Is shortstop defense overrated?

cardinalsHall of Fame debate is awful, and I try to avoid it as much as I can. But since I’m a Cardinals fan, I see a lot of petitioning for Scott Rolen. He wouldn’t make my Hall, but it’s admittedly bizarre that a clearly inferior player like Omar Vizquel is lapping him in the voting.

I think every voter would agree Rolen is in the conversation for best defensive third baseman ever after Brooks Robinson. I think they’d also agree that Rolen was a better hitter than Vizquel by two country miles. The only possible rationale is that shortstop defense is so much more important than third base defense that it can handily overcome both points.

That sounds ridiculous, and I think framing the debate as a direct competition between Rolen vs. Vizquel would change a lot of votes. But it’s a widely-held bias that we who are more concerned with baseball here and now should still take a look at. Is shortstop defense that much more important than third base defense?

Measuring defense is always messy. If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I’m not a fan of defensive metrics as they currently exist since they leave out too many factors that a person watching would take into consideration. Luckily, Inside Edge has professional scouts watch every ball in play at least twice and score them based on their difficulty. It’s not perfect, but I do believe it’s the best metric we have for a thought experiment like this.

Below is IE’s tallies for defensive plays at both positions in 2017. “1-10%” indicates the total number of fielding chances a player got whose likelihood of being converted into an out was within 1-10%.

Total 1-10% 10-40% 40-60% 60-90% 90-100%
3B 13548 853 541 535 1196 10423
SS 17078 908 539 458 1024 14149

This data isn’t perfect, partly because the ranges are somewhat abstract and partly because the scouts scoring them were almost certainly comparing shortstops to shortstops, not shortstops to third basemen. “Difficult” means different things at different positions, especially when the most talented defenders get funneled to short and raise the bar of what is expected.

But here’s the real takeaway. It’s true that shortstops get way more fielding chances than third basemen, but most of these are weak grounders that even an average third baseman could handle in his sleep. If you take those out, shortstop goes from a surplus of 3,530 to a deficit of 196.

Other things to consider are the consequences of failure. Shortstops are involved in turning three times as many double plays as third basemen, but if they fail to reach a ball, the worst that can happen is that they allow a single. Third basemen have to guard the line, and failure could very easily mean extra bases.

P.S. — I’ll let the reader draw their own conclusions for what all this really means, but it does seem worth noting that these are not big numbers when you take out very easy plays and divide by 30 teams. As metrics continue to evolve, I think they’ll start indicating that defense in general is not nearly as important as we make it out to be, shortstop or otherwise.