Examining the Projected Team Defenses

There are people who think we make too much of projections, and that’s with regard to hitting and pitching projections. That is to say, the more reliable projections. We pretty much never talk about defensive projections, and there’s enough controversy over defensive non-projections. People can’t even agree on what’s already happened, so it’s asking a lot to expect people to look at defensive forecasts and take them seriously. Also, hey, by the way, it’s not even Christmas yet, so there’s plenty of offseason left to go. We don’t yet know what team rosters are going to look like in April. Projections we have right now are of limited utility.

But, there’s nothing happening. It’s the holiday season, so now baseball’s moving slowly, and one of the things we offer here are team defensive projections, so, let’s look at those. They’re coming from Steamer, as usual, and they’re based on our current author-maintained depth charts, as usual. Following, a big table, which I will try my very hardest to make sortable.

This is the Red Sox depth chart page. Perhaps you’ve looked at this before. You can go player by player, position by position, or you can scroll down. This was a bad example for me to choose, because Steamer doesn’t yet have a projection for Rusney Castillo, and now I’ve broadcasted that to the world. But, onward. Look at the All Batters section. The Red Sox are projected for +73 batting runs, with nothing from Castillo. They’re at -9 baserunning runs. And they’re at +19 fielding runs. Again, that’s with nothing from Castillo, but then perhaps Castillo projects as a league-average defensive outfielder. That would be convenient and not outlandish. It’s those fielding projections we’re going to take a look at.

Below, all 30 teams, their fielding projections, and their fielding projection z-scores. Then, each team’s 2014 UZR, and each team’s 2014 UZR z-scores. At last, the change in the z-scores. This should provide a good idea of which teams are most and least improved, and it’s better than comparing the raw numbers since they’re on different scales.

You should be able to sort the table. If not, blame the internet.

Team 2015 Projection Z Score 2014 UZR Z Score Change, Z
Angels -7 -0.5 26 0.8 -1.3
Astros -35 -2.0 -64 -1.9 -0.1
Athletics 13 0.5 24 0.7 -0.2
Blue Jays 1 -0.1 -7 -0.2 0.1
Braves -3 -0.3 35 1.0 -1.4
Brewers 5 0.1 3 0.1 0.0
Cardinals 24 1.1 29 0.9 0.3
Cubs -1 -0.2 -6 -0.2 0.0
Diamondbacks 10 0.4 -4 -0.1 0.5
Dodgers 21 1.0 -8 -0.3 1.2
Giants 7 0.2 3 0.1 0.1
Indians -13 -0.9 -72 -2.2 1.3
Mariners 6 0.2 8 0.3 -0.1
Marlins -4 -0.4 -3 -0.1 -0.3
Mets -13 -0.9 7 0.2 -1.1
Nationals 17 0.7 -6 -0.2 0.9
Orioles 34 1.6 55 1.7 0.0
Padres -26 -1.5 9 0.3 -1.8
Phillies -12 -0.8 -22 -0.7 -0.1
Pirates -8 -0.6 -40 -1.2 0.7
Rangers -2 -0.2 -7 -0.2 0.0
Rays 29 1.4 7 0.2 1.2
Red Sox 19 0.8 49 1.5 -0.6
Reds 20 0.9 46 1.4 -0.5
Rockies 5 0.1 -1 0.0 0.1
Royals 34 1.7 61 1.9 -0.2
Tigers -9 -0.6 -48 -1.5 0.8
Twins -26 -1.5 -35 -1.0 -0.5
White Sox -26 -1.6 -39 -1.2 -0.4
Yankees 29 1.4 4 0.1 1.3

The range of the projected defensive ratings, from the highest to the lowest, is 70 runs. A year ago, the actual range, as measured by UZR, was 134 runs, so maybe this seems unrealistic. But, you know how projections work. They regress numbers to the mean, and then in reality we just get a sample size of 1 season so numbers fluctuate and sometimes stray toward extremes. Last year, the actual range of team win totals was 34. The Angels won 98, and the Diamondbacks won 64. The projected range of team win totals right now is 22. Similar thing happening. Let me take that back. Identical thing happening.

So, the three best defensive teams, projected:

  • Royals
  • Orioles
  • Rays

The Royals aren’t a surprise at all. They showed on the biggest of stages how much an awesome team defense can accomplish. The Orioles, meanwhile, intend to get more playing time out of a healthy Manny Machado. They’ll also welcome back Matt Wieters, and as things currently stand, the Orioles will see a lot of playing time from David Lough. Finally, there are the Rays, who are projected to give a lot of time to Kevin Kiermaier. Maybe that will happen and maybe that won’t, but Kiermaier is outstanding in the field, and the Rays have other good gloves anyway.

Now, the three worst defensive teams, projected:

  • Astros
  • White Sox
  • Twins

Defensive metrics have never been real fond of Dexter Fowler, and the Astros also just recently signed Jed Lowrie on purpose to play shortstop for a year. With the White Sox, there’s a little bit of debate — Adam Eaton might actually be a real good defensive center fielder, in which case the projection would be off. But there’s still Conor Gillaspie, Melky Cabrera, and Avisail Garcia. And then the Twins aren’t particularly strong anywhere. The debate with them would be Trevor Plouffe; there are signs he’s gotten much better in the field, but Steamer has him regressing somewhat substantially. Probably not going to be the difference between a playoff season and a non-playoff season.

To change things up a little, the three most improved defensive teams, projected:

  • Indians
  • Yankees
  • Dodgers

With Cleveland, you’ve got three things going on: regression to the mean, expectations for better health, and a shortstop who isn’t Asdrubal Cabrera. The Indians still don’t project as a good unit, but they don’t project as a dreadful unit, either. The Yankees get to look forward to a full season of Chase Headley. Didi Gregorius and Brendan Ryan are in place instead of that other guy. And the Dodgers rid themselves of Matt Kemp‘s defensive presence. Also, Hanley Ramirez’s defensive presence. You’re free to question whether the trade-offs are worth it, but there’s no questioning the defensive step forward. There are going to be fewer holes behind the Dodgers’ pitchers.

Finally, the three most unimproved defensive teams, projected:

  • Padres
  • Braves
  • Angels

The Padres are obvious. The Padres took Matt Kemp, and they’re in line to play Wil Myers every day in center field. They’ve replaced Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera with Derek Norris, and there’s also Will Middlebrooks at third base right now, where last year they got some months out of Chase Headley. The Braves have replaced Jason Heyward with Nick Markakis. They’re also in line to play Evan Gattis in the outfield, instead of Justin Upton. The Braves don’t seem to think going from Heyward to Markakis is too much of a step back. The Braves don’t see eye-to-eye with statistics. At last, the Angels. The Angels don’t project too poorly. But, they’re down one Howie Kendrick. And Steamer sees steps back from Erick Aybar and David Freese. Maybe they’re not even steps back; last year, DRS as more down on them than UZR was. If UZR was wrong, and the Angels were worse than they look, then they haven’t taken much of a step back. They’re just bat-first no matter what.

We’ll see what else happens from here. We’ll see if the Padres actually keep Wil Myers. We’ll see if they keep him and keep him in center. That’s one of the more compelling defensive storylines of the moment. Maybe you’ve noticed there aren’t many compelling defensive storylines of the moment. And certainly, the Padres know what they’re sacrificing for offense. They’re apparently happy to do it, but make no mistake, a sacrifice is being made. Or, if nothing else, it looks that way now.

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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Well-Beered Englishman
8 years ago

Did these projections come from the team depth chart pages? Because the Nationals announced that Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth have traded outfields, so those depth charts reflect last season. Link in username.

Well-Beered Englishman
8 years ago

Also, thank you. This was a cool and interesting article and I feel rude barging in with a complaint as the first reply instead of an appreciation.

(Happy Christmas to all, and may Banknotes Harper visit your house with toys on Christmas Eve.)