Baseball Prospectus

There was another Prospectus Triple Play slamming Chipper’s defense as “iron-gloved” last week. Same old, same old. Prospectus has gotten into the habit — in the book and in other entries, but especially in the Triple Plays — of claiming that Chipper is one of the worst defensive players of all time.

Now, I am not generally a supporter of Chipper’s defense. (My first piece of negative commentary was an email slamming me for claiming, circa 1998, that Chipper was “average at best” defensively.) But I saw Bob Horner play third base, and Chipper’s miles ahead of him defensively. I’d rate Chipper about a C- defender, ranging from C+ at his best to D or D- at his worst. He’s far from a total butcher, and does some things well at third, but lacks the instincts of a real third baseman and always has.

BP’s own statistics actually bear this out! On his Davenport card, he’s below average every year, but usually above replacement level.

In comments, Bamadan agreed that Chipper is mistreated by BP but thinks my explanation is off-base, that the replacement-level versus average argument is incorrect and that it’s actually a statistical illusion that causes Chipper to rate where he does. He’s right, to a large extent. For most third basemen, the difference between replacement level and average in any season doesn’t matter. But in Chipper’s case, it does, because he’s in a fairly small group: players who have played a lot of games at third base, and who are consistently a little below average. -8 one year won’t hurt, but -8 every year for eight years, with one or two -20s, those add up. Or subtract up, depending upon how you look at it.

But I think there is a statistical illusion at work, caused by an small number of ground balls to the third baseman off of Braves pitching. Chipper’s ratings are always bad; the ratings of Braves outfielders and second basemen are usually good, even for guys like Gary Sheffield and Keith Lockhart who were never confused with Clemente or Mazeroski. When a truly first-class outfielder plays right field for the Braves, like Jordan (in his last tenure) or Drew, he’ll get monster defensive ratings. Nick Green’s a good defensive second baseman, but hardly the tremendous glove some would have you believe. Gosh, Chipper rates as an okay outfielder in 2002 and 2004, and it was all he could manage to not get hit on the head with the ball most of the time.

What you end up with is a situation where:

1. The Braves consistently have good ERAs, better than you’d think from their pitchers.

2. Their third baseman is always rated poorly. Vinny’s rating was about as bad as Chipper’s. Fielding Runs Above Average, by year this decade, Braves seasons in bold: 13 6 0 -12 -4 9

It seems unlikely that the Braves are getting great pitching despite having an all-time worst situation at third base. What is more likely is that the statistics are misleading. If the stats don’t make sense, then there’s probably something wrong with how you’re reading the stats.