Fantasy baseball analytics: What in the world is Ultimate Zone Rating?
Defense wins championships. Always has. Always will. This is not a cliche, it is fact, in all team sports.
A hockey team that can’t keep the puck out of its own net will not succeed long-term. Likewise for a football team that can’t stop the other team, since their inability to get their offense back on the field by making a defensive stop will prove fatal. Even in a high-scoring sport like basketball, the teams that hold the opposition under 100 points per game on a regular basis are generally the ones left standing at the end.
But when it comes to the value of defense and its relation to team success, nowhere is it as vital than on the baseball diamond. Baseball is patently different from all the other major North American team sports, because there is no clock counting down and serving as the arch enemy of the team that is trailing on the scoreboard.
A baseball team cannot deploy the trap to clog up the playing surface in the manner that a hockey team with a lead will do. They can’t pound the ball with a devastating ground game, such as a football team in the lead would, although evidently no one filled the Atlanta Falcons in on this game plan during Super Bowl LI.
In baseball, the team with the lead must put the ball in play. They must offer the opponent a clear chance to catch up, and that’s why strong defense is so vital. Each team is allotted 27 outs but it’s the teams that allow more than 27 outs that tend to lose more frequently than they win.
In other words, the teams that don’t catch the ball, the ones that bungle double plays and make mental errors like throwing to the wrong base enable rallies, thereby letting the opposition back into the game.
While errors and fielding percentages are common metrics utilized in baseball, and are measurables of defensive excellence, they only tell part of the story.
Ultimate zone rating, a defense metric derived by statistician Michael Lichtman, is based upon the zone rating concept created by Stats Inc.
Here’s how it works: the field is divided into zones and the out rate for each zone is calculated by subtracting the league average out rate from the percentage of balls hit into that zone that turn into outs.
The higher the positive number, the better the fielder. A rating of 15 or better is considered Gold Glove material while a fielder with a negative number is a liability. The stat is not calculated for catchers and pitchers. Players with top UZR ratings during the 2016 MLB season were almost assuredly part of the playoff picture.
That list included San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford (21.3), Chicago Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward (16.4), Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner (14.1), Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia (12.5), Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor (20.8), Toronto Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar (21.4) and Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre (14.4) and first baseman Mitch Moreland (6.4).
Yes, it’s a complicated stat and keeping track of team and individual UZRs is going to be a major commitment. But in the wagering world knowledge is king the time and effort is well worth it when you’re winning.