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Two for opening day

The AL East looks more interesting this year than ever. The duopoly of the Red Sox and Yankees will be challenged by the Blue Jays, the Orioles pitching will be given a dose of Leo Mazzone's magic, and the Devil Ray organization has been transformed. The D Ray's goal is to play .500 ball, which would be a good first step. Check out Landon Thomas' piece in the NY Times to get a feel for what's going on in Tampa.

The Times was chock full of interesting baseball stories this weekend. The one I found most interesting is Alan Schwarz' piece on measurement of fielding skill. Jahn Hakes and I took a crack at this problem about five years ago and determined that there was insufficient statistical information to measure the contribution of fielding to winning games. Well, John Dewan reached the same conclusion, but he went one better. He set up a company, Baseball Information Solutions, to produce the necessary data.

By watching video of every major league game for the last three seasons and assessing the speed and location of every hit on an 8000-pixel grid, it has assembled a vast database of each fielder's performance. The scoring system is simple: If a fielder converts a chance that the typical fielder converts 70 percent of the time, he gets a +0.3; if he fails on what is a 20 percent shot, he gets a -0.2. The season total of these figures estimates how many aggregate outs the fielder accounted for above or below average.

[White Sox CF Aaron] Rowand, who impressed on defense last season with few meaningful statistics to show for it, actually led all major league outfielders in 2005 with a +30, meaning he saved the equivalent of 30 singles and extra-base hits from falling in the outfield. On offense, that would translate to 60 points in batting average and about 100 points in slugging percentage. The three Gold Glove winners -- Vernon Wells (+4), Torii Hunter (+5) or Ichiro Suzuki (+7) -- did not fare nearly as well.

What does this mean for the Rowandless White Sox? [Rowand was traded to the Phillies.] That their run prevention may suffer significantly with an unproven rookie, Brian Anderson, in center field. Meanwhile, the Phillies and their undoubtedly grateful pitchers received a vast upgrade: Rowand's predecessor, Kenny Lofton (+1), had been merely average at turning potential hits into outs. The Yankees will enjoy a similar boost from center fielder Johnny Damon, who was an average -3 over three years. Bernie Williams was the major leagues' worst at -78.

This system, applied to every position but catcher, has been used silently by several teams since 2003, most notably Boston. It was after the Baseball Info Solutions method confirmed the decline of Nomar Garciaparra in 2004 that the Red Sox traded for the high-ranking defender Orlando Cabrera, whose hit-saving glove helped them to the World Series championship. Twelve teams now purchase data from the company in hopes of being a step ahead of clubs that stubbornly rates defense by errors or traditional scouting.

I'm guessing that one of the eighteen clubs that don't is the White Sox, and that the Yanks did the Damon deal with full information. Regardless, the concept seems sound. Kudos to John Dewan & Co.

Play ball!