When pressed for their favourite memory of Roberto Alomar, Blue Jays fans are just as likely to mention a specific moment of defensive wizardry as they are his home run in the 1992 ALCS against Dennis Eckersley. Asked to close their eyes and picture Alomar, most would see the Hall of Fame second baseman diving through the air to his left and coming up with a ball that no other second baseman in baseball could come up with.

But how accurate is our belief in Alomar’s defensive abilities?

According to advanced defensive metrics, Alomar was actually a sub par defender during his time in Toronto, costing the Blue Jays between six and eight runs a season.  With ten Gold Glove Awards in his career despite such a poor zone rating, Alomar might be called the Derek Jeter of his time.

Bringing up this comparison is sure to incite claims that everyone, outside of AL managers at least, knows that Jeter is a bad defensive shortstop, whereas Alomar had no such reputation.  But consider baseball’s accessibility in the mid nineties compared to 2010.  There was no such thing as a Baseball Reference or FanGraphs website. There were barely websites.  Baseball fans couldn’t check the data like they’re able to today.

You might say that you don’t need the internet to know that Jeter has a limited range.  It’s as simple as gauging the difference between him moving to his right and left for a ground ball.  No such claims were ever made about Alomar while he was being watched.

Again, I’d suggest that this is because of a difference in accessibility.  Baseball fans today have the means to watch multiple out of market games thanks to MLB.TV and MLB Extra Innings.  I can watch just as much of Derek Jeter as I can Aaron Hill.  In the mid nineties, despite their back to back World Series victories, it was mainly Blue Jays fans watching Alomar and the Toronto Blue Jays play.  As great as Jays supporters are, no one would confuse us with being unbiased fonts of unprejudiced knowledge.

In fact, evidence does exist that Alomar’s reputation exceeded his actual defensive ability.  In a mid-nineties Baseball Abstract, Bill James casually mentions that the Blue Jays scouting staff was wary of the difference between Alomar’s perceived and actual talent as a second baseman.

It could also be argued that defensive zone ratings from the mid-nineties aren’t properly accounting for the playing surface (and I use the term loosely) at the SkyDome.  The turf at the SkyDome during Alomar’s time in Toronto was basically a sheet of green carpet over concrete.  Batted balls would travel harder and faster than they would in any almost any other stadium.

At first glance, that sounds like a reasonable rationale, but in the immediate years following Alomar’s departure from Toronto, his defensive ratings were similarly below replacement level.  This was when Alomar played half of his games on the Maryland Bluegrass in Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a far cry from the pin ball machine that was SkyDome.

Another justification for Alomar’s poor numbers is shifting blame to John Olerud’s limited range at first base. We all remember those plays to Alomar’s left and wondering how he got to them.  Well, perhaps he came up with them by shading toward first because of Olerud’s supposed immobility, leaving him vulnerable to balls hit up the middle, and resulting in a misleading defensive range rating.

Again, that sounds like a swell explanation, but Olerud’s defensive numbers actually show that he had the most consistently positive range in the Jays infield during the five year stretch in which Alomar was manning second base.  He may not have been the fastest guy on the basepaths, but Olerud regularly got to baseballs that were hit in his vicinity.

The truth of the matter is that Alomar really was our Jeter.  Think back to those memories of Alomar sailing through the air.  I’ll bet that in your imagination he’s always diving to his left.  That’s because he had good range one way and he could look spectacular getting to batted balls that normally would’ve rolled into right field,  but he couldn’t move to his right in the same fashion. Unfortunately for Alomar and his zone rankings, more groundballs are hit toward center field as opposed to right.

His lack of range moving right could also explain Alomar’s below replacement level numbers at turning double plays, but I’m slightly more inclined to believe that his troubles with his pivot resulted from having four different regular shortstops feeding him over his five years in Toronto.

None of this is to say that Alomar doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame.  In fact, he could’ve been far worse at second base and still have deserved enshrinement in Cooperstown.  But let’s lay off the Bill Mazeroski comparisons, and recognize Roberto Alomar for what he actually was: the best second baseman of his time at the plate, with or without a defensive upside.

Comments (43)

  1. I’ve seen the stats too and read the cases made for this (http://razzball.com/alan-trammell-barry-larkin-roberto-alomar-2011-hall-of-fame/). Usually when the stats diverge from opinion, I can see where they’re coming from, but with this it’s so wholly unfathomable that I have to just disregard it. We all saw him play and he was legit.

  2. It’s equally unfathomable to Yankees fans that we consider Jeter a terrible defender.

  3. True, but non-Jays fans and writers see and acknowledge Alomar’s brilliance too.

  4. 2nd last paragraph – don’t you mean his lack of range moving right?

  5. BLASPHEMER!!!

    Parkes deserves to be assassinated, and anyone who agrees with him may find their place beside him in the fires of Hell.

  6. @Hoops Just as there are writers and fans who assume that Jeter is a good defender.

    @Wig Thanks, man.

    @Andy When you’re already well on your way to hell, it makes it a whole lot easier to say what you want.

  7. Roberto always caught me!

  8. From Keith Law’s latest chat:

    “Joel (Shanghai)

    On what do you base your defensive evaluations? RF seems too simplistic, UZR too sporadic.

    Klaw
    (2:57 PM)

    Visual observation first, supplemented with statistics.”

    Now, by no means do I consider Mr. Law to be the be all and end all of baseball opinion, but given the relative relative uncertainty of most defensive metrics none are close to perfect – I think this is an entirely reasonable approach.

    Looking at advanced stats alone do not and cannot tell the entire story.

  9. I’d suggest it’s a whole lot easier to have an objective view of a high school or college player with no ties to the team you cheer for. When the majority of people who are spreading their, let’s face it, uninformed opinion on how good of a fielder is happen to be fans of the team he plays on, I’m going to have questions.

    I watched Alomar play just as much as anyone, and that’s why I’m not arguing that he wasn’t an exciting fielder. I just can’t give an objective opinion on if he was very good or not. There’s a lot of evidence here that he wasn’t.

  10. Robbie also caught me.

  11. Joining Parkes in taking on a dump on Alomar now that he’s been elected into the Hall of Fame…

    Alomar was an exceptional player for the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993 with a WAR of 6.4 and 6.1. His WAR in his three other years in Toronto were 3.7, 2.1 and 1.8.
    Alomar’s best seasons werefor the Indians where he had a WAR of 7.9, 7.8 and 4.9. Alomar’s 1996 season in Baltimore and his 1988 and 1989 seasons for the Padres were also stronger than his other three years in Toronto.
    Alomar may be the first Blue Jay elected to the Hall of Fame but his two best seasons with the team were not much better than Aaron Hill’s 2007 and 2009 seasons.

    Bring the hate.

  12. Good FanGraphs piece comparing Alomar to Larkin: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/if-alomar-why-not-larkin/

    You could also throw Trammell in there to and all three lines are incredibly similar.

  13. To my eyes, Alomar always looked like he was poor at positioning himself. In particular, I think he played too deep. He’d run a mile to field a ball and get an out and look spectacular doing it, but I think other second basemen would get the same ball without so much movement.

  14. But, as noted above, the field at the Skydome played faster, and playing deeper was a necessity. The same argument can be made to Boojang’s WAR argument.

    Now, I was too young to remember Alomar’s Blue Jays days well, but I’m still not exactly convinced on any defensive metrics. They seem to always change year to year, Plus, how do you go back and judge defense when these weren’t really used back then? I don’t understand that either,

  15. They were recording zones by the nineties. I think it’s funny how quickly everyone rolls their eyes at Yankees fans for saying Jeter is great, but as soon as someone points out the same thing with one of their players, the metrics are suddenly flawed. Give me a break. Why is it so hard to believe that Alomar is overrated? It’s like Parkes says he was an exciting defender, not a good one.

  16. Maybe if Alomar was better at positioning himself, he wouldn’t have to dive so much.

  17. why do ppl want to hit me when i say o dog was a better defender? does anyone else agree with my opiniioon I love Robbie as much as the next fan, but my eyes do not lie to me O dog was stronger defensively!

  18. @Jeff: I was thinking the same thing. I don’t doubt that Alomar was a tad overrated defensively and simply had the ability to look flashier than he actually was, but these defensive metrics were in their infancy/non-existent in the 1990′s. Is someone really going back and watching every play he ever made to see exactly how he measures up?

    Defensive metrics can certainly help us determine who is and isn’t a good defender, but sometimes they can be just as misleading as our eyes. Nothing’s perfect when your judging something that isn’t clean cut.

  19. travis: nicely said
    Defensive metrics can certainly help us determine who is and isn’t a good defender, but sometimes they can be just as misleading as our eyes. Nothing’s perfect when your judging something that isn’t clean cut.

  20. Numbers give you a broad picture but don’t necessarily tell the story about moments. Sometimes moments are what makes a player great and Alomar had a nose for moments. Perhaps the numbers are reflecting all those times that the Jays were up by 3 or 4 runs and with no one on base, a hitter grounds the ball up the middle and maybe Alomar doesn’t do everything he can to get to the ball. But with the game on the line he would turn himself inside out to make the play. Great players are not just consistent, they have another level, they know when they have to be great. Is he the best defensive 2nd baseman ever? of course not. However he is not as bad as the numbers suggest either.

  21. The issue with Jeter is that he’s not even a particularly good fielder based on eyesight alone. We don’t really need numbers to see that he doesn’t get to many balls.

    That, and Alomar had twice the number of gold gloves Jeter did. It wasn’t as though he was an intermittent winner – pretty much everyone who saw him, over pretty much the length of his career, deemed him the best defensive player at his position in the AL. Is some of that a case of sheer incumbency and notoriety? Sure, probably some amount. But a run like that goes beyond mere blindness on the part of the voters.

    (Which reminds me – what were Alomar’s defensive metrics compared to his contemporaries? Who was supposedly the best actual fielder during all those years)

    And the bottom line is that even if you believe the numbers, Alomar was, at worst, a top-ten second basemen. If you think he was above average, then he’s top-five all time.

  22. Hates Rookie of the Year & Calls out Alomar as a hack fielder…. Parkes, I just don’t know if we can sit beside each other at work anymore….. one word can describe my feeling right now.

    Funkybuttlovin!

  23. I’ll be honest, when I think back to Alomar making plays the first impression was of him going to his right, and jump-throwing the ball across the diamond for the out. I don’t know how that affected his UZR, but in my mind he was amazing defensively!

  24. So, Alomar was a great fielder because he’d only try when it really mattered?

    Gold gloves can’t be meaningless when Derek Jeter wins them, but meaningful when Alomar does.

    I believe retrosheet was recording outs made in zones by this point in the nineties. Little if any difference between ratings now and then.

    I’ll look up some of Alomar’s contemporaries with better defensive ratings, but the first guy to spring to mind is Ryne Sandberg.

    “I wrap the cake up in my vomit bag, and Voila!… Breakfast!”

  25. Parkes: I`m not sure that you got my play on current events, but burn in hell anyway. My eyes only saw glory when they were focussed on Roberto Alomar, and my mind cannot correct that.

  26. @Dustin: I did not know about RetroSheets. Well there goes most of my argument, lol. He probably was very overrated. Damn.

  27. Pakistani governor?

  28. I read Getting Blanked and DJF all the time (and think both are great) never comment on anything. I also don’t know a lot about advanced metrics. My impression is that everytime UZR, OPS, wOBA and other advanced metrics become involved in the conversation it is usually for the purpose of showing that a supposed “great player” wasn’t actually that “great”.

    So my questions to everyone on here is “Do our Impressions of Players mean anything?” Comparing players based solely on any statistics will never be 100% fair. There are no defensive adjustments that will accurately compare players on Skydome Turf and Fenway Grass. There are no offensive metrics that accurately compare hitters based on the pitchers faced throughout their career. Pitchers likely gave up more HRs during the “steroid era”, but they don’t get mulligans for this.

    It’s ignorant to disregard basic statistics and advanced metrics, but to lean on them so heavily when evaluating every player is I believe equally ignorant.

    I’m saying this as a Jays fan, but not a huge Alomar homer. He was alright, but Kelly Gruber was the man.

    • The thing is Dexter, our perception is faulty. There’s no way we can possibly see every swing, every at bat, even every play . . . so why pretend that we can get an all around understanding of a player based on the limited sample size that we see? The metrics being used today do use park adjustments, and I believe these metrics to be far more reliable a gauge of how a player performs and will perform rather than seeing ten games where Vernon Wells played super good.

  29. I’m glad someone wrote this article but. Goddammit, as much as Prime Time Sports and the Old Writer totally ignores these new stats they made a good point about Alomar’s stats, he was a smart player defensively and it likely compensated for anything the stats say about him.

    • But what makes him a supposedly smart defensive player? I don’t get it. That’s certainly the myth, but what makes you think that he was such a great player defensively? Because you saw a handful of plays in which he dove for a ball? That’s exciting, and no one is saying that he wasn’t an exciting defender, but an exciting defender does not necessarily a good defender make.

  30. There is a second element of Alomar’s style that makes him stand out in the minds of the fan. Its the double play turn. Which he didn’t do very often, compared to, say, Damaso Garcia. Its not about frequency though, much like the Tony Fernandez flip, Alomar made an impression by always making the turn and leaping into the air for the throw. Also, like Jeter going waaaaaay into the hole and firing in the mid air turn, it seems much more superhuman than solid footwork. A play that puts the defender so high in the air that the runner can’t ever touch him, much less bowl him over, is a highlight reel play. Highlight reels win gold gloves. So yes, an exciting player, regardless of numbers.

  31. @Parkes The example they gave was making a stop in the hole and catching a baserunner trying to go to third instead of taking the easy out at 1st. That saves two bases for his team….

  32. Alomar = Jeter.
    The end.

  33. Outrage over a Jeter / Alomar comparison is making me laugh.

    Being compared to Derek Jeter is a HUGE COMPLIMENT.

    Alomar is our Jeter, for sure.

  34. This just proves that the new fielding stats are not worth the electronic paper they are written on…..just something made up by guys who could never play the game and need to analyze something. Why dont you try getting out to a ball game and watching a player then making up your mind. If these stats were so accurate the As would win the series every year. How many times have they won since Billy Bean took over….right a grand total of no world series appearances.
    I also saw him play many times and he was the best to play that position. If you dont agree with me….Joe Morgan was the one who actually said that.

  35. I had seen Roberto playing since he was playing in the Winter Leagues in PR, waaay before the Padres signed him. I saw him playing in good and VERY bad diamonds and always had a great range for both sides, dived to both sides, and made the hard things look easy. Now, if Mr. Parkes think that is a piece of cake I suggest to geab a glove and try to do the same thing ;-)

  36. I had seen Roberto playing since he was playing in the Winter Leagues in PR, waaay before the Padres signed him. I saw him playing in good and VERY bad diamonds and always had a great range for both sides, dived to both sides, and made the hard things look easy. Now, if Mr. Parkes think that is a piece of cake I suggest to grab a glove and try to do the same thing ;-)

  37. there are three untruths – lies, damn lies, and…. statisitics

    Defensive metrics are very unreliable because there are many variables when it comes to defensive play that it simply can’t account for… while a baseball man like Peter Gammons whose watched thousands of games can provide a much more informed opinion when he says that Alomar was the best baseball player of his lifetime.

    How do the metrics account for Jeter’s instincts and savvy? You don’t get to the right place at the right time most of the time because you’re lucky.

    Defensive metrics are lacking….

  38. Alomar was a tremendous fielder. Defensive statistics in baseball are deeply flawed. This is why Carlos Lee is supposedly a dominant defender this year. Alomar was an incredible defensive player. Not just good, but incredible. The best 2Bman I have ever seen.

    I am a stats guy completely when it comes to offense. We can say just how good a player was using OBP, SLG, park factors, and so on, but when it comes to fielding, stats are very weak. According to Baseball Reference, Corey Patterson was the most valuable defensive Jays player this year and in reality he is absolutely terrible defensively. Nobody who watched the Blue Jays this year would think otherwise. This is why I hate stats like WAR because they combine almost perfect stats with deeply flawed ones and pretend the result is an almost perfect stat instead of another deeply flawed one.

  39. I find this person’s argument rediculous. I rarely saw Robbie bobble a sure out. He could leap and catch line drives as sure as anyone. Also, after he left Toronto, he was already in his 30s so you can’t compare where he played (grass) and say his ability wasn’t there when he was probably already digressing. I think most baseball writers have something against Alomar.

    I notice he’s not on the to 100 list of all-time players. I’d like to know which second basemen could stand in his shoes.

    • All Time
      Rogers Hornsby
      Eddie Collins
      Nap Lajoie
      Charlie Gehringer
      Frankie Frisch

      Modern
      Joe Morgan
      Ryne Sandberg
      Lou Whitaker (yup!)
      Bobby Grich (yup!)

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