In the Zone: Sox eye better defense
Everyone understands gloves' role in title teams
PHOENIX -- The only thing A.J. Pierzynski knows about UZR is that two of the three letters are in his last name.
Otherwise, when you ask the White Sox catcher if he is aware of the rudiments of the popular defensive statistic that is helping shape the rosters of Major League ballclubs more and more these days, he has a simple answer.
"I don't care what it means," Pierzynski said. "What matters in this game is wins and losses, and if you have a good defense, it's going to help you win."
White Sox general manager Ken Williams agrees, but Williams and his director of baseball operations, Dan Fabian, are interested in some of these new-age stats, too, and UZR, or Ultimate Zone Rating, ranked Chicago as the fourth-worst team defense in the Major Leagues in 2009.
Developed by statistician Mitchel Lichtman, UZR, as described on FanGraphs.com, where the statistics are available for free, quantifies "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity."
UZR gets to this number by combining "range runs," which are "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity," and "error runs," defined as "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by the number of errors he makes as compared to an average fielder at that position given the same distribution of balls in play." Added to standard UZRs are the UZR/150 numbers, or "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games."
Last year, the White Sox put up a minus-35.6 UZR score, which ranked 27th in the big leagues. So over the winter, Williams orchestrated several moves that figure to make the team better defensively.
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Manager Ozzie Guillen didn't hesitate to admit that last year's team could have been a lot better at catching the ball.
"We were so bad defensively that I had the [designated hitter] making errors," Guillen joked. "He would foul the ball off, pick it up, try to throw it back to the umpire and the ball would end up in the stands. That's an error."
Williams began trying to correct the errors by trading for third baseman Mark Teahen, who will allow last year's rookie sensation, Gordon Beckham, to shift to second base, where he is more comfortable. Alexei Ramirez will play shortstop for the second straight year after moving over from second.
The club also acquired outfielder Juan Pierre, who should improve the defense in left field while allowing Carlos Quentin to shift back to his natural position in right. The White Sox will enjoy a full season of Alex Rios in center and Andruw Jones as a backup.
And then there's the mere presence of Omar Vizquel, who will back up the infielders and lend the leadership and experience from a likely Hall of Fame career in which he won 11 Gold Gloves.
"To be a championship team, you need to have a couple of guys that really stand out on defense," Vizquel said. "You can change the game with a play in a key situation.
"That's why you see four-to-seven game series turning on a good defensive play or a key defensive mistake."
The White Sox need only look at last year's Seattle Mariners to see how powerful a tool improved defense can be. The Mariners were last in the AL in runs scored in 2009 but still won 85 games by leading the Majors in UZR, which helped their pitching staff compile the lowest ERA in the AL.
"Good defense makes your pitchers better," starter Jake Peavy said. "You can't give teams extra outs, especially in the American League with the DH -- especially in our ballpark, which can favor hitters. It's pretty simple. You've got to catch the baseball. You give a team more than 27 outs and they're going to capitalize on it.
"That's why, as a pitcher, I'm excited to see what we've done to strengthen our defense. A pitcher always wants to see a team working to get better in that area."
Guillen said he's already noticed a huge difference in Spring Training.
"We're way better [defensively] than last year," Guillen said.
"If we're worse than last year? Wow. Good luck."
Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.