All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk
Hat tip to Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs.com for the article that sparked this idea.
It used to be we knew what a good defender was in baseball. And Derek Jeter was a good defender. He had balletic grace, he scooped up balls and threw them with flair and panache, with an all-but-patented jump-throw that made announcers gush and coaches shake their heads in awe. He was the complete package, a player who could hit, field, throw and lead, a first ballot hall of famer.
Except that, when you look closely, it turns out his defense is lousy.
Defense used to be measured (still is, by many) via the eye test. How does a player look when catching balls in play? And this was backed up by the statistic of fielding percentage. How many balls did a player field cleanly? It makes intuitive sense. The more balls a player fields correctly, why, the better defender he must be, right?
Except that’s only part of defense. It’s nice if a player can catch a ball well. But what about balls that get by him? In the last decade or so, baseball analysts began studying the concept of range. All things being equal, the realization came, range is actually more important than errors or how a player looks. It’s one thing to catch everything that gets to within a few steps to the shortstop’s right and left. It’s another thing entirely to catch 98% of everything spanning the third baseman’s left pocket to the grass on the far side of second base. When you consider the huge number of balls that are hit in the vicinity of the shortstop every season, and the relative value of a hit versus an out, those extra feet of range translate into saved runs. And saved runs contribute to wins.
Just as an aside, current defensive metrics suggest Derek Jeter has cost the Yankees over a hundred runs relative to an average shortstop over his career. Still a hall of famer. Not a great defender.
However, those saved runs and that increased range come with a cost. By definition, the best shortstops will have more chances to make a fielding play, and if you make more chances, you are likely to make more errors. Indeed, the very fact that a great fielding shortstop is able to get to more hard hit balls on the edge of his range may well lead to a lower overall fielding percentage as well as a higher number of errors.
Fortunately for those shortstops, baseball teams are getting smarter and are realizing the tradeoff is worth it. Scouting reports regularly cite range in addition to how a player looks, and fielding percentage is low on the list of statistics an organization cares about in evaluating a player.
And that gives me hope for innovation in two ways. The first is the point above about the eye test. We trust what we see and feel. However, that’s not always the complete story. Often in trying to implement innovation, there’s a gut feeling by those doing the evaluation–this is innovation, that isn’t, I can tell. Only anecdotal evidence suggests that no, in fact, often people can’t tell. Just ask Kodak. However, if baseball can come to realize that the eye test, while important, is just one part of the evaluation package, industries can also learn that lesson and look for other, possibly less subjective ways to measure innovation.
The second relates to two contradictory things that are often said about innovation, sometimes one right after the other. We need to innovate. And we need to de-risk it to make sure that it will work. Unfortunately, there can be no real innovation without the very real risk of failure. In an interview with Wired magazine, the inventor James Dyson is described as having worked his way through 5127 prototypes of his bagless vacuum cleaner before hitting success. But if baseball can come to realize that a decreased probability of fielding success is actually a good thing when it means a shortstop is reaching defensive heights few others can, maybe industries can finally realize that failure, in the right cause, is something to be celebrated and embraced.