A Look at the Best Team Defenses Thus Far

Marcus Semien
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers haven’t played in the postseason since 2016 (and haven’t even finished above .500 since then), but they’ve been atop the AL West for almost the entire season and are now 49–31, with a six-game lead over both the Angels and Astros. They own the majors’ largest run differential (+160) as well as its most potent offense (5.98 runs per game), and thanks to a revamped pitching staff, they’re third in run prevention as well (3.98 per game).

An underrated part of that run prevention is the team’s defense. By my evaluation of a handful of the major defensive metrics — Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating, our catcher framing metric (hereafter abbreviated as FRM, as it is on our stat pages), and Statcast’s Runs Prevented (which I’ll call Runs Above Average because their site and ours use the abbreviation RAA) and catching metrics for framing, blocking, and throwing (which I’ll combine into the abbreviation CRAA) — the Rangers rate as the majors’ second-best defensive team thus far this season. The Brewers, who are in the midst of a dogfight for first place in the NL Central, are the only team ahead of them.

I’ll explain the methodology behind this conclusion below, but first a bit more about the Rangers. With Jacob deGrom sidelined after just six starts due to a UCL tear that resulted in Tommy John surgery, the team’s pitching staff has the 13th-lowest strikeout rate in the majors (22.2%), but it also has the third-lowest BABIP (.274), in large part thanks to the team’s fielders (the pitchers haven’t been especially good at preventing hard contact). Second baseman Marcus Semien is the only past Gold Glove winner of the bunch, but he’s one of five Rangers defenders with at least 5 DRS thus far, along with first baseman Nathaniel Lowe, outfielder Travis Jankowski, right fielder Adolis García, and catcher Jonah Heim. Lowe, Semien, and center fielder Leody Taveras all have at least 4 RAA, and Heim is 3.7 runs above average in FRAM and +6 in CRAA.

Not all of the metrics are as favorable for the aforementioned players, but it’s worth noting that of the 10 Rangers with the most defensive innings played at a single position, the only negative run ratings are those of shortstop Corey Seager and left fielder Robbie Grossman (both -2 RAA) and Lowe (-2.6 UZR); every other Ranger with at least 161.1 innings at a position rates as average or better. To be fair, 161.1 innings is still a small sample, and for that matter, even the 697.1 innings of Semien at second is less than ideal for a full evaluation, though we can feel better that his DRS, UZR and RAA don’t wildly contradict each other. Particularly at this stage of the season, with teams having played 78–83 games, it’s better to bear in mind the range of values reflected in an individual’s fielding metrics rather than focusing on a single one. To return to Semien: his 6 DRS and 5 RAA are contrasted by his 0.8 UZR; it’s not a matter of which one is “right” so much as it is understanding that he shows up somewhere along the spectrum from slightly above average to solidly above average.

Given all of this alphabet soup dished out in small servings, I set out to look at team defense by aggregating the aforementioned metrics, which reflect differing methodologies and produce varying spreads in runs from top to bottom that owe something to what they don’t measure as well as how much regression is built into their systems. Pitchers don’t have UZRs or RAAs, for example, and the catching numbers are set off in their own categories rather than included in UZR and RAA. I’ve accounted for the varying spreads, which range from 86 runs in DRS (from 42 to -44) to 25.6 runs in FRM (from 13.8 to -11.8), by using standard deviation scores (z-scores), which measure how many standard deviations each team is from the league average in each category. I don’t proclaim this to be a bulletproof methodology so much as a good point of entry into a broad topic. The Rangers, who entered Wednesday (the cutoff for all of the data below) tied with the Blue Jays for the major league lead with 42 DRS, score 1.86 in that category but “only” 1.37 in UZR and 1.13 in RAA (13.4 runs in the former, 10 in the latter, both fourth in the majors), and so on.

Here are the rankings look, top to bottom; you can see the actual run values for all but the Statcast catching metrics here:

Team Defense Standard Deviation Scores
Team DRS-Z UZR-Z FRM-Z RAA-Z Statc-Z Total2
Brewers 1.33 2.44 1.40 1.59 0.54 7.30
Rangers 1.86 1.37 0.63 1.13 1.23 6.22
Blue Jays 1.86 1.67 0.83 0.33 0.71 5.40
Padres 0.80 1.73 -0.69 2.05 -0.66 3.23
Pirates -0.21 -0.71 2.17 0.10 1.74 3.09
Yankees 0.80 -0.98 1.78 0.33 1.06 2.98
Diamondbacks 0.85 1.30 -0.85 0.67 0.20 2.17
Giants 0.18 -0.43 0.82 1.02 0.54 2.13
Guardians 0.27 0.23 0.38 0.33 0.20 1.41
Braves 0.51 -1.74 1.18 -0.59 1.74 1.11
Orioles 0.22 1.28 0.11 -1.16 0.37 0.82
Mariners 0.46 -0.89 -0.19 1.36 0.03 0.78
Cubs 0.18 -0.63 -0.03 0.79 0.20 0.50
Dodgers -0.11 0.31 0.13 -0.02 -0.14 0.17
Rays 1.14 0.21 -1.18 0.79 -1.00 -0.04
Astros 0.13 0.89 -1.24 0.79 -0.66 -0.09
Tigers 0.22 -1.80 0.76 0.33 0.37 -0.12
Marlins -0.35 -0.42 0.85 -0.82 0.20 -0.54
Mets -0.83 -0.76 0.98 -0.47 0.37 -0.72
Rockies 0.37 0.28 -0.88 -1.62 0.71 -1.13
Twins 0.66 -0.65 0.32 -1.50 0.03 -1.15
Angels 0.42 -0.05 -0.67 -0.13 -0.83 -1.26
Royals -1.12 -0.34 -0.52 1.02 -0.83 -1.80
White Sox -1.46 -0.56 0.47 -0.82 -0.14 -2.50
Phillies -1.12 -0.22 -0.89 -0.24 -0.49 -2.97
Reds -0.93 -0.15 -0.45 -1.16 -0.31 -3.01
Cardinals -1.41 -0.90 -0.72 -0.70 0.03 -3.70
Red Sox -1.07 0.15 -0.97 -2.08 -0.31 -4.29
Athletics -2.28 0.01 -1.85 -0.93 -1.17 -6.22
Nationals -1.36 -0.64 -1.66 -0.36 -3.74 -7.77
Based on defensive data through June 27. FRM = FanGraphs catcher framing runs. StatC = Statcast catcher framing, blocking, and throwing runs.

What follows is a closer look at the other teams in the top six; I’ll have a companion article covering the bottom-ranked teams in my next installment.

Brewers

With Brandon Woodruff, Eric Lauer, and Wade Miley missing substantial time due to injuries, Corbin Burnes no longer pitching like a Cy Young contender, and the offense managing just an 85 wRC+ (28th in the majors) and scoring 4.01 runs per game (27th), the Brewers would likely be nowhere near the top of the NL Central if not for the glovework of their revamped lineup, which leads the majors with 23.8 UZR, ranks second with 14 RAA, and third with 31 DRS.

By raw run values, their outfield defense has been the best, led by rookie Joey Wiemer, who has been exceptional in center field and right (8.2 UZR, 8 RAA, 6 DRS), and former Gold Glove-winning left fielder Christian Yelich (4 DRS, 4 RAA, 2.4 UZR), with backup Blake Perkins producing off-the-charts numbers (7 DRS, 4 RAA) in just 153 innings across the three positions (take all that with a grain of salt). New starting catcher William Contreras leads the majors in FRM (6.8 runs) and is vastly improved from last year (-2.8), and fellow newcomers Brian Anderson and Owen Miller have made solid contributions around the infield. Holdover shortstop Willy Adames (7 DRS, 5 RAA, 1.8 UZR) is the standout in the infield. At the other end of the spectrum, first baseman Rowdy Tellez has been subpar (-3 RAA, -2 DRS, -1.1 UZR); when combined with his 88 wRC+, it’s fair to suggest that the Brewers should shop for an upgrade before the trade deadline. Stay tuned for next month’s Replacement Level Killers series.

Rangers

Beyond what I’ve already noted, what’s impressive about the Rangers is that they’re quite strong in all areas, ranking second in aggregated run value in the infield, third in the outfield, and fourth in catching. If you haven’t been paying attention to this team, you should.

Blue Jays

Two words: Kevin Kiermaier. In his first year with the Blue Jays, the three-time Gold Glove winner has played off-the-charts defense in center field; his 14 DRS and 8 RAA are both tied for the major league lead at any single position, and his 6.1 UZR is second. And if the numbers are fantastic, the visuals are even better. Check out this reel of what may or may not be his five best catches… if we’re considering only the first three weeks of June:

Meanwhile, though he’s only played 200.2 innings in center as Kiermaier’s backup, Daulton Varsho has 7 DRS, 4 RAA, and 2.7 UZR there, pus another 7 DRS (but -2 RAA and 1.3 UZR) in 459 innings in left; his career numbers at all three outfield positions confirm that he’s an elite flychaser, in case there was any doubt. In the infield, Matt Chapman has been exceptional (8 DRS, 3.6 UZR, 3 RAA), and likewise for Alejandro Kirk behind the plate (6 DRS, 4.2 FRM, 4 CRAA). On the flip side, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s numbers at first base have really gone downhill; both his -7 RAA and -3 DRS represent substantial dropoffs from 2022.

Padres

Both their offense and pitching have fallen short of the lofty expectations set by last year’s run to the NLCS as well as their sky-high payroll, but at least on the defensive side, the Padres’ reshuffled lineup has not been a problem. Despite playing just 501.1 innings in right field so far after returning from his PED suspension, Fernando Tatis Jr. is tied with Kiermaier at 14 DRS and has 7.5 UZR and 6 RAA as well. His powerful arm has contributed to that as well as his outstanding range; when one considers his negative metrics at shortstop, it really does seem as though this move has been for the best. Ha-Seong Kim actually has 15 DRS split between second base (9), shortstop (4) and third base (2) and has combined for 6 RAA and 3.0 UZR as well; he can pick it no matter where you put him.

Third baseman Manny Machado and shortstop Xander Bogaerts have been average or better across all three metrics, with their RAAs (5 and 3, respectively) the most favorable. The only party pooper in their positional shuffle has been Jake Cronenworth, with -3 RAA, though his other numbers in 537.1 innings at first and 140.2 at second have pretty much offset those. Austin Nola’s work behind the plate (-5 DRS, -2.9 FRM, -2 CRAA) have left something to be desired, as has his offense.

Pirates

For the most part, the Pirates as a team are pretty ordinary on defense, in that their 1 RAA, -1 DRS, and -6.9 UZR cast them as more or less average. It’s their catching that’s driving this rating, and if you want to make the case that I’ve overweighted the impact of their MLB-best framing by our measure (13.8 runs) and their overall catching numbers by Statcast (10 runs), I’ll wear that. Anyway, Austin Hedges (9 CRAA, 8.9 FRM, 6 DRS) and backup Jason Delay (4.8 FRM, 2 DRS, 2 CRAA) are the pair responsible for those numbers. I’m not going to argue that that justifies giving 151 plate appearances to a guy hitting .173/.229/.233 (26 wRC+), but Hedges’ work has helped the pitching staff improve. As for the rest of the defense, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes is a standout (10 DRS, 7 RAA, 2.6 UZR), but shortstop has been a black hole in the absence of the injured Oneil Cruz (-15 DRS, -9 RAA, -5.1 UZR), with Tucupita Marcano and Rodolfo Castro doing most of the damage. Second base (-5 DRS, -4 RAA, -2.9 UZR) hasn’t been great, either, via a mix of Ji Hwan Bae, Castro, Marcano, and Mark Mathias.

Yankees

Like the Pirates, they largely owe their spot here to their catching, with both Jose Trevino (6.4 FRM, 6 DRS, 5 CRAA) and Kyle Higashioka (5.1 FRM, 2 DRS, 0 CRAA) measuring up well. Beyond that, the squad’s 20 DRS ranks sixth, but their other teamwide measures aren’t so hot. Individually, it’s worth noting that amid his struggles at the plate, rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe is holding his own (6 DRS, 1.4 UZR, -1 RAA), that third basemen DJ LeMahieu and the much-maligned Josh Donaldson are a couple runs above average, and that Harrison Bader has been quite good in his 269.1 innings in center field (5 DRS, 5 RAA, 2.4 UZR). On the other hand, Aaron Judge’s outfield work in both center and right was somewhat subpar (-4.9 UZR, -4 DRS, 1 RAA) even before the collision-induced toe injury that has knocked him out of action since June 3; his sprint speed has fallen from the 50th percentile to the 38th as well, which may reflect his previous hip injury.

While I could certainly say more about each of these teams and the next ones in the rankings, I’ll keep my powder dry for my look at the worst defenses.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
dukewinslowmember
8 months ago

The reliability of defensive metrics is embarrassing- I mean that in a pure correlational sense. How can people say these have any construct validity, they all look essentially uncorrelated.

TimBrownUmember
8 months ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

If anyone wants to go through and check the correlations between the 5, I bet a lot of people would be interested!

Last edited 8 months ago by TimBrownU
dukewinslowmember
8 months ago
Reply to  TimBrownU

significantly correlated (just from pulling down the charts above), though the weakest correlation is between UZR and all the others. Taking the eigenvalues suggests at least a 2 factor solution, suggesting that these components are measuring 2 different things. This is me just pulling the chart above and throwing it into R, if anyone wants to look in more detail knock yourself out. The fact that the measures seem to be loading on two distinct constructs is kind of a big deal. FA gets into matters of taste really quickly, but generally speaking people wouldn’t be comfortable with saying these things are measuring one construct.

Last edited 8 months ago by dukewinslow
sadtrombonemember
8 months ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

To be fair, two of those are for catchers, so those shouldn’t correlated with the others. We also already knew that DRS and UZR were kind of embarrassing. DRS is just not very accurate and tries to measure things with pinpoint precision and it fails; meanwhile UZR doesn’t deal with shifting at all. This is a case where OAA has really lapped the field in terms of measurement.

dukewinslowmember
8 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I removed the catcher stats. Should have been clearer sorry.

Last edited 8 months ago by dukewinslow
Mac Quinnmember
8 months ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

What’s interesting to me is the specifics of the cases where they’re uncorrelated. I’ll use a specific example: the yankees have their middle infielders play really deep compared to the rest of the league. DRS loves that, OAA thinks it costs them charging in on softer grounders. Which one is true, I have no idea. I would highly doubt that the team is just using either of the publicly available metrics instead of something they have in-house though.

formerly matt w
8 months ago
Reply to  Mac Quinn

Is there something real behind this? IIRC DRS is based on where the ball was hit (I remember they had to tweak it so Brett Lawrie didn’t get ridiculous credit for being shifted from third to short right) and OAA scores on how far the fielder had to move. Then team DRS might be the whole team defense, including positioning, and team OAA might be the sum of individual performances, excluding positioning?