Altuve a little - he ranked 10th in baseball defensively, and fifth in the AL for players with over 200 innings at the position.

As many of you probably suspected, Altuve's numbers were never going to fully support this award.  This is probably more a reward for his general, all-round, good-guy attitude, and assisted by the fact that he didn't win the batting title.

As for the other infield positions??  Jason Castro was solid at Catcher, and was certainly in the conversation for the award, although inferior to the eventual winner, Sal Pérez.  Chris Carter was never in the running at first - no surprise there.  The numbers hate Carlos Correa at shortstop, rating him ninth from the bottom in baseball, ahead of Jonathan Villar, but well below defensive luminaries such as Marwin Gonzalez and Kiké Hernández.  Correa was in the same territory as Jose Reyes, for the sake of comparison.  The numbers are also unkind to Luis Valbuena, who is assessed as having a negative defensive value, but still 12 runs better than Pablo Sandoval, who is the worst of the third basemen.  Man, I am glad the Astros don't have his contract.

As for the outfielders:  George Springer is - according to FanGraphs - worth negative defensive runs in RF, as was Colby Rasmus.  Preston Tucker is apparently better in RF than both Springer and Rasmus.  Handsome Jake was the sixteenth best CF in baseball - compatible, roughly to Mookie Betts and Jarrod Dyson.  Marisnick was also the leading Astro in LF (10th in baseball), but all other Astros basically sucked in LF, including Colby Rasmus - again assessed in the negative runs saved.

I doubt that this quick and dirty analysis is going to make Astros fans fonder of either FanGraphs or defensive statistics, but there is a silver lining here.  Imagine, if you will, further improvement in the Astros' defensive abilities, plus another year of development for their young bats, and a full year of guys like Lance McCullers and Vincent Velasquez.  Then you have a potential 90-win team, and perhaps one that goes deeper into the postseason.  But for now, the Astros and their fans will have to be content with two Gold Gloves, even if one was more likely a recognition of a solid all-round season.