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Is Ian Kinsler the Worst Defensive Second Baseman in Baseball?

Today, over at Baseball Prospectus, in a piece by John Perrotto, a scout was quoted as saying the following about Texas Rangerssecond baseman Ian Kinsler:

“He’s a good hitter, I’ll grant you that, but he might be the worst defensive second baseman in baseball. It’s not only the errors he makes, but the plays he doesn’t make that don’t get called errors because he doesn’t get to the ball. They should either stick him in left field or make him a DH.”

Those are pretty strong words. “Worst” defensive second baseman is definitely speaking to the extreme, and this anonymous scout doesn’t only call into question the amount of defensive mistakes Kinsler makes on plays that he should, but he also questions Kinsler’s range and athleticism as a second baseman, placing the degrading “corner outfielder” and “DH” label on his abilities.

In 2012, Kinsler has made 15 errors in 121 games, which is the most he has made since he played 121 games and made 18 errors in 2008. However, those 15 errors are the most by any MLB second baseman, and his .970 fielding percentage puts him tied for worst in the league, as well as marking a career low for Kinsler. In that regard, the scout has a point that Kinsler has made a lot of errors this year.

However, this is a scout we are talking about, and his concern shouldn’t be the number of errors that show up on a stat page, but what his eyes tell him about the player’s physical abilities. Errors and fielding percentage are a poor way to judge a player’s defensive performance anyway, as the distribution of an error is subjective to a human judgment call.

In fact, you can essentially put a blanket statement across all defensive metrics that are publicly available and describe them as lacking in fully quantifying a player’s contributions with his glove. However, a more advanced defensive metric that we can look at is UZR. While UZR is not perfect, it does account for a player’s range and abilities, beyond just his errors.

In 2012, Ian Kinsler has a 1.8 UZR, and a 2.1 UZR/150. You don’t have to know exactly what those numbers mean, but we can compare those numbers relative to Kinsler’s career, and to the rest of the league (higher UZR is better). Kinsler’s career UZR/150 is 1.1, but 2009-2011 were especially good for him, when he posted UZRs of 10.2, 4.1, and 16.2. Given the performance of the last three years, a 2.1 UZR/150 is certainly a dropoff, but not one of alarming significance. And finally, Kinsler’s UZR/150 ranks him exactly 10th out of 20 qualifying MLB second baseman.

Again, any numbers on a stat sheet that talk about defense won’t tell us the whole story, as defense is best judged based on what is seen. It would be nearly impossible to argue that Kinsler has been an elite defensive second baseman in 2012, but it would also take some pretty strong convincing to make the argument he has been the worst. The true answer is probably somewhere in the middle, and is a more complicated answer than just what defensive statistics tell us, or just what one scout’s opinion is.

I referenced this earlier today on Twitter when I first read this story, but there was a scout in April who told Ken Rosenthal the following about Yu Darvish:

“He’s going to give up a ton of hits. A lot of his fastballs are very straight. The guy is supposed to throw hard. But he basically pitched at 89 to 92, touching 93-94. That’s pretty good in Japan. It’s not very good here.”

Yu Darvish has not exactly set the league on fire, but after five months, I don’t think this scout would be telling the same story. Darvish has actually allowed the 15th-fewest hits per nine innings of any MLB starter, and his fastball has averaged 94 MPH, touching 97 MPH with regularity. On top of that, he throws three or four different types of fastballs, none of which are “straight”, ranging from four to ten inches of horizontal movement.

I provide the example of the scout on Darvish not to suggest that scouts don’t know what they’re talking about, but to instead point out that there are times when scouts are also victims of small sample size judgments. That scout issued that opinion after Darvish’s second start of the year on April 14th against the Minnesota Twins. It was Darvish’s only start of the year in which his fastball topped out at 94 MPH, the rest of the season it has been 95 MPH or greater.

Maybe this scout has watched Kinsler all season and is basing his judgment on the full body of work. Maybe he caught Kinsler on a bad day, and when asked to give an opinion, he went off of what he saw that day. I’ll grant this nameless scout the benefit of the doubt that it is the latter. Based on what I have seen out of Kinsler this season, I believe that he is still an above-average defender based on his range, glove, and arm as a second baseman. He has aged a year, and with that his defense has regressed, but no more than is to be expected.

This scout could be right even if I think he is wrong. Either way, of all the things the Texas Rangers can and/or should be worried about right now, Ian Kinsler’s defense would have to fall at or near the very bottom of that list.

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