August 14, 2003

A little put out

I read an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution yesterday and immediately decided I simply had to comment on it.

The author of the article is Terence Moore and his premise is that Andruw Jones is the best defensive center fielder of all-time. In fact, he begins his article by saying:

"Andruw Jones already is the greatest center fielder of all-time, and I don't give a Willie Mays what anybody else thinks."

The main "evidence" that Moore uses to support his statement is the amount of putouts Jones makes. Here is some of what Moore wrote:

"[Willie Mays] had more than a few pretty catches to reach the Hall of Fame. The same goes for Richie Ashburn, Max Carey and Kirby Puckett. In fact, when [Andruw] Jones finishes this season with 400 or more putouts, he'll join that quartet as the only players in history with such an accomplishment for at least six seasons.

Ashburn holds the record with nine seasons of 400 putouts or more. Mays, Carey and Puckett are tied for second. Just wait, though. At 26, and as the proud owner of a glove that will remain golden for another decade or so, you know the rest. Unless Jones has injuries or gets zapped away by aliens, he will shatter Ashburn's record by a bunch.

This is huge. I mean, look at it this way: Joe DiMaggio could field with the best, and so could Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider, Willie Davis and Paul Blair. None of those players had more than three seasons with 400 or more putouts."

This argument is so flawed that I really don't know where to begin. First of all, let's state the obvious (or at least what I thought was obvious), which is that the amount of chances a center fielder has to make putouts is not unlimited and is dependent on the nature of the pitching-staff he is playing behind.

In other words, a guy playing behind a fly ball pitching-staff that doesn't record a ton of strikeouts is going to get a lot more chances to make putouts than someone playing behind a ground ball pitching-staff that racks up big strikeout totals. The concept seems fairly simple to me: The more balls that are put in play, the more chances for putouts there are, and the more of those balls in play that are fly balls, the more chances for putouts the center fielder has.

Center field putouts are also dependent on the ballpark the player plays in and on the two fielders he has playing next to him. A guy playing center field in Comerica Park with Daryle Ward in left field and Jeremy Giambi in right field is going to have a whole lot more opportunities to rack up additional putouts than someone playing in Wrigley Field alongside Jacque Jones and Ichiro!.

Moore, having felt he had made his point about the putout thing, moves onto another fielding statistic:

"There are errors, for instance. Errors lie, especially for outfielders. Many guys have spent their careers with the mobility of that new statue of Warren Spahn outside of Turner Field.

You won't butcher many plays in left, center or right if you can't get to them."

It amuses me quite a bit that Moore is using errors to show how statistics can be misleading, immediately after he used putout totals to judge the abilities of center fielders.

He is right about the errors, of course. They do lie and I am to the point that I couldn't name you the leader in errors at any position right now, simply because I don't care. How someone can make a point to show how one thing is misleading while not understanding the thing his entire article is based on is misleading too is...well, "interesting."

Moving onto the next thing:

"In recent years, Ken Griffey Jr., Torii Hunter, Kenny Lofton, Steve Finley and Jim Edmonds have been kings of the glove. They aren't close to Jones' territory in putouts."

This is the point at which I believe Moore moves from simply using flawed logic to deliberately trying to mislead his readers.

Moore's point here is obvious, which is that, among other current center fielders, Jones has the best putout totals. That is a fine point to make if you believe, as Moore does, that putouts are the most important stat to judge center fielders. The only problem is that the players Moore chooses to compare Jones to - Griffey, Hunter, Lofton, Finley, Edmonds - are handpicked by him, and for a very good reason.

You see, if Moore really wanted to compare Jones' putout totals to other current center fielders and he wanted to do it in a way that wasn't misleading, his entire point would be ruined. Why is that? Take a look at this:


Darin Erstad 452 3.31
Mike Cameron 415 2.84
Andruw Jones 404 2.68

"PO" stands for total putouts and "PO/9" stands for putouts per 9 innings played.

As you can see, both Darin Erstad (by a huge margin) and Mike Cameron (by a slight margin) had higher putout totals than Andruw Jones last season. And, they both did so while playing fewer innings in center field than Jones. Erstad recorded 48 more putouts than Jones while playing in 229 fewer innings and Cameron recorded 11 more putouts while playing in 39 fewer innings.

I could be wrong of course, but I am going to guess that Terence Moore neglected to include Erstad and Cameron in that group of center fielders he brought up earlier because, when you're trying to make a point about someone's high putout totals making him the best ever, telling people about two other current players with higher putout totals isn't going to help you make your point.

I could maybe cut Moore some slack if Erstad and Cameron weren't regarded as great defensive players, but Erstad won a Gold Glove last season (and in 2000) and Cameron won it in 2001. Plus, if you were writing about the importance of center field putouts, don't you think you'd mention the top guys in the league last season when you brought up the names of other center fielders?

But what about this season, you ask? After all, Moore does say that:

"When Jones finishes this season with 400 or more putouts, he'll join that quartet as the only players in history with such an accomplishment for at least six seasons."

The problem here is that Andruw Jones is most likely not going to reach 400 putouts this season. He currently has 291 putouts (prior to last night) and has played in 113 of Atlanta's 119 games. That means he has averaged 2.58 putouts per game he has played.

Let's say he stays healthy for every single one of Atlanta's 43 remaining games (which seems unlikely, since he is playing through an injury right now and has already missed 6 games this year) and records 2.58 putouts per game. That would give him a season-total of 401 putouts. If Andruw misses 2 of their remaining 43 games, that drops him to 396. If he misses 4, that drops him to 391.

Okay, but let's give Moore and Andruw the benefit of the doubt and say that he somehow manages to play in every game for the rest of the season, despite currently playing hurt, despite having already missed a half-dozen games, and despite Atlanta being 12 games up in the NL East.

The new problem with Moore's logic is that Jones is currently tied for 6th among major league center fielders in putouts. I mean really, if putouts are the best thing to judge center fielders on and Andruw Jones is the greatest center fielder of all-time, how is it possible that he ranks tied for 6th in putouts this season?

And it's not as if he is tied for 6th, but within striking range of the top spot. Mike Cameron (remember him?) currently has 351 putouts and has actually played in one fewer game than Jones. Yes, that's right, the center fielder who Terence Moore says is the greatest in baseball history trails Mike Cameron in what Terence Moore has told us is the most important stat for judging center fielders, and he trails him by over 20%. Andruw also trails Torii Hunter by 11%, Rocco Baldelli by 7.5%, and is slightly behind Alex Sanchez and Juan Pierre, and tied with Vernon Wells. Oh, and Alex Sanchez has only played in 101 games this season, 12 fewer than Jones.

Let's take a look at the leaderboard:


Mike Cameron 351 3.24
Torii Hunter 323 2.93
Rocco Baldelli 313 2.91
Alex Sanchez 300 3.15
Juan Pierre 293 2.47
Vernon Wells 291 2.50
Andruw Jones 291 2.64

Going by raw putout totals (which is what Moore uses in his article), Jones is tied for 6th with Vernon Wells at 291. If you use putouts per 9 innings played (which seems to make a little more sense to me), Jones is still significantly behind Cameron, Hunter, Baldelli and Sanchez, but he moves ahead of Wells and Pierre. Of course, if you're using putouts/9, Carlos Beltran (3.04/9), Jim Edmonds (3.00/9) and Mark Kotsay (2.71/9) all move ahead of Andruw Jones.

Which is to say that not only is Moore wrong in using putouts as the evidence for a center fielder being great, the use of that wrong stat doesn't even support his point in the season being played right now, let alone in all of baseball history. And, in order to try to make his point work, he is purposely leaving out Mike Cameron's name from the conversation, because Cameron has higher putout totals than Jones in each of the last two years.

In fact, if you want to use putouts per 9 innings instead of total putouts, Mike Cameron beats Jones three years in a row:


Mike Cameron 411 2.91
Andruw Jones 461 2.89

Incidentally, Torii Hunter had one fewer total putout than Jones in 2001 and played 140 fewer innings, giving him a 3.20 to 2.89 lead over Jones in putouts per 9 innings.

Just to put all this together in a neat package, here are Mike Cameron's putouts per 9 innings played in center field, compared to Andruw Jones':

            2003     2002     2001     2000     1999     1998     1997

Cameron 3.24 2.84 2.91 2.81 2.66 2.87 3.20
Jones 2.64 2.68 2.89 2.76 3.06 2.71 3.01

Counting the last 7 seasons, Andruw Jones has recorded more putouts per 9 innings in center field than Mike Cameron exactly one time, 1999. Cameron beats him 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1998 and 1997.

Overall, for their careers, Cameron has averaged 2.90 putouts per 9 innings in CF, while Jones has 2.81.

Judging center fielders by putouts is an extremely flawed method. That said, judging them by total putouts and not putouts per 9 innings is an even bigger flaw - a flaw within a flaw, if you will.

That said, as long as we're crowning the "King of Putouts" here, the award should go to Mike Cameron and not Andruw Jones. Of course, that doesn't make Cameron the greatest center fielder ever, just like it wouldn't have made Jones the greatest center fielder ever. Center fielder putouts without any sort of context are almost meaingless and, even worse, they can be extremely misleading. The same can be said for almost any statistic in baseball, which is part of the reason why baseball is such an interesting game.

Finally, because Terence Moore doesn't feel that misusing statistics and deliberately misleading his readers is enough, he takes a quote from one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history and then screws it up too:

"Andruw has got to save each starter about 10 runs a year," said the Braves' Greg Maddux, owner of four Cy Young Awards, and most of them have Jones' fingerprints all over them. "He makes a lot of those plays look routine, but the other 30 center fielders in the game don't make plays that easy."

The key part of that is not what Maddux said, but what Moore inserted himself:

"...said the Braves' Greg Maddux, owner of four Cy Young Awards, and most of them have Jones' fingerprints all over them."

The problem here is that, while Greg Maddux is the owner of four Cy Young Awards, he won them in 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995. Andruw Jones didn't make his major league debut until 1996.

Terence Moore may be right, maybe Andruw Jones is the greatest center fielder of all-time. I personally don't think so, but he is an excellent center fielder and the idea is certainly within the realm of possibility. If he is the greatest center fielder of all-time however, it certainly isn't going to be because he made 400 putouts in a season. And it definitely isn't going to be because some "journalist" in Atlanta who butchers the use of statistics while intentionally misleading his audience says so.

Thanks for stopping by today. In the early days of this blog, I used to tear apart articles from major media outlets all the time, but I have gone away from that of late, in part because I have wanted to focus on my own writing instead of dissecting the writing of others. This time however, I just couldn't help myself. Hopefully you enjoyed it and, if not, I appologize and you should take comfort in the fact that I likely won't do so again for quite a while.

If you missed any of this week's previous entries (I suspect many of you on the East Coast were unable to stop by here yesterday), now would be a great time to get caught up:

Monday: 0% baseball, 100% babble

Tuesday: Hey Joe

Wednesday: Interview with a sports editor

Thursday: Ducks on the pond

This Week's Featured Links:

Monday: David Pinto's Baseball Musings

Tuesday: Twins Geek

Wednesday: Sport by Mick Cochrane

Thursday: Tony Pierce

Today's picks:

Arizona (Johnson) -130 over Atlanta (Reynolds)

San Diego (Perez) +150 over Florida (Penny)

Chicago (Loaiza) -160 over Texas (Lewis)

Toronto (Towers) +200 over Oakland (Harden)

Total to date: + 1,740

W/L record: 205-206 (3-1 yesterday for +285 and inching my way back to 2,000.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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