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New outfield metrics offer surprising look at Oakland A’s

The eye test doesn’t always line up with the numbers.

MLB: Houston Astros at Oakland Athletics D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, Baseball Savant released a new defensive metric to help judge outfielders. Jump does exactly what it sounds like — it measures the outfielder’s jump on the ball, defined as, “How many feet did [the outfielder] cover in the right direction in the first three seconds after pitch release?”

Jump is broken up into three components. Reaction measures how much ground the outfielder covers (in any direction) in the first 1.5 seconds after contact, compared to the average fielder. Burst then tracks the distance covered in the next 1.5 seconds, again relative to average. Finally, Route compares feet covered in any direction to feet covered in the correct direction.

In other words, the components are looking at first step (Reaction), acceleration (Burst), and general directness and efficiency (Route). Add the three together, and they form an outfielder’s Jump score. Only plays with catch probability of 90% or lower are considered, to remove routine plays where fielders don’t have to move much.

As with any defensive metric, Jump needs to be taken with a grain of salt until its reliability is proved. There’s also a small-sample disclaimer, as most players only have a couple dozen data points so far — the leader has 44 opportunities, and in a full season only a few players break 100 chances. But we can use Jump along with other defensive metrics such as Outs Above Average (OAA), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) to begin painting a picture of how valuable Oakland’s outfielders are defensively.

Let’s take a look at each of Oakland’s five main outfielders, in order of defensive innings tallied.

Ramón Laureano

Youngster Ramón Laureano leads the way with 590.2 innings, all in center. The 24-year-old certainly looks the part of a Gold Glover, between his insane throws and numerous home run-robbing catches at the wall. But do the numbers support his lengthy highlight reel?

At first glance, not at all. So far this season, he has tallied -5 DRS and -1.1 UZR. He ranks 97th out of 99 qualifiers with -7 OAA.

A deeper look at his OAA shows that he struggles most at tracking balls behind him, especially when he has to go straight back. He actually moves in on balls fairly well, but gives away any positive defensive value with his struggles moving back.

Jump further explains Laureano’s problems. His +0.8 feet above average ranks 21st out of 100 qualifiers, largely on the strength of his +1.9 feet of Reaction distance above average (third-best in the league).

But Laureano takes horrible routes. His -1.5 feet of Route distance ranks fifth-worst in baseball. His sprint speed ranks in the 89th percentile and allows him to cover a ton of ground, but unfortunately it’s too often in the wrong direction — or sometimes simply gets used to make up for reacting with a big first step in the wrong direction.

This isn’t a new issue, either. In 2018, despite positive marks in UZR, DRS and OAA, Laureano still did better moving in on balls than moving back and still posted a negative Route rating.

Fortunately, this should be fixable. You can’t teach speed, but you can certainly teach a young player — especially one with Laureano’s work ethic — how to properly read and track a ball. Keep in mind that in the minor leagues, Laureano didn’t see much time in center field and is still learning the position. He has the tools to be a great center fielder, and should improve dramatically with experience.

Stephen Piscotty

Right field mainstay Stephen Piscotty is next, with 568.0 innings at the position in 2019. Despite a shaky defensive start to his 2018 season, during his time with the A’s he has looked like at least an average defender, if not better. He has a plus arm and often makes nice sliding or diving catches toward the line.

The numbers mostly agree. DRS (+1) and UZR (+1.5) have him as a slightly above average outfielder, while he’s just average according to OAA (0). Like Laureano, he is better at moving in on the ball than he is at moving back. This is especially noticeable when Piscotty juuuust misses a ball at the wall, as he did in last Friday’s game against the Rangers.

His -1.1 Jump is easily explained. Piscotty doesn’t run particularly well, and doesn’t cover a whole lot of ground in the first three seconds after contact. But his above average Route rating (+0.5) shows that, more often than not, he tracks the ball well.

Piscotty has made significant improvements since his strange first month with the A’s, and by all measures, he now looks like a slightly above average right fielder, as he was billed before being acquired from St. Louis. While he might not have the pure speed of some of the A’s other outfielders, he has a strong arm and makes good reads.

Robbie Grossman

Oakland’s primary left fielder, Robbie Grossman, has seen 418.2 defensive innings in 2019. The 29-year-old was a late addition to the club and seemed like an odd signing due to the higher upside options already in the organization. But he is bouncing back from a slow start and looks like a positive contributor on both sides of the ball.

For his career, Grossman has rated as a below average corner outfielder by all metrics. But this season has been different. His +2 DRS are his highest since 2014 and his +1.6 UZR would easily be a career high. OAA has Grossman just a slight tick ahead of Piscotty.

At first, this just seems like an anomaly. But Jump might help explain Grossman’s sudden improvements. He takes average routes but moves well in the first three seconds off the bat, averaging +0.6 feet and +0.5 feet for Reaction and Burst, respectively. Overall, his +1.1 feet above average ranks 12th among qualifiers.

In 2018, Grossman posted below average marks in both Reaction and Burst. He also spent the majority of his time in right field, where he rated worse by both DRS and UZR. It’s possible that consistent playing time in one corner spot has allowed Grossman to be more comfortable and get better jumps.

Chad Pinder

Everyone’s favorite super-utility man, Chad Pinder, has spent 201.0 innings in the outfield this season. Despite coming through the minor leagues exclusively as an infielder, defensive metrics historically have favored his glove in the outfield.

It’s more of the same in 2019. He has already tallied -3 DRS in just 83.2 innings at second base, compared to +3 DRS in his time in the outfield. His +2.0 UZR is also well above average, especially given his limited playing time. Statcast thinks Pinder is closer to average this year, but he did post +5 OOA in 2018.

Pinder’s Jump metrics aren’t so pretty. His +1.0 feet of Reaction is solid, but his -2.5 feet of Burst ranks among the worst in the league, and his -0.6 feet of Route is also below average. This is strange, as Burst tends to correlate well with sprint speed, where Pinder is above average (59th percentile). This could be small sample noise, or it could be a lack of confidence in the outfield — perhaps Pinder instinctively moves well when the ball is hit, but second-guesses his read and slows down.

In 2018, he rated well in Reaction, and was just slightly below average in both Burst and Route. Pinder is certainly better in the outfield than he is on the infield, and I am confident that with regular reps, he could be an above average defender in left field.

Mark Canha

Often used as a pinch-hitter or at first base, Mark Canha has seen just 91.2 innings in the outfield. The slugger stepped up and looked much better than expected in center field last season, but was supplanted by Laureano late in the year.

Canha’s metrics are even more volatile due to the incredibly small sample we’re working with. But he looks slightly below average by both DRS (-1) and UZR (-1.3), while OOA (+1) actually has him as Oakland’s best defensive outfielder this season.

Unfortunately, Canha hasn’t seen enough defensive opportunities to appear on the Jump leaderboard for 2019. But in 2018, he was pretty much average (+0.1 feet). He rated slightly above average in Reaction and Route (+0.6 and +0.2, respectively), and below average in Burst (-0.7).

So, at least for this season, Canha’s metrics don’t help us much. But overall, it seems like he’s somewhere between average and slightly below.

Mostly, the metrics here confirm what we already know. Piscotty isn’t anything flashy, but he makes up for it with a strong arm, while Canha is somewhere close to average. Laureano and Pinder both look like they have the tools to be strong defenders, but need more experience.

However, the metrics — especially Jump and its components — help explain exactly where each outfielder falls short. Laureano moves well, but takes awful routes, while Pinder doesn’t seem to commit to his routes and Piscotty compensates for a lack of speed by tracking the ball well.

The metrics also tell us that Grossman is having himself a fine defensive season, which might not have been apparent by the eye test. This might help explain why he’s been given such a long leash despite a slow start to the year at the plate.

Especially this early into the season, these metrics are subject to quite a bit of variance and should be taken with a grain of salt. They are likely more descriptive than predictive. Grossman probably hasn’t entirely reinvented himself defensively, and Laureano probably won’t continue to be one of the worst defenders in the game.

But they’re fun to keep an eye on, and can help tell us more than the eye test alone would. Statcast is opening a world of possibilities for analysis — especially for defense — and I can’t wait to see what new toys come next.