Notes: Individual vs. team defense

Dick Butkus’ final rating in the Apples & Oranges system is 7.27, about typical for a star linebacker and about half what a wide receiver (or punter) would have. Does this mean he’s half as good? No, it’s all in the context.

Or: Why do linebackers rate behind punters?

It’s been a fundamental truth since RBIs were just a twinkle in Henry Chadwick’s eye — defensive statistics have lagged behind offensive numbers in scope and detail. Modern analytics have gone a long way toward addressing the issue — baseball catches are rated by difficulty now, and individual NBA defenders can be evaluated by how many points they give up to a particular opponent.

But, obviously, this isn’t retroactive for most of history. For baseball, we have putouts, assists, errors … and that’s it. Basketball has … steals, blocks and rebounds, and before 1973 not even the first two. Football … interceptions, sacks (sometimes), tackles (massively inconsistent). Soccer … not a thing.

As Tuco would say, there are only two kinds of defenders …

One or the other

Even when we do have numbers, there is a second problem. There are essentially two kinds of defensive players. Easiest to deal with are those who, by the nature of their position, can’t be avoided by the offense. You want to score in baseball, you have to get hits off the pitcher. In soccer, you have to go through the goalie.

With players like these — goalies, pitchers and bowlers — we can isolate the runs or goals they give up, and compare it to the league average. As I mention elsewhere, baseball statistician Bill James’ “Runs Saved” statistic is the main inspiration. Take the league average for scoring allowed, multiply it by 1.5 and then compare it to the the actual score allowed by the player.

For example, in 1931, the American League ERA was 4.38. Lefty Grove pitched 288 2/3 innings and allowed 66 runs. A 4.38 ERA times 288.67 innings times 1.5 is 210.73 (theoretical) runs, which means the pitcher saved his team 144.73 runs (that was a really good year). There are adjustments after this and often a second factor, but runs or goals saved is the foundation for the defensive ratings, and in the case of goalies, bowlers and pitchers, will yield results right in line with offensive players.

This is not the case with the second kind of defensive specialists. Linebackers, center-halves, shortstops, defensemen … some have individual statistics, some don’t, but what they all have in common is that they can’t force the offense to come at them. A coach can design an offense to get his best offensive player the ball, but there is nothing to be done if the offense simply refuses to challenge the best defender. A star defensive back in the NFL, for example, can go the whole game without the ball being thrown in his direction — and the better he is, the more the quarterback will try to avoid him. The great ones can still make an impact, but opportunities are few and far between.

Alessandro Nesta … you’d be a fool to bring the ball near him.

The end result is that defensive ratings for this second group tend to be very low. Star offensive players have 160-game offensive ratings ranging from the 20s to the 50s. Pitchers, bowlers and goalies can match that on defense, but linebackers and other team-based defenders will generally be in the 4-to-10 range. For NFL and soccer guys, it’s even worse since they have no offensive score to speak of, resulting in minuscule final ratings.

The final indignity is that NFL punters, barely considered athletes, have very healthy defensive ratings, because their five-times-a-game kicking performances have an absolutely enormous impact on field position. I admit it, it’s not fair, but an average punter has a bigger impact on a football game than a star linebacker.

So, when you see defensive football and soccer stars topping out at 7.64 or 8.42, remember that they’re operating under a different set of conditions, forced by the other side’s tactical good sense to share credit with their less-talented teammates.

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