Defending Casey McGehee’s Defense

McGehee in the field - Good or Bad?

Casey McGehee, certainly, has had a down season.  He’s been much better lately, but I’ve noticed many people who still like to complain about him.  At this point, McGehee has turned his season around offensively, and I think most people would agree that there isn’t much to be worried about – McGehee is hitting almost .278/.325/.458 since the All-Star break, which stands up quite well to his .285/.337/.464 line from a year ago.

However, most of the complaints I see are about McGehee’s defense.  It is easy to lump McGehee in with the defensive shortcomings of Yuni Betancourt, and just blame the problem on “the left side of the infield.”  Certainly, McGehee hasn’t been Scott Rolen over there – his 18 errors are tied for third in the NL, and he is the only non-shortstop in the top 5.  He has committed 5 more errors than any other 3b in the National League, in fact.  I was curious, though, so I looked a little deeper into the numbers.

According to Fangraph’s Ultimate Zone Rating (the most trusted of defensive metrics), McGehee is actually having a good year as a defensive third baseman.  McGehee’s UZR/150 in 2011 is 8.0, which actually ranks fourth in the NL among third basemen who have logged more than 500 innings this season.

It’s true that McGehee’s first two seasons in Milwaukee weren’t outstanding defensively.  In 2010, McGehee recorded a UZR/150 of -4.0, and the seasons before that, he had an atrocious rating of -22.0.  Some of that, however, could be attributed to McGehee getting used to the majors.  McGehee actually had a pretty good defensive reputation in the minors.  According to baseball-reference’s numbers, McGehee rated 15 runs above average at third base throughout his minor league career.  I am having a hard time finding minor league scouting reports, but it seems that McGehee’s defensive reputation as a minor leaguer was that he was an above average, but not outstanding, fielder.

The above average part is important, to me.  Most people seem to think that McGehee is a horrible defender.  UZR seems to refute that idea.  I know that no defensive metrics are infallible, but the point is, I think McGehee is a better defender than he is given credit for.  Yes, 18 errors is bad – but McGehee has not only played more games at third base than any other National Leaguer this year, but his range has been good, so he has gotten to more balls.  Yes, McGehee has the most errors, but he has the most defensive chances by a significant margin – McGehee has had 298 defensive chances in 2011, and the second most in the NL is Chase Headley’s 267.

I believe that ‘the eyeball test’ stands up to this.  Ever since I began thinking about the shellacking that McGehee’s defensive reputation has been taking, I’ve been paying more and more attention to his defense during games.  McGehee does appear to have good range, and he has a strong, accurate arm.  He will even make an occasional surprisingly athletic move.  Compare that to Yuni, who is just a nightmare at shortstop – his fundamentals are atrocious, his arm is weak and inconsistent, and his range is terrible.  Whenever he makes an impressive looking play, you find yourself prefacing it with “yes, but it would have been much easier if he DIDN’T have the range of a large boulder.”  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing Casey to Mike Schmidt, but I do think that McGehee has been better defensively than anybody has given him credit for.  If you don’t believe me, just keep an eye on him next time you’re watching the Brewers, and I think you might be surprised.

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