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Anthony Rizzo and the difficulties of evaluating defense at first base

The defensive metrics don’t exactly love Rizzo’s glove this year, but they don’t really tell the whole story.

Toronto Blue Jays v. New York Yankees Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Since he was acquired at the 2021 trade deadline, Anthony Rizzo has been a revelation for the Yankees. After experimenting with designated hitters and converted outfielders at first base for several years — and watching the team suffer because of it — Brian Cashman finally decided that he had at last seen enough and brought in a real first baseman for the first time since Mark Teixeira retired at the end of the 2016 season. The impact was immediate: Rizzo started compiling web gems as soon as his first series with the team, and as long as he was on the field for the rest of the season, fans stopped stressing over every routine throw to first.

It would be hard to find anybody who, while watching the Yankees night in and night out, would make the case that Rizzo has been anything but a good defender at first base. And yet, despite all that, Outs Above Average and Defensive Runs Saved both look unfavorably on his performance: he has been worth -4 OAA and -4 DRS this year, which would rank 15th and 17th among 19 qualifying first basemen, respectively. At this rate, both will be career lows for Rizzo, and it wouldn’t be particularly close, either.*

*Side note: Statcast had Rizzo pegged as an elite defender up until he joined the Yankees, as he accrued 8 OAA with the Cubs and -2 with the Yankees last season; a more detailed analysis of the Yankees’ and Cubs’ defensive tendencies than this piece has room for is needed to dive into the possible explanations for this.

For the most part, when it comes to analyzing defensive performance, the most important thing to remember is that your eyes deceive you. You’re more likely to remember plays worthy of either the highlight or blooper reels simply by virtue of the fact that they’re more memorable, which could give you the wrong impression about a player’s defensive capabilities.

For example, an outfielder who makes a lot of diving catches might be turning what ought to be routine fly outs into web gems due to a lack of range, as Yankees fans saw last year with Clint Frazier. On the flip side, a fielder might get pegged with a lot of errors due to the fact that his range allows him to make a play on a ball that most fielders wouldn’t come anywhere near. The defensive metrics allow you, in the aggregate, to look past your eyes and get better insight not only into what is happening defensively, but why it’s happening.

When attempting to analyze first-base defense, things get a little complicated. To understand why, let’s take a look at what goes into each of these metrics. According to the Fielding Bible FAQ, DRS incorporates the following into its calculation for infielders (the actual formulas are too convoluted for our purposes:

- Range & Positioning Runs Saved (All Non-Catchers)
- Bunt Runs Saved (Corner Infielders, Catchers, Pitchers)
- Double Play Runs Saved (Middle Infielders and Corner Infielders)
- Good Plays/Misplays Runs Saved (All Fielders)

Outs Above Average for infielders, meanwhile, is based on the following, according to MLB.com’s Glossary:

• How far the fielder has to go to reach the ball (“the intercept point”).
• How much time he has to get there.
• How far he then is from the base the runner is heading to.
• On force plays, how fast the batter is, on average

Although the “Good Plays/Misplayed Runs Saved” category in DRS does allow for a bit of flexibility, for the most part, the core of both metrics is found in a player’s ability to get to a ball hit in his general direction, and understandably so — for six of the seven non-battery positions, range is arguably the most important skill (after all, it doesn’t matter how smoothly you field the ball if you can’t get to it).

First base, however, is an exception to this rule. The most important skill there is the ability to be a good and dependable target on ground balls. That’s not to say that range is meaningless — the first baseman is responsible for preventing line-drive doubles down the right-field line, after all — but it has much less ground to cover than any other position even before you factor in that the shift puts the second baseman in short right field rather frequently.

Fortunately for the Yankees, that skill is something that Anthony Rizzo excels at; after all, he not only has won four Gold Gloves, he’s also the only first baseman to have received the Platinum Glove (2016). And so, even if his range at first isn’t what it used to be, he’ll still be an important contributor for the Yankees’ infield defense throughout the season.