On Friday, Chris Coghlan hit a ball farther with his glove than he typically does with his bat. It was an egregious error that had it all: a drop, a boot, and an unsurprised fan-base. The play encapsulated the A's defensive season, as they've been terrible in the field from their gloves, to their arms, to their brains according to every metric known to man.
The basic stats
The A's have committed the fourth most errors in all of baseball. With 40 on the books, the A's also have the fourth worst fielding percentage in the game.
Leading the error brigade is Danny Valencia, whose seven errors include four of the throwing variety which is presumably easier to fix than that of the fielding variety. Jed Lowrie is in second on the team with six. Interesting to note that both leaders have missed time with injury, effectively holding their error count down.
Others of note for the A's: Marcus Semien, with only five errors (knock wood, please), Stephen Vogt with four (???) and Rich Hill with two, because he's Rich Hill. The A's LOOGY, Marc Rzepcyznki, has two which is mildly amusing.
The advanced numbers
Advanced defensive stats are often viewed with intense skepticism, and somewhat rightfully so. They can be finicky and ultra sensitive to small samples.
They do have merit, though. FanGraphs hosts a variety of defensive statistics, most notably UZR, which is the basis of their overall defensive numbers (DEF). Standing for Ultimate Zone Rating, UZR attmpts to quantify fielding by comparing players against their counterparts in their ability to make plays, differentiated by type (linedrive, flyball, etc.). The stat was created by Mitchel Lichtman who has worked for many Major League Baseball teams while also co-authoring The Book. He's a smart dude, and there's reason to buy into this stat.
It's probably not perfect, like most stats, and it's subject to small sample noise.
Where do the A's rank? You guessed it, dead last. At -30 runs, the A's are a truly awful defensive team, nearly 15 runs worse than the next worst squad. That puts them roughly three WAR behind league average and six full wins behind the league leading defensive team.
Alarmingly, UZR grades Danny Valencia as the worst defender on the team thus far in 2016. Valencia will be here for one more year, possibly more or possibly less if the A's get creative. With a poor ability to make plays on the balls he reaches combined with a poor ability to reach balls hit outside his immediate vicinity, Valencia may be a candidate to move across the diamond as years go by.
Second worst has been Coco Crisp which makes all too much sense. Coco is old, injured, probably hasn't had the skills to handle center since what, 2013? Yet is being forced to play in the outfield, often in center, multiple times per week thanks to injuries mounting injuries, creating baby injuries who are taking over the A's clubhouse.
We'll forgive Coco. He's doing his best for this team and I appreciate every ounce of baseball he produces. Plus, he's not going to be on the team past 2016.
You can find FanGraphs full defensive statistics for the A's here, if you're looking to ruin a perfectly nice Monday morning.
The next level advanced numbers
Statcast is enabling experts to do a little deeper investigating, hopefully mitigating the difficulties of small samples to give us more valuable defensive statistics. Unfortunately, the preliminary efforts agree with other defensive statistics and your eyeballs. The A's have been bad.
Let's start in the outfield. Mike Petriello, Statcast expert and writer at MLB.com looked at balls hit in the air between 200 and 400 feet, better known as flyballs. By comparing how many fall for hits against the A's compared to the rest of the league, we can get another rough gauge of our outfielders' abilities.
Balls in that range are a coinflip on average, just a tiny shade under 50% fall for hits. Against the A's, in 2016, 52.5% are falling for hits, good for just 23rd in baseball. Unless the A's are running into some extremely fluky and bad luck, it appears their outfielders do a poor job at preventing base hits.
Unfortunately, that again makes sense. Billy Burns has put up improved defensive numbers thus far but in spite of owning the fastest legs in the game, he's not a defensive stud. Coco is old and decrepit, often forced to play center, and Jarrod Parker's right arm looks down upon Khris Davis's with condescension and pity.
Josh Reddick was one of the better right fielders in the game for some time, and per at least one A's fan's eyes, he's looked solid this season. UZR is less favorable, but at any rate, he's out with an injury and Chris Coghlan has been forced into right field duties. You probably can guess how that has fared.
How bout the infield?
The A's rank 24th in turning groundballs into outs. That seems to line up with what we know and have seen. Valencia and Lowrie have subpar range, Coghlan does too. Semien has been a revelation this year and is getting to more balls, but is no superstar. Alonso has passed the eye test with flying colors, but maybe those flying colors indicate a stigma. The defensive numbers don't agree, nor does the completely objective measure of rate of groundballs turning into outs.
The eyeball test
"Oh my god, it's so awful. I'd rather belong to a colonoscopy doc than an A's fan". -Anonymous A's fan's eye
With the A's defense, we see a rare marriage between advanced stats and eyeball evaluations. The numbers hate the A's, our eyes do more, and it's a pretty good clue that the A's are in fact a terrible defensive team.
Predicting defense is hard
Remember when Semien was the worst defender in the league and the bane of an awful A's team? Now he's the best defender we've got, per the numbers. That might be a bit of small sample noise, but predicting defense is like predicting all things baseball: hard.
Predicting your personnel is harder
The A's have a groundball heavy starting staff. There's an incongruity between their pitchers' tendencies and their infield lineup, but a lack of rangey, glove first infielders doesn't necessarily reflect indifference to defense. Instead, it shows the opportunistic way the A's go about their moves.
Mashing third baseman with a bad glove falls in your laps? Spots yours, Danny. Versatile defender with defensive upside has clubhouse issues? Acquire Jed Lowrie for a decent reliever prospect instead.
The A's aren't defense averse so much as they're opportunists.
By the way, if you ever catch yourself thinking the A's never catch a break, remember they were gifted their best hitter from an overstaffed Blue Jays roster.
The A's need to improve on defense
Bold proclamation, I know. Predicting defense is hard and baseball never goes as planned. So often your intended roster is lightyears from your actual product. Still, the A's can't expect to compete with the worst defense in the league. Much of the issue will resolve itself in the form of turnover. Problem defenders like Coco Crisp and Jed Lowrie aren't long term solutions.
The A's don't have a strikeout heavy rotation. In order for starters who depend on batted balls being turned into outs to succeed, they'll need competent defenders behind them. Baseball 101. The A's are sure to have more turnover in the coming months and years, and we can all hope and dream the player's they'll acquire will be competent on both sides of the ball.