How much stock should the Astros put in Tommy Manzella's glove?

This piece has to start with a strong preface: I don't know the answer to this question, nor will I by the end of this.  All I can use is the information available, spotty, at best, due to the inherent shortcomings of defensive metrics and their required sample size.  I can also rely on scouting reports and my own first hand account watching Manzella play defense in Round Rock.  These, however, are all ways at getting the truth, but never actually arriving.  It'll be an approximation, and that leaves plenty of room for error.

That said, I want to try and get to a general idea of how much probability we should be assigning to Tommy Manzella's glove.  It's something we've discussed numerous times in the comments section this offseason, but it's something that hasn't receive the full attention of a front page article.  It's something that's been brewing about in the back of mind for sometime now, but it's not something I've had the heart to actually sit down and quantify—or at least attempt to do so. That's the rub of being a blogger about your favorite team, you have to look at the ugly truth about your team far too often.

Now, I probably have a personal bias against Manzella's fielding because an un-scooped mis-throw of his almost took my head off back in April when I was in a camera well at Dell Diamond.  But aside from the fear that either myself, or my friend's $600 camera, was going to get clobbered because of the errant throw, the rest of what I've seen of Manzella hasn't inspired a lot of confidence.  My honest impression of seeing him play is that he has the range, but his arm isn't accurate enough; again, though, there's a huge potential bias on my end in terms of his throwing prowess.

I doubt you're reading this to read through my internal monologue about whether I'm being too harsh on Manzella's defense.  So, we'll get to the numbers.  We'll primarily be taking a look at TotalZone, a metric that was conceived of, and honed, by Sean Smith (the CHONE guy).  Though not as advanced as UZR, its simplistic input allows for prevalent minor league data, which is what we need for this endeavor.

Obviously, as Astros fans, our logical benchmark for a great defensive shortstop is Adam Everett.  Tommy Manzella is not the next Adam Everett just because I'm not entirely convinced we didn't watch the best fielding short stop ever in 2006.  Failing to live up to the impressive glove work of Everett doesn't mean Manzella won't be a good, or even great, fielder.  Just that I want to see if we can come to a more concrete way of predicting his success than what the Astros organization has touted about Mr. Manzella.  So, after the jump, I'll give you my best effort at coming up with just that.

(If you're interested in what Manzella's bat might look like, relative to Everett's, click here for AstroAndy's excellent investigation of the subject last summer)

There are several ways of viewing Tommy Manzella's defense that have kept me up the last few nights thinking them through. The first, and somewhat valid, method would be look what Manzella's marginal impact our defense will be from 2009 to 2010.  The process is pretty straight forward: Take Miguel Tejada's TotalZone Rating from 2009 and then using what we know about Manzella's defense determine what the marginal change would be.

Miguel Tejada, in 2009, had a TotalZone rating of -22, which we can approximate as runs.  Not a stellar year for Miggy, and a drop of twenty-three runs from 2008.  Since 2005, Tommy Manzella has posted yearly TotalZones of 2, 0, 2, 3, and 3 (via MinorLeagueSplits.com).  Over a five year period, he averages a TotalZone of 2.  I'm comfortable with assuming that Manzella's five year average is a reasonable—enough—approximation for his defensive skill. Thus, the marginal expected change in the Astros defense, at shortstop, in 2010, is 24 runs.  That's an impressive change and would likely offset whatever Manzella's batting line is compared Tejada's.

However, it doesn't really answer the question we need answered.  We don't want to know if Manzella will be better than Tejada at defense.  What we want to know is if Manzella is plus a defender.  Plus enough to offset a dismal/triple/slash, that is.

Our mythical benchmark is Adam Everett. And, even as unlikely that I feel it is that we'll see another Adam Everett-esque defensive shortstop again (until Jiovanni Mier, of course...), let's run with that concept.

After scouring the internet far and wide for what I could find in terms of defensive metrics for minor leaguers, I'm depressed.  The goal was to find something that I could use to compare the development of Everett and Manzella using apples to apples.  Unfortunately, the best statistic that's out there for evaluating minor league defense, Total Zone, can only go back so far (2005, to be exact).

I did, in the search, learn more about the utility of TotalZone ratings for minor league players.  And it is something we should address before we push onward:

For the ratings to be useful, they need to correlate from one level to another. If we knew a player had a +15 rating one year, that would be of no use unless it told us that he was likely to continue to post good ratings in future seasons, at higher levels of the minors. Preliminary investigation shows that these ratings are more useful for infielders than outfielders. The correlation is much lower for outfielders, though at least they are (usually) positive. I’ve found that you can usually get a correlation of 0.50, meaning you regress 50 percent to the mean, at about 350 chances for infielders. This represents less than a full season of chances for second, third and short. For outfielders, you need about two full seasons of data to regress 50 percent, or about 1,000 chances.

The only season's worth of data that we have about Manzella where he has 350+ chances at a single level is 2009; the same season in which he posted his best career number of +3.  That's something to consider as the other years that reported rely on incomplete samples as Manzella changed levels.

The other thing to consider is that Sean Smith has developed an MLE (major league equivalent) for TotalZone based on his regression analysis of defense from every level.  For a SS, the MLE is -10 at AAA.  However, these MLE's are based on 500 chances, aren't park adjusted, and are based flyball/linedrive tendencies in the minors.  If we scale the MLE to Manzella's 400 chances at AAA, though, he'd be rerated as a -5.  Still a full 18 runs better than Tejada was last year, but certainly no Adam Everett.

This has been a lovely digression, and something that should be variable in our evaluation of Manzella's defense, but let's get back to the task at hand.  The only apple to apple comparison I could find for Manzella and Everett was Range Factor (click here to read Tango's critique of the metric).  As imperfect as it is, it's what we have to work with. And, truth be told, fielding metrics are imperfect, so we could also just choose to view Range Factor as just being more imperfect and sweat it a little less (although, it looks like things are getting pretty damned close to accurate: here and here).

Age Everett Manzella
21 4.81
22 4.32
23 4.69 4.19
24 4.58 4.34
25 4.99 4.57
26 4.24

Manzella looked as though he were in a career arc of improvement, until 2009 saw him post a step backwards.  I'm wiling to give him the benefit of the doubt in 2009 because John Gall was his first baseman (he's no Puma, we'll just leave it at that). There could have very well been plays that Manzella would have gotten credit for if he had a better first baseman, but the fact remains, Manzella remains a step behind Everett no matter how we slice it. 

If we were to draw any conclusions on Manzella's defense, I'd say the following:

  • At every level, Manzella is behind Everett.
  • Manzella, however, does seem to be gradually improving, much the same way that Everett did—just never quite reaching Everett's height.
  • The prior to observations leads to a defensible conclusion that Manzella will always be a step behind (below?) Everett.
  • That conclusion doesn't necessarily impose a low ceiling for Manzella, though.
Obviously, the numbers aren't going to lead me to the conclusion I am so clearly grasping for—desperately.  A case can be made that he has a ceiling that's high, but, thus far, our empirical knowledge of Manzella isn't as rosy of a picture we've heard. Sure, his Range Factor isn't terrible when we view it next to Adam Everett, but Manzella has yet to post a TotalZone that suggests he is going to be an above average defender.

Yet, all we've heard about Manzella is that he's a plus defender.  But, we've mainly heard that from the Astros themselves, plus a few scouting reports.  It's hard to really take an organization's evaluation of a propsect too seriously because they're only going to paint the rosiest of pictures possible.  So I took to the internet to find any and every scouting report I could find on Manzella.  What I found doesn't leave me convinced that TotalZone is just underrating Manzella.

First, there's the fact that Manzella has a been a perennial C prospect for John Sickels, who writes that Manzella is "a steady and reliable defensive shortstop.  His bat isn't that bad, so that leads me to infer that really isn't bringing a truly plus glove, otherwise he'd be more than a C.  BPro's, Kevin Goldstein had this to say of Manzella, "[a] fundamentally sound shortstop." I don't read that and get goosebumps.  Of course, Goldstein follows that with "[h]e's a fantastic glove man whose instincts and 55 speed (on the 20-80 scale) give him plenty of range. Manzella also has outstanding hands and an above-average arm." Mixed signals from Goldstein, no love from Sickels...not the greatest start.


Mining other prospect sites brought the following comments (thanks to David for compiling most of these for me):
  • Ben Balder of Baseball America "He does have a solid arm, hands and footwork, but he's really more of a spray hitter without much pop, so it's hard to see him as more than a slightly above replacement-level player at best."
  • Gerry Fraley "With a combination of soft hands and a powerful arm, Manzella, 26, is the best defensive infielder in the organization."
  • Baseball America, from 2007,  says Manzella "has solid range, a strong arm and fine instincts."
  • Baseball America, from 2009, probably has the most glowing review of Manzella, with "Defensively, he's a slick fielder in the mold of former Astro Adam Everett, with good feet and balance and good range going both ways. He makes strong throws across the diamond. His defense isn't quite as good as Everett's though his offense should be better."
First, saying someone is the best defensive infielder in the Astros farm system isn't saying a whole lot.  They're not bursting at the seems with prospects, and least of all in the infield.  Further, I don't see a single superlative describing his attributes.  I see words that make me think "slightly above average" and "not great."  David, who provided the Sickel's and BA quotes for me, took the same impression away.  There's nothing that's been written about Manzella—really—that would lead to the conclusion that this a great fielding prospect we're looking at.

It's at this point in my odyssey  that the real sleeplessness has set in for me (seriously, I woke up early, while on vacation to finish this up).  We've done a lot of defending of the moves the Astros have made this offseason by crediting Ed Wade for bolstering defense behind a pitching staff that will certainly take advantage of it.  But now I'm left wondering if that's the case.  Certainly, Manzella is an upgrade from Miguel Tejada.  That, however, doesn't mean he's going to be the kind of stalwart when need behind our ground ball heavy relievers.

The question that I've asked is how much stock should the Astros, or ourselves, put in Tommy Manzella's glove. What we've been able to determine, thus far, is that the numbers leave a glimmer of hope, but don't indicate great success. Basically Manzell's TotalZone indicates that he has floor of being just slightly below average at fielding SS, but a ceiling that could range higher.  Based on Manzella's TotalZone, coupled with the scouting reports on him, I think that he has a ceiling of being a slightly above average defensive shortstop.  That's about as high as I think we can place it.

So how much stock should the Astros put in Tommy Manzella's glove? I fear that the answer is that they've already put too much in it.
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