The Angels Appear to Have Baseball’s Best Defense

It’s time to say what I feel like I say every year. The overall team projections are right there, linked up top. You know where they are and you know what to do with them. We’ve talked about them a lot, already, even though the ZiPS projection system was only recently included. We here at FanGraphs are projections dorks. Estimated future baseball is the next-best thing to actual current baseball. And projections offer some relief to panicking over ugly spring-training results.

Mostly, what people care about are wins and losses. That’s obvious and self-explanatory, given that, what’s more fun than winning? But while it’s easy to look at the overall projections, less attention is given to projected components, because the data is harder to track down and see all together. We know the Astros are projected to finish with baseball’s best record. That’s because they’re probably baseball’s best team. They just won the World Series. Okay. But what if you want to know who’s projected to have the best defense? That information is provided. It just doesn’t have its own standings page. It has this blog post instead.

Before looking forward, let’s take a quick look back. Projected defense is pretty heavily regressed. What I’ve done, then, is convert all defensive numbers into z-scores, showing the number of standard deviations above or below the mean. For this first plot, I want to revisit 2017’s team defensive performances. All this is is a blend of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), with pitchers excluded since we don’t have pitcher defensive forecasts. I doubt the following plot will surprise you very much. This is a season that’s happened!

DRS does track pitcher defense, but I’ve left it out, because later on I’m going to compare 2017 data to projected 2018 data. I want to keep things consistent. So, anyway, while I understand that defensive metrics aren’t perfect, the numbers suggest that, last year, the Red Sox might’ve had baseball’s best defense. They were 2.0 standard deviations better than average, here, just edging out the Dodgers and the Rays. A’s fans know why their team brought up the rear. Mets fans know why their team brought up the rear in its own league. We don’t need to look at this any longer. It’s over. The Astros won.

This is what’s more relevant. Here now are 2018 team projections, based on Steamer and ZiPS. Both systems have their own ways of estimating defensive true talent, and even if you don’t love modern defensive metrics, projections regress the numbers appropriately. Again, I converted the team projections into z-scores, so that it’s easy to compare between 2017 and 2018. That comes later. Here, another plot similar to the one above.

As I write this, the Angels are projected to have baseball’s best defense, at +2.3 standard deviations. That’s no slight against the Cubs; the Cubs lead the National League, and they’re close enough to the Angels that there’s room to argue for either. But, projected first place is projected first place, and to understand this, you have to remember what happened much earlier in the offseason. While Shohei Ohtani was the winter’s most meaningful splash, the Angels also traded for Ian Kinsler, and they signed Zack Cozart. Those two will play on either side of Andrelton Simmons. While first base might be a defensive adventure, the Angels look great around the rest of the infield, and the outfield has no problems, even if Mike Trout isn’t what he was when he was younger. You could say the Angels’ season will come down to whether enough of the pitchers stay healthy. But even if they have to give innings to guys who might not deserve them as much, the defense should come to their aid. The Angels have created something special.

Many of these teams are around where you’d think. The Cubs have had some great defenses for years, and maybe in 2018, Kyle Schwarber will find agility he didn’t used to possess. I’m personally skeptical that weight loss can make a professional athlete significantly better in the outfield, but it’s not like it could hurt. And Schwarber won’t define the Cubs’ defense, anyway. There are several other players who are better than average at their positions. To say nothing of the positioning of the players themselves, within team-specific schemes. That’s still a weak spot when it comes to measuring team performance. We use what we have.

Based on that plot, the Astros are the only team keeping the A’s out of the defensive basement. Now, with Matt Chapman at third base, the A’s should play stronger in the field, but you could say they have plenty to prove. As for why the Astros are where they are, they don’t have anyone dreadful. They just also don’t have anyone terrific. Mostly, they have their position players because they’re awesome at hitting. No other team’s lineup is even close to the Astros, offensively. This is just a relative weakness, which the Astros will accept. It’s worth noting that arguably their best defensive player is Dallas Keuchel, who is excluded from these measurements.

At last, here’s a plot of the projected year-to-year changes. This is all expressed in z-scores. A positive change reflects an improvement, while a negative change reflects a decline.

Although the Angels are projected to have baseball’s best defense, the Giants are projected to have baseball’s most improved defense, which is maybe more important. While the Giants aren’t young, they’re still positioned to put the 2017 catastrophe behind them, and part of that is just being rid of Denard Span in center field. The Tigers and Padres are also improved, although neither looks likely to contend in 2018. So, maybe your eye is drawn to the Blue Jays, who have quietly lined themselves up for a wild-card spot. The Angels are there in fifth, mostly, again, because of Kinsler and Cozart.

At the other end, it’s only fitting to see the Marlins getting worse, because, you know, they’ve decided to suck. By the second half of the season, there could be some interesting young players playing just about every day, but the 2018 season as a whole is going to be a bad one, so, why not make it bad in several different areas? Outside of the Marlins, the Mariners have the next-biggest projected decline, which just goes to show it’s usually not a great idea to let Jarrod Dyson walk. In fairness, while Dee Gordon has no track record playing center field, he’s already reportedly looking terrific. You see the Yankees next to the Mariners, but like with the Astros, the Yankees probably won’t fret too much about the defense as long as the lineup is going bananas.

Just how reliable all this is, I don’t really know. The shifting of the modern era makes defensive measurements far more complicated. But at the end of the day, you want to bet on talent, and the numbers can identify talent. The Angels have a whole lot of 2018 talent on the defensive side of things. It doesn’t exactly make them favorites to knock the Astros out of first, but consider it a potential key to the team’s plan for success. A good defense helps everybody, and the Angels might’ve built something extreme. That team is a lot more than Ohtani and Trout.

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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4 years ago

So the A’s won’t be anywhere near as bad as they were last year, thanks to Ryon Healy being elsewhere and Khris Davis going to DH. But they appear to have decided that shortstop and center field defense are overrated, and that wasn’t a decision they just made last year (in fact, Semien is actually passable at shortstop now).

I like their chance to beat that number because Chapman is such a singular talent without a track record so he’s hard to project, and Semien gets a very pessimistic projection…but it still won’t be good.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Consciously throwing SS and CF may not be as bad as you think: