It’s gettin’ to that time of year when folks tend to preview stuff ’round baseball. Our annual Positional Power Rankings will be coming to the site over the next couple weeks, you’ll surely see all sorts of divisional preview pieces pop up between now and Opening Day, and this right here is going to be a preview of team defenses.
We saw last year where a good defense can take a team. The Kansas City Royals were more than just a great defense, but it was evident, especially during the playoffs, how much an elite defense can mean to a ballclub. The same was true, but on the other end of the spectrum, for the Cleveland Indians. Our two advanced defensive metrics — Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating — agreed that the defense in Cleveland was worth around -70 runs last season. In Kansas City, it was something like +50. That’s a 120-run difference! That’s about 12 wins! Those teams play in the same division! Move 12 wins around and the result is an entirely different season! Defense isn’t the biggest thing, but it’s a big thing. Let’s look ahead.
All the numbers used in this piece will come from UZR and DRS. For the team projections, I simply utilized our depth charts and did a little math. We’re going to take a look at the three best, the worst, the teams that got better, the teams that got worse, and then all the rest down at the bottom. For the upgrades/downgrades, I used the difference of standard deviations above or below the mean between last year’s results and this year’s projections.
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1. Kansas City Royals
Surprise! The Kansas City Royals should still have the best defense in baseball, and it’s not particularly close. They’ve got a projected seven-run lead over the next-best defense, led by the highest left field grade in baseball — thanks to Alex Gordon — and the second-highest center field grade — thanks to the ridiculous combination of Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson. They’re one of just two teams in baseball to be at least league-average defensively at every position, and when Gordon, Dyson and Cain roam the outfield simultaneously, they form like Voltron to create the Ultimate Outfield.
With the absence of James Shields and a shaky offense, skeptics may wonder if the Royals will be able to reproduce a similar level of overall success — our projected standings put them four games below .500 — but there’s no need to second-guess which team has the best defense in the game.
2. St. Louis Cardinals
I’ll be honest, this ranking surprised me a bit, but perhaps it shouldn’t, as the Cardinals had a top-5 defense last year, too. I just think of the Cardinals, and I think of Matt Holliday in left. I think of all the weight between first and shortstop with Matt Adams and Jhonny Peralta. I think of Jon Jay in center and Matt Carpenter at third, neither of which are particularly impressive fielding their positions. But, as we all know, Peralta defies the eye test, and maybe Adams does too. Jay will be spelled in center field by the fantastic Peter Bourjos. They’ve still got Yadier Molina behind the plate. Kolten Wong appears to be soundly above-average at second, and now they’ve got this in right field:
Jason Heyward might just be the best defender in the game not named Andrelton Simmons. He’s the reason why the Cardinals’ right field unit receives the second-best defensive projection of any position in baseball, trailing only Simmons’ position in Atlanta. Heyward’s defensive value alone accounts for more than half of the Cardinals’ projection, and he should help turn an already-good defense in St. Louis into a great one.
3. New York Yankees
Since we started tracking advanced defense metrics in 2002, no team has accrued more negative defense value than the Bronx Bombers. Aside from Derek Jeter occupying shortstop all those years, the team has often been made up of aging, bat-first sluggers. While the aging, bat-first slugger component of the team’s identity remains in tact, Jeter has been replaced with an excellent defensive combination of Brendan Ryan and Didi Gregorius at shortstop…
…and the club has sneakily constructed a skilled defensive team around its aging core. When I mentioned earlier that the Royals were one of just two teams in baseball to be at least league average at every position, defensively, what I didn’t mention is that the Yankees are the other team. Brian McCann may be aging, but he’s still great behind the dish. Mark Teixeira may be aging, but he’s still great at first. The Yankees get a full year of Chase Headley at third, who accrued more defensive value than any player last season. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are both fantastic in the outfield, and Chris Young should be able to hide some of Carlos Beltran’s shortcomings in right. The Yankees may be old, but don’t sleep on this defensive unit.
28. Houston Astros
A couple things we know to be true about the Houston Astros: 1) their defense was terrible last year, and, 2) they made a lot of moves this offseason to improve their roster. Those improvements, however, came almost exclusively at the plate, and they seemed to pay little attention to improving their lousy defense. They went out and got Jed Lowrie, who is a butcher at shortstop:
Colby Rasmus might not hurt the Astros in center, but he certainly isn’t going to help. Evan Gattis might have to spend some time in the outfield — and no team wants that — and the first base trio of Gattis, Jon Singleton and Chris Carter will likely be a defensive trainwreck. I haven’t yet mentioned Jose Altuve, who has graded as the worst defensive second baseman in baseball since entering the league. The Astros will certainly be more fun to watch this year with their homer-heavy lineup, but the defense could be just as painful as ever.
29. Minnesota Twins
Just like the Astros, the Twins already had a bad defense last season, and did very little to improve it. They only have one position that ranks above average, and that’s at first base with Joe Mauer. The Kurt Suzuki/Josmil Pinto duo behind the plate is dreadful, and that’s without considering they’re two of the league’s worst pitch framers. In left field, they receive the lowest defensive projection in baseball, courtesy Oswaldo Arcia:
Arcia is being moved back to left this year because the Twins acquired Torii Hunter, who has amassed the most negative defensive value in baseball over the last two years. Not much to see in Minnesota.
3o. San Diego Padres
And here’s one of the reasons why the projections may not love the Padres, and perhaps the biggest reason why all their fancy offseason acquisitions might not be as impressive as they are on the surface. Justin Upton isn’t a bad defender, but he’s far from great, and has fared poorly in left field, compared to right. Wil Myers is an already-underwhelming corner outfielder being forced into playing center. And then there’s Matt Kemp, who should probably be a first baseman or designated hitter, and is still playing the outfield. We don’t need any more Matt Kemp bad defense .gifs. You can read all about his defensive prowess, or lackthereof, right here.
Point is, the Padres outfield is projected to be 23 runs below average. More than 10 runs separate them from the next-worst team. That’s a whole win. The infield isn’t terrible — though it’s not good — but the outfield, in all likelihood, is going to be a disaster.
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- Yankees – We’ve already gone over this, so I’ll keep it brief. Take Derek Jeter off any team, and the defense gets better. Replace him with Brendan Ryan and Didi Gregorius, and you’ve done a 180. A full season of Chase Headley is a plus, and when Chris Young flanks Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield, the Yankees shouldn’t see too many balls drop.
- Indians – The big switch here is going from the dreadful Asdrubal Cabrera to the good Jose Ramirez and, perhaps eventually, the elite Francisco Lindor at shortstop. Less Carlos Santana at third base and less Nick Swisher anywhere bodes well for the Tribe defense, and they’re counting on Michael Bourn to stay healthy so Michael Brantley isn’t forced out of position to center field. The Indians still project to be a bottom-10 defense, just not historically bad like last season.
- Tigers – Like the Indians, the Tigers still don’t project to be a good defensive team, but even league-average is a step up from miserable. A full season of Jose Iglesias at shortstop would do wonders for the Tigers defense, and the innings butchered in the outfield by Torii Hunter and Rajai Davis will now be replaced with Yoenis Cespedes and Anthony Gose.
- Padres – We’ve already gone over this, too. Nothing good in the infield. Just wretched in the outfield. Things could get ugly in San Diego this year.
- Mets – Michael Cuddyer has been a butcher in the outfield for more than a decade now, yet the full-time switch to first base still hasn’t happened. I don’t really get it. Now 36 with a rapidly deteriorating body, the Mets put their faith in Cuddyer in right field, and receive the worst defensive projection in baseball at that position as a result. Wilmer Flores full-time at short probably isn’t going to help either.
- Braves – Unlike the Padres and Mets, who have performed subtraction by addition, the Braves have performed subtraction by subtraction. Most of their downgrade comes from the loss of Jason Heyward in right field, who will now be replaced by Nick Markakis. Heyward’s absence also means Melvin Upton/Eric Young/Zoilo Almonte full-time in center. At least Braves fans still get to watch Andrelton Simmons.
As a final aside, here’s the full, sortable table of projected runs saved for 2015, broken down by position:
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at email@example.com.