Wasting Starling Marte; Torturing Jose Tabata

I took my seat at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati last September, looked up, and was stunned to see that left-field had been cut in half.

On that day, one of the best left-fielders in the game, Starling Marte, had been assigned to cover a postage stamp that could have been played just as adequately by Greg Luzinski – at his present age. It seemed like a complete waste of Marte’s excellent speed, elite arm, and +22.2 career UZR/150. And I began to wonder.

Some time later, I got a little more curious and did some research on fielding statistics. It’s incomplete, but interesting nonetheless.

I looked at three Pirate outfielders who have played both left-field and right-field for the Pirates in the PNC Park Era; Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, and Nate McLouth.

As you, no doubt, already know, left-field at PNC Park is much bigger than right-field; and is possibly the most challenging left-field in all of Major League Baseball. It has often been said that the Pirates need two center-fielders – one to play center and one to play left. So, the following statistics might surprise you as much as they did me.

Jose Tabata has a +8.9 UZR in left-field, over 241 career games. In 142 career games in RF, his UZR is -12.1.

Alex Presley, in 143 career games with the Pirates, had a +6.7 UZR in left-field. He had a -3 UZR in 28 games in RF.

And Nate McLouth, in 40 career games with the Pirates, had a +2 UZR in left-field and a -6 UZR in 70 games in RF.

There is something going on here. Have we been fooled by the dimensions of PNC Park over the last 13 years. Is RF at PNC, in spite of its much smaller size, actually much harder to play than LF?

I say that’s impossible.

I don’t have any home/road fielding splits, but my purely speculative guess is that Tabata, Presley, and McLouth were:

1. Below average in LF at PNC

2. Well-above average in LF on the road

3. Fairly good in RF at PNC

4. And a tortured disaster in RF on the road.

If the Pirates statistical analysts have numbers that would confirm my pure speculation, then I would say that some defensive adjustments are in order. Marte should obviously continue to play left-field at PNC Park. But if a road park has a more difficult right-field, then it makes no sense to have a greyhound with a cannon covering a postage stamp.

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199 thoughts on “Wasting Starling Marte; Torturing Jose Tabata

  1. I would have never guessed that in a million years . I think your assumptions about home and away make sense . It would be fun to revisit this . Would Fangraph have those numbers ?

  2. It stunned me when I saw those numbers. I can’t think of any other explanation that the home/road splits, but that’s one stat that I haven’t seen on fangraphs.

    If my assumption is correct, then playing Marte in the more difficult position at road parks could add one or two wins over the course of a season. That’s a big difference for just moving two players between postions.

  3. Is UZR a comparison to players in the same position? If so maybe the analysis is demonstrating that most teams have their second best fielder in RF / worst in LF?

    • That’s a possibility. I can’t say for sure because I don’t know enough about how the stat is calculated. There is something going on with the LF/RF defensive stats at PNC Park. I hope the Pirates analysts have more information about it than I do.

  4. Another explanation might be HOW the fielding stats are measured and compiled. One could make the reasonable assumption that a spacious outfield provides many, many more opportunities to make outs and exhibit fielding/throwing prowess. OTOH, a tiny outfield – especially one with a short, tall fence – limits defensive chances across the board (thus limiting the OF’s stats).

    Have a look at the UZR of other OFs who regularly play in a severe, short/tight field (LF in Boston, corner OF in Houston, etc.) and my guess is their UZR suffers as much from limited/skewed defensive chances as it does their actual defensive abilties. There’s just no way for a stat (even a fuzzy stat like UZR) to account for the number of balls (hits) that bounce off of short fences that would otherwise be outs… and such chances also restrict the odds of demonstrating a strong arm, as runners are less likely to try for second base on a hit to a short field regardless of who the outfielder is…

    Perhaps just another way of saying UZR as a stat is grossly imperfect… seems to me that extremely large & extremely small OF spaces expose UZR’s statistical limitations, which are projected (very unevenly) to the players forced to play those extreme OF positions.

    • And having said all that, I 100% agree with you that rabbits with cannons like Marte SHOULD play RF on the road if/when that RF is a pasture & LF is a postage stamp. But we didn’t need UZR to figure that out ;-)

    • The fielding stats have still not caught up with the pitching and hitting stats. It’s possible that short and large fields could both affect UZRs accuracy. I really don’t know enough about how it is calculated.

  5. Do you think the Pirates could eventually employ strategic shifts for fields with small left fields and larger right? Have the right fielder play further back. Have Andrew play short and more to right field and shift Marte over towards center. Obviously on dead pull right hand hitters, you couldn’t do that, but it other situations I could see it.

    • more defensive shifts and alignments (based on stats) would seem to be inevitable, especially w/ the Pirates.

      Pgh’s better-late-than-never embrace of sabermetrics (stats; moneyball) makes me very happy. Winning games is great, but it is especially heartening to me as an educated fan to know that the Pirates are no longer a math-challenged cult of knuckle-draggers. In fact, the Pirates jumped ahead of the curve with their use of ‘radical’ (logical) defensive shifts based on statistical analysis. It should be a source of pride for the organization & players, IMO.

      • It seemed like the Pirates didn’t use sabermetrics at all under David Littlefield and that put them even further behind.

        I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they now use sabermetrics more than a lot of other teams. I had a sense early on that Huntington would move the team in that direction. It desperately needed to be done.

    • I think that would make sense. They would have to also base the outfield on each hitter’s tendencies. The Pirates have to take advantage of everything they can to prevent runs from scoring.

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