I just listened to Rocco's interview with Neal Huntington on Monday in his opening day lead up. There were some comments on Rocco's question on defensive downgrades that were kind of strange and I thought I'd put them to the test to see how far off his comments might be.
The gist of what he said was they weren't too worried about the defense because:
1) Adam LaRoche was a below average 1B defensively and so will be Clement, so not too much lost there.
2) Aki was better defensively than Freddy in 2008 - the last time both played a full season.
3) Garrett Jones is more athletic and potentially a better defender than Moss.
4) Ronny Cedeno was above average defensively for the Mariners, but a little below average for the Pirates, but that shows he can be above average.
5) Lastings Milledge was rated as one of the top defenders in MLB from the time he started with the Pirates last year.
6) NH said he feels they can offset some of the defensive downgrades with positioning.
My take on these statements is that many of them are just plain false or misleading. Especially in the context of the overall question, which was the downgrade in defense from 09.
Note that Rocco and NH were specifically referring to UZR when talking about these numbers, so it wasn't so much that NH was saying they have a different system that rates the players (even though I'm sure they do have a different proprietary system).
#1 - The problem with all of this reasoning is the amount of positive or negative. You can't just say Adam was below average and Clement will also be below average, so who cares?
Adam was rated -.5 runs below average UZR in 2009. .5 runs over the course of the season is basically nothing. Now, he was -8.1 runs in 2008, but +6.7 in 2007. UZR does fluctuate with performance as do offensive stats and is subject to luck, etc. But in general, Adam is a very inconsistent player, and it's known that he has had concentration problems in the field. But, you really can't say that he has been a "below average" 1B defensively. He's basically average.
On the other hand, the very best we can hope for is that Clement becomes an average defensive player. He's much more likely to be rated -10 UZR this year, and hopefully no worse than that.
The point is, -.5 and -10 are not the same below average. So, that's disingenuous to present it that way.
#2 - Comparing Aki's 2008 with Freddy Sanchez's as their true talent level is just plain wrong. Sanchez had a shoulder injury in 2008 which severely hampered his ability in the field. Even still, he ended the year with only a -1.8 UZR! He was almost an average defender even with an injury that I didn't think he should be playing with. He could barely throw the ball to 1B from the normal 2B position sometimes. Sanchez's 2007 and 2009 have him at +11.5 UZR/150 as his true talent level when healthy. Aki's 2 years at 2B have him at about +1.8 UZR/150. So, it's clear that here is another 10 run downgrade on defense. Despite Freddy's 2006 batting title, Aki has been the better and more consistent hitter between the two, however, which has offset the defensive difference between the two, making them practically worth the exact same amount in terms of wins.
#3 - It's possible that Jones could be a nice defender in RF, and we've certainly seen some improvements there just in one game (course it's just one game). And, I also believe Brandon Moss was over-rated as a defender. Still, the 2009 numbers rated Jones a -8 UZR/150 and Moss a +10. That's an 18 run difference - close to 2 wins. This is actually one category I think Jones can close the gap - not all the way though.
#4 - Cedeno's 2009 time with the Mariners was the only stretch of more than 15 games that he has played in any season or stop where he was rated above average in UZR/150. So, you can't say his +6.8 in 40 games there means anything, when averaged with his -13.1 in Pirate garb comes out near his career average of -4 or -5. As Wilson is solidly +15 (last year +20), that's a full 2 win downgrade on defense. Unfortunately, this is one position where the extra offense won't offset the downgrade.
#5 - Lastings Milledge indeed was rated one the better defenders in his time with the Pirates last year. There's a huge debate among many whether those numbers were accurate (I believe them) and also whether Nyjer's numbers are accurate (I also believe them). None the less, we're talking about downgrades in defense, and the drop from Nyjer's +27 to Milledge's +16 is still about 10 runs or 1 win. Last year, Nyjer hit so well after the trade that there was no way Milledge could make up for that difference with the bat. This year, I believe he will, but this will be something to watch certainly.
#6 - This is probably the most ridiculous statement of the whole interview. Wouldn't the best positioning help ALL defenders no matter what their skill level? This is a huge fallacy and it's hard to hear it coming from Huntington. There is no way you can position a player and hide him from losing you runs. Unless you hide him in the dugout, of course.
So, here's my rundown on defensive wins lost this year:
Adam to Clement = -1 win
Freddy to Aki = -1 win
Moss to Jones = -2 wins
Wilson to Cedeno = -2 wins
Nyjer to Milledge = -1 win
TOTAL = - 7 wins defensively from 2009 starters.
I really would have liked Huntington to just say, Yeah, we're going to be worse defensively, but we're going to score more runs and that will make up for it. Plus, we feel our defenders can improve and narrow the gap.
We'll see how things play out.