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Alternate Versions Of Brendan Ryan

collectively league-average
collectively league-average
Nick Laham

Monday, Brendan Ryan was announced as one of three finalists for the 2012 American League Gold Glove Award at shortstop. Tuesday, Brendan Ryan and whoever the other dude was got chopped, as the honor was bestowed upon J.J. Hardy. Hardy is a very good defensive shortstop and is by no means an undeserving winner. He's just a less deserving winner than Brendan Ryan, who didn't win, and who has never won.

Ryan did manage to win the Fielding Bible Award as the top defensive shortstop in all of baseball, and that's an award with credibility, because it's based on things. The Gold Glove, though, is the award with history, it's the award that Ozzie Smith kept winning, so a Gold Glove presumably means a little more to a player. Given a choice, one presumes a player would rather win a Gold Glove Award than a Fielding Bible Award.

Ryan, for his part, doesn't seem too broken up about things. He says he's okay about not winning a Gold Glove, he says he appreciates the Fielding Bible Award, and he says what's most important is that the people that matter know how good he is. And those people do know how good he is in the field, since they kept starting him with a sub-.200 batting average. Ryan seems to have the right attitude, either because he genuinely has the right attitude, he's a great actor, or he's so ADD he's already forgotten what a Gold Glove Award actually is because look at that leaf and look at that leaf and look at that squirrel on the telephone wire and is that a pebble in my shoe or did I leave bread in the toaster Menudo! The name of the band was Menudo!

We don't have to keep talking about Brendan Ryan and his defense. We know better than anybody how amazing of a defender he is. We know that the Gold Glove Award voting is hopelessly flawed. But there's only so much to talk about, and are you interested in the Arizona Fall League? I'm not really that interested in the Arizona Fall League. Ask me again when I'm somehow even more desperate for content ideas.

I'm going to pursue a quick idea, inspired by a recent email I received. This is something I've been batting around in my head for some months. We hear about the UZR and DRS evaluations of Ryan's defense, and we understand the numbers. Wow, 20 runs, that's a lot of runs saved in the field! We can plug that directly into our WARs! But it might be hard to wrap your head around the idea of a defender being something like 20 runs above the positional average. We can't visualize what an average defender would play like; we can only see what the actual defender at the position plays like. Is there really that much of a difference? A full 20 runs of difference, sometimes?

It sounds less crazy when you break things down. Last season, the average baseball team allowed roughly 2,000 groundballs. All of them went somewhere between the third-base line and the first-base line. There are only so many places for those grounders to go, and let's cheat and say that one extra play equals one extra run. It's not quite right but it's close enough. For one player to make 20 extra plays is for that player to make extra plays on one percent of all grounders. Is that acceptable, at the extreme? The Mariners allowed a .234 batting average on 1,870 grounders. Let's say Ryan was worth 20 extra plays. With an average shortstop instead, the Mariners would've allowed a .244 batting average on grounders. Is that so insane?

But, okay, let's try something else. Since 2009, the league-average shortstop has batted:

  • .259/.315/.374

Since becoming a regular in 2009, Brendan Ryan has batted:

  • .239/.302/.323

That's playing two of four seasons with the Mariners, with Safeco Field as the home ballpark. Now let's say that, since 2009, Ryan has been worth, I don't know, 60 extra plays in the field. Pretty much all of those plays would be saved singles. Let's redistribute those singles to Ryan's batting line. The result:

  • .275/.334/.359

That's Brendan Ryan as a league-average defender. But let's say you're higher on Ryan's defense, as the numbers are. Let's say that, since 2009, Ryan has been worth more like 80 extra plays in the field. Let's redistribute again. The result:

  • .286/.345/.371

Ryan catches the average shortstop's slugging percentage. He greatly exceeds the average shortstop's on-base percentage. Now let's try one final adjustment. Let's shift Ryan from being an amazing defensive shortstop to being a godawful defensive shortstop. Instead of Ryan saving 20 singles a season in the field, let's create a Ryan that costs 20 singles a season in the field, while keeping the overall value the same. The result after some singles redistribution:

  • .334/.388/.419

There's 2009-2012 Brendan Ryan with 160 extra singles. This Brendan Ryan is terrible in the field. He might not be clumsy or error-prone, but he certainly has limited range. We've basically just created Derek Jeter.

That probably isn't fair. By FanGraphs WAR, Jeter has a decided advantage. But by Baseball-Reference WAR, it's actually Ryan with the advantage. You understand the general point. We know that Brendan Ryan saves the Mariners' pitching staff singles with his work in the field. We're all very comfortable with BA/OBP/SLG slash lines -- a lot more comfortable than we are with advanced defensive metric readouts. It helps, I think, to be able to visualize what Brendan Ryan would be with less defense and equivalently more offense. It should increase the appreciation.

Of course, Ryan is coming off a year in which he hit .194 with a .555 OPS. Safeco effect or no Safeco effect, that's just about unacceptable. But you have to understand that, according to FanGraphs, he was worth 1.7 wins. You have to understand that, according to Baseball-Reference, he was somehow worth 3.3 wins. Ryan was absolutely putrid at the plate, but he made up for it, he actually made up for a slash line that bad with his glovework. Ryan's 2013 in the field probably isn't going to be as good, statistically, as his 2012, but his 2013 at the plate probably isn't going to be as bad, statistically, as his 2012. It's not about a one-year sample of Brendan Ryan, and nobody wants him to hit .194 again. It's about a bigger sample of Brendan Ryan, of knowing what he is and what he's good for. He's good for creating positive value. He doesn't so much do it at the plate, but one of the neat things about baseball is that at the plate isn't the only place where positive value can be created. Another one of the neat things about baseball is the term "defensive indifference". Still another one of the neat things about baseball is Crazy Crab. What is that thing!