Do the Reds Have Baseball’s Best Defense?

This started as a post about Eugenio Suarez. Suarez has gotten off to a big offensive start, and that’s drawn a certain amount of attention, yet more behind the scenes, he’s also taken a step forward in the field. The other day a baseball person said he’s gotten about as good at third base as Nolan Arenado. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but even just the idea was enough to push me to Suarez’s player page. And, sure enough, by the numbers we have — DRS and UZR — Suarez is playing like a better third baseman.

I checked to see where Suarez might rank among the most-improved defenders, league-wide. I know it’s early, but I still wanted to see. Suarez ranks super high. Yet near the top of the list, there’s also Jose Peraza. And there’s also Joey Votto. You don’t have to scroll far to find Scott Schebler. Forget about Suarez. I mean, forget about Suarez, individually. What Suarez is doing is interesting, and he’ll get his own post one of these days, but I’m more intrigued by the Reds as a whole defensive unit. It’s played like the league’s best defensive unit.

Eight Reds players have played at least 100 innings this year at a given position. You don’t have to remind me that defensive numbers aren’t always very reliable, but just to give you a sense of things, here’s how those eight players look today, averaging each player’s DRS and UZR:

Only Peraza looks worse than average, and he’s barely worse than average. Plus, he’s still better than last year, when he wasn’t very good while playing shortstop and some outfield. Peraza, statistically and anecdotally, has been fine, and everyone else has been solid. What happens when a team defense is more or less solid across the board? The team overall rates extremely well. Here’s how the whole league looks at this writing, again averaging the two major metrics:

Earlier this week, I called attention to the Twins, who are experiencing a major defensive turnaround. They’ve gone from very bad to very good, and, bully for them. But while the Twins might be the most improved, the Reds might simply be the best. That position, if nothing else, is supported by this data. The Reds rank No. 1 in DRS by a hair. They rank No. 2 in UZR. Although there’s plenty of time for this order to change, it’s not a *surprise* the Reds would be strong, and here you can begin to understand how they’re playing over .500. The Reds are actually tied for baseball’s sixth-best BaseRuns record. Their position players are third in WAR, while being eighth in wRC+.

A season ago, the Reds were seventh in BABIP against, yielding a mark of .290. Fairly good, but nothing remarkable. Right now, the Reds come in at a league-best .265, clearing the runner-up by six points. If you’re like me, when you think about the Reds defense, you think first of Billy Hamilton. Which means you think first of the outfield. I love Hamilton’s defense, and the Reds do, too, but in truth, the story here seems to be the infield. In the post about the Rockies I published earlier Thursday, I looked at how the team converted ground balls into outs. Here’s how every team has done handling grounders, showing both OPS and sOPS+. The latter is basically just the former, compared to the league average.

Defense vs. Grounders, 2017
Team OPS sOPS+
CIN 0.401 57
CHC 0.422 66
COL 0.434 71
MIL 0.455 79
CHW 0.457 80
TOR 0.459 81
TBR 0.469 85
HOU 0.476 87
NYY 0.490 93
PIT 0.494 94
LAD 0.499 96
OAK 0.502 97
STL 0.504 98
BAL 0.501 98
TEX 0.515 103
CLE 0.517 104
MIN 0.532 109
LAA 0.533 110
MIA 0.535 111
WAS 0.536 112
ARI 0.542 113
SFG 0.541 113
ATL 0.545 115
SDP 0.548 116
BOS 0.548 116
NYM 0.551 117
PHI 0.549 117
KCR 0.556 119
DET 0.562 121
SEA 0.573 126
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The Reds have been baseball’s best team at ground-ball hit prevention. I know it seems kind of silly to look at OPS on grounders since it’s not like there are walks or many extra-base hits, but, whatever, it still tells a perfectly accurate story. As good as the Rockies have been, the Reds have been better. And the Reds are also the most improved team by these measures, relative to last season. Last year, when there was a grounder, the Reds were ever so slightly worse than average. Now they’re comparable to last year’s Cubs. You couldn’t come up with a more flattering defensive comparison.

It’s worth pointing out that the Reds pitching staff could be playing a role here. It’s possible that some of the excellent defense is actually excellent pitching, and that remains a challenging idea to examine. As a staff, the Reds pitchers have reduced their hard-hit rate. According to the information at Baseball Savant, the Reds rank sixth-best in “expected” wOBA. Last year, they ranked 28th. That’s a huge leap, even if it’s a huge leap in a new and experimental measure, and it’s not like this has to be all or nothing. It doesn’t have to be all defense, or all pitching. It’s almost always probably both.

But no matter how you slice it, it’s a promising development. On the run-prevention side, the Reds look considerably improved, even while using a starting rotation that isn’t exactly the rotation they’d prefer to be putting on the field. This doesn’t mean the Reds are truly good; this doesn’t mean the Reds are going to be there in wild-card contention. But when a team gets better at not allowing hits, wins start to show up with far greater frequency. The Reds might well have the best defense in baseball. It’s something worth your continuing attention.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

I do want to point out that the Reds have issued the second most walks in baseball too, and I don’t know how to track this but their pitchers seem to throw a lot of balls. Just something I noticed when they were playing the Yankees. They also hit 4 batters in that series too.

6 years ago
Reply to  rbibaseball57

“They also hit 4 batters in that series too.”

Drew Storen hit 3 Yankees in one inning. The last time a Reds pitcher did that was 1960. Not exactly fair to pin that on the whole team.

But yes, the team is second only to Miami in walks allowed, with 138 BB total in 296.0 innings (or 4.20 walks / 9 innings). Young starters like Rookie Davis and Cody Reed have struggled to get major league hitters out the second time through the order and that manifests itself in a high number of walks.

Hopefully the Reds rotation will solidify in late June when Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, and Brandon Finnegan should all be back of the DL.

6 years ago
Reply to  vottomattic

Storen’s performance still beats the hell out of when Steve Delabar issued four consecutive bases loaded walks (five consecutive walks total) to the Indians last season. That was just jaw-droppingly bad. I’m an Indians fan first and I still felt so bad for him.

I’ll at least take their improvement that the Reds currently have, but I think walks will always be a bit of a problem for them as a team that plays in a bandbox. They try to pitch a little too carefully, imo. Like they’re hyper-aware that they’re playing in a tiny field.

Pinstripe Wizard
6 years ago
Reply to  vottomattic

As sad as it is to say, Homer Bailey off the DL is a mythical creature. He’s often referred to with other urban legends like healthy David Wright and 200 IP Rich Hill.