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Total Zone says Nelson Cruz is a great defender

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Over at THT, Sean Smith takes MLBAM's Ball in Play data and runs the numbers for Total Zone calculations for every player in the majors, and lists the top 15 in the majors.

The second-best defender in the major leagues -- at any position -- is Nelson Cruz, at +23, behind only Seattle's Franklln Gutierrez.

This jumps out at me because of the sharp divide between the stats and the reputation, when it comes to Nelson Cruz's defensive abilities.

One of the most common refrains you heard from the D/FW baseball media has been that Cruz has to be better defensively, that Ron Washington doesn't trust him in right field and that while his bat was solid, his defense may cost him a regular job in Texas.  This is commonly echoed by the fans, who claim that he's a "butcher" based on poor routes, with Mike Rhyner going so far this summer as to say that he's the worst defensive outfielder the Rangers have had in years.

And yet, just about all the advanced defensive stats say Cruz is terrific defensively.  UZR and +/- have him as well above-average, along with Total Zone.  If you look at Revised Zone Rating, Cruz is middle of the pack defensively among right fielders, but when you incorporate the "Out Of Zone" component that goes with that (tracking balls Cruz made plays on that are outside of his regular zone), Cruz jumps up to the top of the pack.

Will Carroll talked, at Newberg Night, about how the teams have defensive stats that are superior to the "off the shelf" stuff that we fans have access to.  And it may be that the Rangers' proprietary data shows that Cruz is terrible.

And yet...the Rangers went from being one of the worst defensive teams in the majors last season, in terms of balls being turned into outs, to one of the best in 2009.  And it isn't all a result of Elvis Andrus

We know that centerfield wasn't good defensively in 2009.  We know that third base was, at best, average, likely worse.  Shortstop and second base were very good, first base was okay.  But it doesn't seem that outrageous to suggest that right field was one of the areas that contributed significantly to the Rangers' terrific run prevention in 2009.

Defensive stats are still imperfect...I have a lot less confidence in what the advanced defensive stats than in the advanced offensive stats, and I think triangulating between the various methods that incorporate ball-in-play data is necessary to get a handle on what is happening.

But I really struggle with the idea that a guy who came to Texas with a reputation for being a stellar defensive right fielder, and who the advanced stats all show was a great defensive right fielder in 2009, is in fact a defensive liability who is dragging the team down out there.

It is a not insignificant difference.  if Cruz is a great fielder, then the Rangers probably need to plan on him staying in right field for 2010.  If he isn't, then the Rangers are better off shopping him to a team that is looking for a cheap young power hitter, and looking for an upgrade in right, be it with Josh Hamilton or someone outside the organization.