In a column headlined “The Range Factor can make sense of fielding stats,” Bryan Johnson, writing in the Toronto Globe & Mail on February 10, 1983, made a case for Range Factor, a stat developed by Bill James, being the definitive way to determine how well a fielder played his position:
Defence ranks right beside pitching and power as a key ingredient for a winning baseball team. It is no coincidence that the world champion St. Louis Cardinals led the National League in fielding percentage last year, or that Baltimore was once again the American League’s top defensive team.
Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog was probably understating things last fall when he estimated that his shortstop Ozzie (Wiz) Smith had “saved us a hundred runs this year.” Still, hardly anyone pays much attention to the mind-numbing fielding stats that hold, and hide, the secrets of the glove world. And who can blame them? Even the most dedicated fans are bound to be confused and bored by numbers that are so often misleading, contradictory, incomprehensible – or even outright meaningless. — Wayne Krenchicki best at third? — How, for example, can you relate outfield assists to a throwing arm, when a well-known cannon like New York’s David Winfield gets exactly one assist in 1981, and follows up with 17 in 1982? And what are you supposed to do with a fielding percentage that shows Wayne Krenchicki as a better third baseman than Mike Schmidt? . . .
Huh? Obviously, those ratings are absurd. But the problem is less with the statistics themselves than with idiots who cannot read or interpret them. All of baseball’s crucial numbers must be massaged a bit before they make much sense. And the right hands can transform those fielding charts from near nonsense into a gold mine of new information.
Just a little work with a calculator, for instance, reveals the real trio of top AL outfielders from left to right: Willie Wilson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas. Supporters of Rickey Henderson and Dwight Evans would certainly argue those choices. But a deep analysis of the fielding stats can stitch four or five years of records together to show that Wilson and Armas consistently reach more balls than their nearest rivals.
The same calculation restores Mike Schmidt to prominence, placing him neck-and-neck with Ken Oberkfell as the NL’s best third baseman. But both are dwarfed by the magic mitt of Buddy Bell, current undisputed heir to Brooks Robinson as grand master of baseball’s hot corner.
If Smith means 100 runs a year to the Cardinals, Bell probably saves 70 to 80 for the woeful Texas Rangers. He fields about 94 balls a year that even a good third baseman wouldn’t reach; and he grabs at least 160 more per season than Toby Harrah, the man he replaced in Texas.
That sort of precise measurement is made possible by something called the Range Factor, an invention of statistician Bill James and his renowned Baseball Abstract. James simply sets aside a player’s errors, and adds up the number of successful plays (putouts and assists) he makes per game. Errors are considered in their own context. But they don’t begin to measure a fielder’s real value – especially if he is making one play per game that his opponent is not. . . .
Consider the 1982 results. California Angels and Minnesota Twins seemed to have an almost identical defensive record, with each team making 108 errors and the Angels just nudging ahead on fielding percentage, .983 to .982. But the division-winning California team made 517 more putouts and assists than the last-place Twins – a huge margin of 3.20 per game. And by no coincidence at all, the Angels gave up 149 fewer runs.
Those are the kind of hidden numbers that separate a superb defensive team from an awful one. But most fans find a far more powerful argument for the RF in the individual statistics of players such as Bell and Harrah. When that pair swapped uniforms after the 1978 season, they silenced everyone who felt the Range Factor was more a measure of opportunity than ability. Bell was making 3.45 plays a game in Cleveland, Harrah only 2.43 in Texas. But the usual cant about field conditions and pitching were trotted out to explain the vast discrepancy.
What happened after the trade? Bell just packed up his spectacular RF and took it to Texas, posting 3.24, 3.38, 3.61 and 3.63 averages between 1979 and ’82. Harrah, meanwhile, has spent four years watching the ball whistle into left field at Cleveland. His totals there are 1.98, 2.80, 2.40 and 2.55.
The next week, Johnson presented this list of range factors for A.L. second basemen and shortstops who played from 1978 through 1982, listed backwards (as I found it in the archives, at least), from ’82 back to ’78:
Shortstops: ’82 ’81 ’80 ’79 ’78
Smalley 3.96, 3.81, 5.25, 5.39, 5.18
Trammell 4.57, 5.03, 4.42, 4.46, 4.75
Yount 4.82, 5.71, 5.22, 5.26, 5.59
Second basemen: ’82 ’81 ’80 ’79 ’78
Dauer 4.23, 4.78, 5.02, 4.59, 4.97
Gantner 5.38, 5.64, 4.86, 5.73, 4.57
Grich 5.51, 5.79, 5.40, 5.08, 5.17
Randolph 5.15, 5.09, 5.52, 5.44, 5.19
Remy 4.69, 4.99, 4.97, 4.6,3 5.47
Whitaker 5.38, 5.38, 5.37, 5.15, 5.54
White 5.21, 5.26, 5.51, 5.15, 5.07