Sam Donnellon | Baseball should have own 'plus-minus' stat

Posted: June 19, 2007

BEFORE BLOCKS were charted in basketball,

before the red zone was invented, before hockey differentiated between shots and chances, the game of baseball had already overpopulated itself with the most exacting of statistical

categories.

Hitting,

running, throwing, catching, even psychological mettle - each facet had been

divided and subdivided

to measure

a man's most subtle strength or disguised

deficiency. And yet, of the major sports played on this continent, only in baseball are we left to

argue the net balance of a player's offensive prowess vs. his

defensive ability.

Is playing Greg Dobbs at third base for four at-bats a good risk or a bad one? Who produces a better net gain for his team: Abraham Nunez for his glove or Todd Walker for his bat?

How many runs did the player help produce for his team? How many runs were lost because of something he should have done but did not? What's his plus-minus?

Incredibly, baseball has no indisputable measurement of this.

"Not yet anyway," said Jim Swavely, of Reading-based Baseball Info Solutions, one of dozens of Internet-friendly statistical services to spring up over the last 10 years.

"I know people are trying to do what you're talking about," said Steve Moyer, president of the site.

"It's sort of like the Holy Grail of baseball stats," Swavely said.


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This comes to mind nearly

every day the Phillies suit up to play baseball. Everywhere he looks, Charlie Manuel is presented with a poser. Should I play Nunez for his glove at third, or Dobbs there for his bat? Is Pat Burrell's hit-or-miss power in left worth the lack of range out there, or should Jayson Werth, Dobbs, or the raw but dangerous Michael Bourn be given more innings and more at-bats there?

Consider the lineup the manager chose for Sunday's game with the Tigers. Rather than load up as many fastball-friendly bats against hard-throwing Justin Verlander, Nunez was at third, Dobbs in left. In both the second and third innings, Nunez rushed slow-rolling balls and threw on the run to record outs at first. The first play defused what could have been a big inning.

But it's not so cut-and-dried. Nunez also drove in a run with a single. And with bases loaded and two out in the seventh, a hard smash into the hole dribbled off Nunez' glove, and the

tying and go-ahead runs scored.

John Dewan, author of "The Fielding Bible," actually has created a "plus-minus" statistic. But it measures solely fielding prowess, taking into account the range a player can go to get to a ball. It's exhaustive stuff, relying on game videos and finding an average level of competency, but interestingly the stat indicates that Nunez is much better going toward the line than away from it.

Still, it is hard to imagine either Wes Helms or Dobbs even getting a glove on that ball, and so you are back to the daily quandary that Manuel faces. Would Helms, who is swinging better of late, have provided more offense in that game? Especially early, when the Phillies had chances to tack on runs? Would a lineup of Dobbs at third and Burrell or Werth in left provided a better "plus-minus"?

A few times this season, Manuel has lauded Shane Victorino's arm in rightfield by saying, "He saves us at least a run a game." Because it is so breathtakingly strong, this is often accepted not as an exaggerated compliment, but a statement of undeniable fact.

"Whitey Herzog used to say that Ozzie Smith saved a run a game," said Moyer, of Baseball Info Solutions. "That's impossible. Nobody affects a game that way."

The truth, statistically, is that the range between superstar and average in baseball is ridiculously small. The difference between an everyday player hitting .300 or .240 can be as little as 30 hits over a 162-game season. When Jimmy Rollins swung at a 3-1 pitch at his toes to pop up leading off Sunday's game, there wasn't a baseball-loving father among the 45,537 at Citizens Bank Park who didn't think about how good the Phillies' shortstop could be if he just played or understood the game better.

Pitching and defense win championships. History also tells you that it often gets teams there. The Marlins beat the mighty Yankees one year that way, the Arizona Diamondbacks did, too. But when your pitching is closer to the league average, does that make defense - and sound baseball - less or more significant?

Watching this team over the last maddening decade, it would seem to be more. Chase Utley wins a game by scoring from

second while his opponents are distracted. A runner scores because Rod Barajas won't cover the plate. Shane Victorino kills a rally by trying to steal third with two outs. And Pat Burrell . . .

Well, no need to beat the point to death.

But you wonder: If baseball could measure true value the way those other sports do,

would the Phillies have looked significantly different over the last 7 years?

And would you have felt significantly different about them? *

Send e-mail to

donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/donnellon.

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