Washington Nationals fans have rejoiced at the return of Ryan Zimmerman to the big leagues. Given the offensive woes of the club as of late, and the emotional attachment to the Z-man many ’05ers feel for the greatest Nat ever, it’s no surprise that new and old fans alike have nearly thrown a ticker tape parade in his honor. Couple all of that with the fact that he is selflessly playing out of positionin left field, and, well, you have a Boz column pre-cooked. Just unwrap and publish.
I’d like to write about something slightly different.
Despite a town built on controversy in sports, Nats fans have jumped on board with moving a career 3B infielder to left, and well they should. In last night’s 8-4 beatdown of the Phillies, the Z-man took a fairly awful turn on a ball hit to him and an out became a double off the wall. “Eh” was the response from most Nats fans on twitter, “that’s to be expected. He’s been on the job for less than a week, cut him some slack.”
“Eh” they say, which was a far cry from the “This Span guy isn’t so great” when he first got here (because no one knew he was making difficult catches look easy yet), and a near 180 from when a young catcher who had only been playing outfield for two years took a long run into a short wall.
There is no doubt that some of the slack given Zim is because he’s earned it. In 2009 and 2010, Zimmerman was putting up near MVP numbers, and on a team that just broke even he might have got some votes to show for it. He was the only reason to come to the park for a very, very long time.
But the slack given to Zim, divorced from that emotion, still makes sense- and it is something I think fans can learn some “stats things” from. Each Nats fan knows intuitively that 1. Ryan Zimmerman hits very well and that 2. Ryan Zimmerman is going to make some fielding errors in Left Field. And yet, despite the errors and mistakes you simply know will happen, to a person everyone agrees that he should be in left field because the goodness of his bat outweighs the mistakes in the field. Whatever he is going to cost you in the field, he is going to make up for you at the plate – and then some.
If you can grasp that concept, then congratulations you can basically grasp “advanced stats” and WAR. All those stats do is calculate what someone is earning/costing you in the field or with the bat. In fact, when we look at Ryan’s fangraphs page you can see they’ve broken out OFF (offense) DEF (Defense) and WAR. The Offense and Defense numbers are the runs above (or below) average a player creates (OFF) or saves (DEF) his team.
You can see that he was 30+ runs above average in 2009 and 2010, and that even in 2012 and 2013 he was no slouch with the bat. On defense, you can see he hasn’t been the dynamo at third since about 2011 (which is why we’ve long predicted a move to 1B. The arm, mostly, was going). But even when he cost the team 12 runs in 2013, he was still worth a net positive 7ish runs when you factor in his bat. That’s the calculation that is going on with him now. Whatever he is going to cost the team in Left Field (a place notorious for hiding bad fielders. Mike Morse or Adam Dunn anyone?), he is more than likely to make up for using his bat. He’s already 4.2 runs above average in just 11 games this year. Seems like a safe bet to me.
So what does this have to do with Danny Espinosa? or Denard Span, maybe? Because the game of baseball isn’t just about scoring runs, but stopping runs from being scored. Fans are inherently biased to offense in all sports (it’s okay, it’s not an insult!) because you can see the scoring. You can count it. Much, much, harder is to know just how many “runs” Danny Espinosa saves by diving to his left on a grounder checked for center field, or Denard Span saves by #Spanning over to where Zim is playing. I can count the runs they score, but what is that defense worth? You can’t count runs that don’t happen, so you can’t know exactly what was saved/not saved…and so it gets discounted in the minds of folks.
But despite the fact that you discount it, every run saved is worth the same as a run scored. Period. The game is not to score runs, but to score more runs than the other team. The differential of runs scored is what matters, not just how many you amass. If you are tied 3-3 in the 9th, scoring one more run or having stopped one run from scoring is all the difference in the game- and they are worth exactly the same amount.
Put another way: What weighs more: A pound of bricks or a pound of feathers?
So Danny and Denard? They are converse Ryan Zimmermans. Wheras the Nats can hide a defensive liability with a great bat in certain part of the field, they too can hide an offensively struggling player with a great glove lower in the batting order. This is why, even though Danny strikes out a lot he stays on the team. He’s an elite defender at what is basically left handed short stop. It’s why you’ll eat the Ks from Danny the same way you’ll eat the bad routes Zimmerman is going to take in the outfield: He more than makes up for it on the other side of the ball.
It’s also the argument for why Span ought to be moved down in the lineup, but not necessarily off the field. Span, current hot streak not with standing, has underwhelmed at the plate…but not so much that all the runs he saves don’t matter. Batting Span 7th would make a lot of his doubters happy because he’d be getting fewer at bats (so not costing the team as much at the plate), but still be saving a tons in the field. (Not me though, I like this hot streak and think its going places!).
This isn’t to say that Danny Espinosa is as good as Ryan Zimmerman. He’s not. The only lesson here is that the rule is more or less the same. A player struggling in one part of the game can still contribute a lot in another. If you, as a fan, can make the calculus that Zim’s bat is worth the headaches in the outfield, then you can at least understand (if not agree with) the argument that poor hitting players can belong in a lineup too.