A Retrosheet-based fielding evaluation method
UPDATE: After posting this as Dan Fox's method, Joe Arthur noted in the comments that Sean Smith previously introduced much the same method back in April. See Joe's link in the comments. As far as I can tell, it looks like Sean deserves credit for the method, and Dan for the improvements. I've changed the title, but the rest of the post remains the same.
Dan Fox has a significant new fielding evaluation method, which he explains over at Baseball Prospectus. (If that link is subscriber-only, try this post from Dan's own blog.)
How good your fielding stat is depends in large part on how much data you have. If you're only using "Baseball Encyclopedia" data, you've got range factor, or, more notably, Bill James' improved range-factor-type stat as explained in "Win Shares." If you've got full information of what "zone" of the field the ball covered, you can calculate a zone rating, the percentage of plays within reach of the defender that he actually turned into outs.
Fox's new stat is in the middle. It doesn't use full observational data, like Zone Rating, but it does use the play-by-play data found at Retrosheet. Specifically, it uses Retrosheet's rough description of the type of hit, and where on the diamond it went. I wish I had thought of it myself. I think it's got to be close to the best possible evaluation given the limit of publicly available data. Back in Win Shares, Bill James said, about his new method,
"this is the best sabermetric work I have done in the last ten years, maybe twenty ... I feel I have made some ... breakthroughs which will certainly lead, when other people see the work I have done and apply their own abilities to the issues I have raised, to even more and even larger advances."
My feeling is that Dan's method is the next advance above Bill's. I don't think Dan explicitly started with Bill's method, but wound up where he did through other, more obvious, paths. But, perhaps because of my experience with Bill's method (we adapted it for the eighth edition of Total Baseball), my first reaction was to see Dan's work as an extension of Bill's, so that's how I'll explain it.
In Win Shares, Bill noted that ordinary range factor (plays made per team game) suffers from a major flaw – which is, that the composite range factor for a team will always be around (27 minus strikeouts). No matter how bad a team's defense, it will keep getting chances to make plays until it's made 27 outs total. And no matter how good its defense, once it makes 27 outs, even 27 super-spectacular Ozzie-Smithian or Masafuri-Yamamorian outs, it has to stop playing.
So Bill's insight was that you have to adjust range factor to take into account plays *not* made. If team A has a "defensive efficiency ratio" of 68% (meaning it makes an out on 68% of the balls in play), but team B has a DER of 72%, then team B's players are actually making about 6% more plays than team A. You can't tell, just from the DER, which players are responsible for that extra 6%. But, as a first approximation, if you're comparing A's shortstop to B's shortstop, you can start by devaluing A's numbers by 6%. That may be wrong, of course. The team's 6% shortfall could be due to a bad second baseman, or left fielder, or first baseman, or some combination – the shortstop could be perfectly good, or even spectacular. But in the absence of any evidence either way, you assume the 6% reduction. In effect, A's man handled the same number of chances *per game* than B's man – but 6% fewer chances *per ball in play*. And the latter figure is what really matters when evaluating fielding.
What Dan Fox now adds to that is some information that tries to figure out how much of those 6% extra balls in play actually should be attributed to the shortstop. What he does is use the information Retrosheet provides – the type of hit (line drive, fly, ground), and who fielded the ball. Bill James used, as the denominator, all balls in play for the entire team. Dan improves the stat by limiting the denominator to balls hit near the defender.
For shortstops, Fox considers all the ground balls fielded by the shortstop or left fielder, and half the ground balls fielded by the centerfielder; all the line drives fielded by the shortstop, all the line drive hits fielded by the left fielder, and half the line drive hits fielded by the center fielder. For all those balls, he figures, there's at least a chance the shortstop could have handled them. But for balls hit to the right fielder, there was no chance, so they shouldn’t affect your evaluation of the shortstop. The Bill James method doesn't have a breakdown of where the balls went, so it has to assume that every fielder had a chance at every ball.
Put another way: whereas Bill James considered that the shortstop is exactly as good or bad as the DER for the team, Dan figures a specific DER for the shortstop by considering only balls in play that are roughly in his area. Also, he takes into consideration the fact that line drives are more likely to be unfieldable than ground balls, so a shortstop who sees a lot of line drive hits past him will have a better rating than one with the same number of hits, but more of those on ground balls.
Of course, the method is not perfect. For one thing (as Dan notes), a third-baseman who covers a lot of ground to his left will make a shortstop look good. For another thing, not all ground balls handled by the left fielder were actually balls the shortstop could have got to. (However, in later revisions, Dan addresses this point by, for instance, tweaking his formula to assume any doubles to left were actually solely the third baseman's responsibility. There are other excellent tweaks too, such as updating the "50%" figure depending on the handedness of the batter.)
As an empirical test, there's a pretty good correlation between this method and the state-of-the-art, watch-where-every-ball-actually-goes, "Ultimate Zone Rating".
I really liked this system when I first read about it; now, with the revisions, I really, *really* like it. It's the best approach I've seen for players from the past. Do you want to know, for instance, how good a fielder Clete Boyer was, without need access to any proprietary data? In my opinion, this is by far the best objective method to use.