Previewing the Best and Worst Team Defenses for 2016

Early this morning, the full 2016 ZiPS projections went live on the site. This is probably news to many of you. Surprise! Happy ZiPS day. You can now export the full ZiPS spreadsheet from that link, find individual projections on the player pages, and view our live-updating playoff odds, which are powered by a 50/50 blend of ZiPS and Steamer. This is good news for everyone, including us, the authors, because now we have more information with which to work.

And so here’s a post that I did last year, and one which I was waiting for the full ZiPS rollout to do again: previewing the year’s team defenses. It’s been a few years running now that we’ve marveled over speedy outfielders in blue jerseys zooming about the spacious Kauffman Stadium outfield, and now those speedy outfielders in blue jerseys are all World Series champions. People are thinking and talking about defense more than ever, and you don’t think and talk about defense without thinking and talking about the Kansas City Royals. Defense: it’s so hot right now. Defense.

The methodology here is simple. ZiPS considers past defensive performance and mixes in some scouting report information to give an overall “defensive runs above or below average” projection. Steamer does the same, except rather than searching for keywords from real scouting reports, it regresses towards the data from the Fans Scouting Report project compiled by Tangotiger every year. The final number is an average of these two figures, and can be found in the “Fld” section of the depth charts and player pages. It isn’t exactly Ultimate Zone Rating or Defensive Runs Saved, but it’s the same idea, and the same scale.

Let’s look ahead toward the year in defense.

* * *

The Best

1. Kansas City Royals

This is one of my new favorite fun facts: the Royals outfield defense, just the outfield, is projected for 31 runs saved, which is higher than any other entire team in baseball. And with Alex Rios out of the mix in right field and Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando stepping in full-time, Kansas City’s outfield defense should somehow be even better than it’s been in the past.

They’ve got the highest projected right-field total. They’ve got the highest projected left-field total. They’ve got the third-highest center-field total. Oh, and every position in the infield is either average or better. Kansas City’s team defense is nearly two full wins better than the next team. Defense isn’t the reason the projections don’t love the Royals.

2. Toronto Blue Jays

You might not think of the Blue Jays as a defensive powerhouse, but they’ve got defensive stars in both the infield and outfield, and perhaps most importantly, they’ve got great defenders at the premier positions. From behind the plate to center field, they’re fantastic up the middle, and their only only weak spots defensively are where you don’t mind having weak spots: first base and the corners in the outfield.

Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson largely make up top-five projections at catcher and third base, and Kevin Pillar is at least a top-10 defensive center fielder. A perhaps underrated aspect of Toronto’s excellent defense is its bench; Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney are as good a pair of backup infielders as any in baseball with the glove. One of them will begin the season as a starter, with Devon Travis sidelined, and while his bat will be missed, the glovework will help soften the blow.

3. Baltimore Orioles

All the attention paid to the Royals’ defense has received over the past three years has perhaps overshadowed another consistently elite defense in Baltimore — the only other team with more than 100 runs saved by UZR in that timeframe.

By the projections, Manny Machado is the best defensive third baseman in the game, and he’s the leader of an all-around fantastic infield defense that projects for 22 runs saved — the best in baseball. J.J. Hardy’s bat was borderline unplayable last year, but the glove still looks good, and he and second baseman Jonathan Schoop comprise one of the best double play combinations in the game. The outfield defense in Baltimore is certainly suspect — especially if Mark Trumbo has to play right field on a regular basis — but the infield defense is enough to keep Baltimore in the top three for now.

The Worst

28. Oakland Athletics

By now you know all about the Marcus Semien fiasco at shortstop, and while Semien did seem to improve during the year, the projections are understandably hesitant, and the A’s have the worst projected shortstop defense in the American League.

And while Josh Reddick is a bright spot in right field, the A’s still project to be below-average defensively behind the plate, at second base, third base, left field, and center field. Semien being closer to league average at shortstop could prevent the A’s from being a total disaster in the field, but an apparent lack of upside at other positions leaves the club little room for error (see what I did there?).

29. Chicago White Sox

An ever-present narrative of Chicago’s busy offseason was the quest to improve the team’s outfield defense, and thus far, it’s a quest that’s proved fruitless. The White Sox outfield was 22 runs below average by DRS last year, and 27 runs below average by UZR, and with the same group returning this year, things don’t project to be much better.

The White Sox have a bottom-three defensive projection in center and right field, and bottom-five in left field. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Chicago’s outfield, as a whole, has the worst defensive projection in baseball, and by a considerable margin. What’s worse is that the infield doesn’t look like it will pick up the slack; third base, now manned by Todd Frazier, is the only position on the team that receives an above-average projection. The White Sox should be able to hit and pitch, but if there’s one area that could prove to be their downfall, it’s likely what they do in the field.

30. San Diego Padres

The Padres held this same rank last year, and it was the main reason why the projections weren’t as high on San Diego as the hype of their active offseason might have suggested. The Wil Myers experiment in center field backfired miserably, and Matt Kemp continued to make his case for an American League-only player. By the middle of the season, Jedd Gyorko and Will Middlebrooks found themselves playing shortstop, so that’s how the infield went.

And now, here we are again. Maybe the projections are a bit harsh on Myers at first base. But Kemp is still responsible for, by far, the worst defensive rating in right field, and there isn’t a single position on the team that’s more than a couple runs above average. At least this year the expectations aren’t so high.

Most upgraded

  1. Los Angeles Angels (+30 runs from Opening Day last year) — This is what happens when you swap Erick Aybar for Andrelton Simmons. That, and Kole Calhoun has proven himself as a plus right fielder.
  2. Cleveland Indians (+28) — As Ben Lindbergh chronicled for Grantland (RIP) in September, the Indians just pulled off “the most dramatic midseason makeover we’ve ever seen.” The main catalysts being the arrival of Francisco Lindor at shortstop and the surprisingly smooth transition of Lonnie Chisenhall from third base to right field.
  3. Minnesota Twins (+28) — Last year, the Twins projected in the bottom three. This year, they’re middle of the pack. Eddie Rosario proved to be a whiz in the outfield, and Byron Buxton should step in as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. Just hold your breath when a ball is hit to Miguel Sano.

Most downgraded

  1. St. Louis Cardinals (-30 runs from Opening Day last year) — This is what happens when you lose Jason Heyward. It’s not that the Cardinals are expected to be bad defensively, they’re just not expected to be one of the best defenses in baseball, as they were last year. The outfield of Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty is suspect, and Matt Carpenter’s transition to third base has not gone well, according to the numbers.
  2. Oakland Athletics (-26) — Covered above. Marcus Semien was worse than anyone could have expected, and going from Brett Lawrie at the hot corner to Danny Valencia and Jed Lowrie is a downgrade as well.
  3. Washington Nationals (-19) — Mostly, this has to do with Daniel Murphy at second base, where the Nationals receive the worst defensive projection in baseball. But also Jayson Werth looks worse than he did a year ago, and Ben Revere isn’t exactly known for his prowess in center field.

As a final aside, here’s the full, sortable table of projected runs saved for 2016, broken down by position:

Projected 2016 Team Defenses
Team C 1B 2B SS 3B LF CF RF Total
Royals 4 2 0 3 3 12 11 9 44
Blue Jays 4 -1 3 5 9 2 6 -2 27
Orioles 3 3 1 6 13 0 0 -2 23
Reds 0 4 5 6 0 -2 11 0 22
Rays -2 1 -2 -4 5 4 19 0 22
Red Sox 2 3 7 -2 -6 6 5 6 22
Angels 3 -2 -7 17 -2 5 1 6 21
Indians 5 4 -3 9 7 -2 0 0 20
Diamondbacks -2 7 1 6 4 -6 8 -1 18
Giants 2 7 2 6 8 -4 -3 0 17
Yankees 1 6 1 3 2 5 1 -4 14
Marlins 2 -5 2 2 2 5 0 4 12
Cubs 2 7 -2 4 2 -4 -8 8 10
Dodgers 0 8 -1 -1 -1 1 0 3 9
Astros 2 -1 -3 0 -1 0 7 2 6
Pirates 1 -2 -2 -1 -1 9 -5 6 6
Cardinals 8 3 2 -2 -5 -6 2 1 2
Twins -2 4 -1 -3 -4 7 7 -4 2
Mariners -3 -1 -2 -1 2 1 7 -1 2
Rockies -3 1 4 -9 10 3 -5 0 0
Rangers 0 3 -2 0 8 1 -5 -7 -3
Nationals 3 0 -8 1 4 -7 0 2 -6
Tigers 0 1 6 4 -11 -2 -4 -1 -7
Mets -2 0 -6 -10 -1 4 6 0 -8
Brewers 4 -3 -2 0 -3 -3 -2 0 -9
Braves -4 2 -1 -3 -4 -2 4 -3 -10
Phillies 0 -7 -5 -1 -6 0 4 4 -11
Athletics -2 3 -2 -10 -4 -3 -1 6 -12
White Sox -1 -1 -2 -2 3 -6 -7 -6 -22
Padres 2 -6 -2 -3 -3 0 1 -11 -23
SOURCE: FanGraphs depth charts

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and, 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

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Cory Settoon
8 years ago

That last sentence really sums it all up. “dfjngjkdg”

Cory Settoon
8 years ago

You know you audience does!

But in all seriousness, this article is pretty sweet. Can’t believe Han-Ram is getting a +3 (or most of it is his) at 1B.

Cory Settoon
8 years ago
Reply to  Cory Settoon

I think the projections saw that “Hanley Ramirez, pickin’ machine” video by Brian MacPherson and changed its mind.

God Albatross
8 years ago
Reply to  Cory Settoon

you gotta think Hanley will have zero range and probably get a SP injured covering the bag on some errant toss. Apologies, disgruntled Sox fan who doesn’t think ANYONE can play 1B.

Dogfish Pride
8 years ago
Reply to  Cory Settoon

And JBJ (even mixing Mookie in) is only +5?

8 years ago
Reply to  Cory Settoon

The Royals OF is impressive, but the Giants IF at +27 is pretty crazy as well. Particularly without framing taken into consideration. Buster has been pretty good if not great there.