Finding the Next Great Defensive Turnaround

There are different ways to turn a team around. That’s probably an obvious thing to say, but it’s true. Another thing that’s obvious and true: teams are made of humans. Because of that, no turnaround is entirely uniform in nature.

Even so, a team might emphasize certain traits when attempting to rebuild or improve. On-base skills, power, etc. Some of those turnarounds are easy to follow; others, less so.

Given the relatively short history of defensive metrics, the turnaround of team defense hasn’t been thoroughly chronicled, and yet teams have certainly made it a priority. Just last year, the Astros and Indians exhibited improvements in the field in a way rarely matched. Looking further back, it’s possible to find other teams that have accomplished the same feat. The question, though: how did they it? Maybe it’s possible to use past successes as a road map for current teams! So, let’s find the next Indians and Astros.

First, let’s get an idea for how last year’s Indians and Astros compare to previous clubs. Here’s how their two-year turnaround on defense ranks among other teams since 2002, when Ultimate Zone Rating first appeared on the site.

Biggest Two-Year Turnarounds on Defense
Team Years UZR Turnaround
Royals 2005-2007 20.8
Blue Jays 2003-2005 18.3
Yankees 2005-2007 18.1
Mariners 2007-2009 17.9
D-Backs 2008-2010 16.5
Astros 2014-2016 16.1
Orioles 2012-2014 15.6
Braves 2010-2012 15.4
Indians 2014-2016 15.2
UZR Turnaround = Two-year Difference in Team Ultimate Zone Rating

The Indians and Astros produced defensive turnarounds last year that place them both among the top 10 — and those improvements were vital to their overall success. We should give some love to those early Alex Gordon Royals, too.

Looking over the best defensive turnarounds for each team in the last 15 seasons, a few trends emerge.

  • Two-thirds of the team’s defenders produced a negative UZR in the first year.
  • Of the 30 teams, 27 improved in the second year.
  • The average club doubled their improvement in the third year.
  • Irrespective of team quality, the majority of teams were building on a young core.

The average team added six wins between their first and third seasons, so there’s a decent amount on the line for our next Indians/Astros/Royals team. The first step is easy. Let’s identify the contenders — teams that improved the most from a negative in 2015.

Biggest Turnarounds on Defense 2015-2016
Team UZR Turnaround
White Sox 8.3
Yankees 6.2
Red Sox 5.0
Phillies 4.8
Nationals 4.4

So we come to the more subjective part of the enterprise, because a great defensive turnaround without a whole team turnaround isn’t quite as exciting. These things are all intertwined. Are you putting fringe glove-first guys onto a bad team, or are you building something interesting with young players replacing veterans?

Which of these teams is building around that sort of young core and replacing aging, poor defenders with exciting young building blocks? And which are more like the 2008-2010 D-backs, who were improving on defense as they were losing good starting pitching? That team was a year early in 2010 — they jumped up to 94 wins in 2011, once they figured out some pitching to go with their players.

That seems to describe the White Sox. Sure, the team has improved defensively by replacing Alexei Ramirez with Tim Anderson, taking Avisail Garcia off the field, moving Adam Eaton off center, and moving on from Micah Johnson and Mike Olt. They can improve further by finding someone to take over for Melky Cabrera and Brett Lawrie in the future. But, even as Yoan Moncada is coming, the rest of their top prospects are pitchers, and it seems too early to cast them as the Indians or Astros.

You could say the same about the Phillies. They’re building, but it might be a little early for them to really qualify. Ryan Howard and Jeff Francoeur were two of the biggest millstones on the defense of that 2015 Phillies team, and Chase Utley and Cody Asche also didn’t help much. Howard and Asche still got more than 1000 innings last year, so there’s some opportunity for further improvement. More innings from defensive stalwart Aaron Altherr will help, but how much will Michael Saunders do on defense? Will Maikel Franco improve or regress? It’s an open question, given the questions surrounding his glove on the way up.

The Nationals won 83 games and were 23rd in team defense in 2015. They replaced Ian Desmond with Danny Espinosa, Yunel Escobar with Anthony Rendon, and Denard Span with Michael Taylor and Trea Turner, generally getting younger and better at key positions. They’ll hope to add more than the six wins that the typical team added, but they do actually fit the bill in key ways. On the other hand, they also have a decent amount of doubt going into a season where Turner will take over at shortstop — this, after the Nationals seemed to want to keep him from the position on his way up. He’s also taking over for a decent shortstop, while less talented defenders Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Daniel Murphy all return.

So we’re left with the Red Sox and Yankees, and a possible Indians/Astros type defensive turnaround is possible for both teams. The problem with the Red Sox is that the iffy spots that plagued them defensively in 2014 might be back in 2016. Hanley Ramirez is no longer in the outfield, but Pablo Sandoval is back at third base, and Brock Holt, too, who was not great there that year.

But if Mitch Moreland plays more first base — and does so better than Ramirez — if young Xander Bogaerts improves defensively again, if Andrew Benintendi is a good defender and plays mostly every day, this could be an excellent defensive team. And with the type of pitching and offense, that will make the Red Sox look like an prescient pick for our next Astros/Indians.

In 2015, the Yankees played Brett Gardner too much in center field. Carlos Beltran got nearly 1000 innings in the outfield. Chase Headley began to show his age. Chris Young was bad in the outfield.

Things are complicated by the Matt Holliday and Chris Carter signings, but the team has plenty of young positional talent that can come in and outperform those names defensively. Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, Aaron Judge, and Jorge Mateo provide the hope on that end. It’ll take another huge swing in defense to join the best of the UZR era, but the pieces are there. But unlike the Red Sox, it’s unclear if the pitching will be there for the team to win and complete the narrative.

This sort of analysis breaks down quickly when you start looking at the team specifically and analyzing one-year UZR numbers. And there are confounding factors that arise when you’re trying to look at teams as one entity — you see how pitching, offense, and team win cycles all have a lot to do with the choices that made the Astros and the Indians.

But it is still instructive to see what teams have turned it around defensively in the past, and by how much. Because it’s an underreported benefit of building a young core. With some evidence that defense peaks earlier than offense, you can see in these turnarounds another benefit to gathering young talent at important positions. Their gloves are better.

So, it’s almost better to squint and generalize. Do the Red Sox and Yankees both have exciting young cores on offense? Yes! Could those young players also lead to the same kinds of defensive turnarounds we saw in Houston and Cleveland last year? Yes! Will it happen the same way, though?

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

newest oldest most voted