I’m not a fan of hyperbole, or outlandish headlines that lack substance. Maybe this is why I have a problem with the Skip Baylesses and Tony Kornheisers of the world, journalists who may have dedicated years of their lives to their craft, but care most about making a sensational splash. Unfortunately, since the internet gives almost anyone the chance to voice their opinions, many writers resort to these tactics in order to gain readership or attention. I vow never to do that because I personally dislike it so much.
With that said, Jimmy Rollins is on pace to have, arguably, the best defensive season ever by a shortstop. And if we can all get past the blockbuster move the Phillies made today by purchasing the contract of John Ennis, I’ll tell you why.
Rollins has played 123 games this season, and racked up 1089 innings at shortstop. In those 1089 innings, he has had 483 total chances in the field, and made three errors. THREE ERRORS! These three, measly errors are the fewest among all major league shortstops, and contribute to his ML-leading .994 fielding percentage.
Before we continue, let’s first discuss the relevancy of fielding percentage, a very imperfect stat. The reason fielding percentage cannot be used as the sole defensive statistic is because it is based on errors, a stat decided by the official scorer at a major league game, who happens to be an imperfect human being.
As Garret Anderson proved last night, the term “error” is broad and can sometimes be used in an unjust fashion. Had Anderson not caught up to the ball hit by Carlos Ruiz last night and gotten leather on it, there would not have been a question as to whether it was a double or error. It would have been a double, but since it fell in and out of the leftfielder’s glove, the official scorer originally ruled it an E-7.
This displays the problem with errors. A player who has great range, a player like Rollins or Pedro Feliz, gets to a great amount of balls and increases their total chances. The more total chances a player has, the more opportunities the player has to make an error. So, in this sense, some errors are GOOD, because it is always better to get to a ball and make an attempt than let it pass you.
The best example of this is Derek Jeter, a great offensive shortstop who is, quantifiably, one of the worst defenders at his position every year (despite us seeing a highlight on SportsCenter every time he makes a jump-throw.) Jeter’s fielding percentage never signifies his lack of defensive prowess, because he covers less ground than a guy like Jimmy Rollins. So a ball that passes between the hole at short and third for Jeter will always be a hit rather than an error, whereas if Jimmy were to get to it and muff it, it will be an error.
Do you see the problem?
This is where stats such as Zone Rating, Ultimate Zone Rating, and Error Runs Above Average come into play, and become extremely useful.
Zone Rating, as found on ESPN.com, measures the amount of balls fielded in a specific player’s zone. Rollins is second in the major leagues in ZR, behind only Edgar Renteria.
Ultimate Zone Rating, or UZR, is a stat found at Fangraphs.com, that takes Zone Rating into account, as well as amount of errors, the range a player has on double plays, and the strength of their arm. Rollins ranks fourth among NL shortstops this season, and was first among NL shortstops last season. Year in and year out, Rollins ranks among the top five in baseball in zone rating.
Error Runs Above Average is a stat that indicates how many runs a player has saved his team on defense, above an “average” defender. Rollins has saved 3.7 runs above average thus far in 2009, second in the NL only to Troy Tulowitzki, who has also had 52 more total chances than Rollins, which helps Tulo’s cause. Last season, Rollins was also second in the NL.
All of these stats signify the great range and consistency Jimmy Rollins has at the diamond’s toughest position. More weight is placed upon every defensive statistic at the shortstop position because of how much ground a shortstop has to cover, along with their great amount of chances, and role as captain of the infield, a position Rollins flourishes in.
The best defensive season for a shortstop, in terms of fielding percentage, belongs to Cal Ripken Jr., who committed only three erros in 680 chances in 1990. This may flabbergast you, or it may not, based on how meaningless the award has become, but Ripken DID NOT win a Gold Glove award that season. Ripken’s zone rating and range factor were almost identical to the numbers Rollins has posted this season.
Our beloved shortstop likely won’t match Ripken’s 680 chances – Rollins is 197 behind with only 34 games remaining. Even if he played nine innings in all 34 remaining games, Rollins would still fall nine innings short of Ripken’s 1406 in the field.
But if he doesn’t commit an error the rest of the way, Rollins’ remarkable season with the glove will be right in line with Ripken’s unbelievable 1990 season. When you factor in the increased speed of players in 2009 to 1990, along with the fact Ripken had that season for a 76-96, fifth place Orioles team compared to Rollins, who has been unbelievable during a pressure-packed, first-place season following a World Series victory, it can be argued that Rollins feat is even more impressive.
And boy, does he make it look pretty.