The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Team Defense So Far

Things haven’t been going the Mariners’ way lately. With Tuesday’s loss to the Yankees, they fell to 19-19, thereby setting a record for the fastest plunge to .500 for a team that started the season 13-2. In the third inning of Thursday night’s contest, second baseman Dee Gordon departed the game after being hit on the right wrist by a J.A. Happ fastball, and after manager Scott Servais pinch-hit for fill-in Dylan Moore in the top of the eighth, he resorted to calling upon first baseman Edwin Encarnacion to shift to second base, a position he’d never played before during his 20-year professional career. When the Yankees’ DJ Lemahieu led off the bottom of the eighth with a 100-mph grounder towards second, the 36-year-old Encarnacion gamely dove for the ball, not only coming up empty but rolling the wrist of his left (glove) hand.

Encarnacion was able to continue, but Gordon is still being evaluated. So much for one wag’s theory that the move would improve the Mariners’ defense, which has been downright dreadful, as I noted in passing during my look at the Nationals’ porous defense and disappointing start.

As I had been meaning to cover the topic of team-level defense for a few weeks, and chose to streamline the aforementioned Nationals piece, this seems like a good opportunity to clear the ol’ notebook. I’m making no attempt to be comprehensive here, and given the sample sizes, what’s here should be regarded as preliminary observations rather than firm conclusions. First, here’s a refreshed version of the table of team-level advanced defensive metrics, with statistics through Wednesday. Each column is sortable:

Team Defense Through May 8
Astros .737 5.50 3.5 29 17
Rays .721 2.98 4.0 23 5
Dodgers .720 3.22 5.2 42 11
Cardinals .719 4.33 6.9 15 8
Blue Jays .709 2.58 1.8 14 11
Padres .709 1.92 5.6 10 -3
A’s .707 1.78 7.2 3 2
Giants .701 1.15 7.4 31 3
Twins .701 -0.14 6.9 14 3
Yankees .701 0.93 -0.6 -7 6
Angels .699 1.14 6.1 6 1
Brewers .699 0.10 2.6 21 4
Orioles .698 0.94 -3.9 -18 3
Pirates .697 1.02 -6.0 -3 6
Diamondbacks .696 -0.39 2.3 15 11
Braves .695 -0.38 -3.7 9 -1
Indians .695 -1.00 2.0 11 5
Rockies .695 -2.38 6.2 4 7
Marlins .693 0.68 -3.8 -12 0
Reds .692 -0.74 1.1 23 3
Cubs .690 0.00 1.4 8 1
Royals .688 -2.34 3.9 15 5
Red Sox .685 -1.69 -1.0 -3 1
Tigers .685 -1.46 -1.7 -16 0
Rangers .681 -3.07 4.8 -7 2
Mariners .680 -0.43 -28.0 -33 3
Phillies .680 -2.39 -3.4 -25 -5
Mets .672 -0.88 -5.3 -22 -2
White Sox .654 -4.73 -13.0 -23 7
Nationals .652 -5.68 -7.4 -26 -1
SOURCE: SOURCE: Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus
Def Eff = Defensive Efficiency. PADE = Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. rTS = Team Shift Runs Saved. All statistics through May 8.

For those tuning in for the first time, Defensive Efficiency (DE) is the rate at which teams turn batted balls into outs, not quite 1 – BABIP, but close, and — in the Baseball-Reference version used above — factoring in errors. The MLB average is .695, which is up four points from last year’s full-season figure. It’s worth remembering that the 42- or 43-point distance from each of the extremes to the average is the equivalent of one extra ball in play converted (or not) into an out per game — a swing of about 0.7 runs if all of those plays not made are merely singles, which they aren’t. PADE is Baseball Prospectus’ Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, which is expressed as a percentage above or below league average. BP bases this on three years worth of home/road splits (except where ballpark configurations change) and disregards reached-on-error totals. The top-to-bottom spread of both this stat and raw DE will tend to decrease as the sample sizes increase; typically, the full-season extremes are about 20-25 points from average in the raw version and about two to four percent in the adjusted one.

UZR and DRS you know already, but a couple of things are worth mentioning. First, the impact of shifting; current UZR data does not account for infield shifts at either the individual or team level, but our DRS data does for the team. It’s represented in the column on the far right; you can read a full explanation here. Second, there’s the impact of catching. Much of a catcher’s defense — framing, blocking, throwing — has no bearing on either raw or adjusted DE, and there’s no UZR for catchers, though there is DRS, and we also have our new framing metric. On with the show…

The Astros are vying for post-strike records

The highest Defensive Efficiency since the 1994 players’ strike belongs to the 2016 Cubs (.728), who edged the 2001 Mariners (.727) and 2011 Rays (.724). The Astros (.737) are nine points ahead of the Cubs, though in terms of PADE, their 5.50 trails both Chicago (6.38) and Seattle (5.54) for the era’s top honors. (Those Rays, who have employed PADE inventor James Click since 2006 — he’s now their VP of Baseball Operations — are seventh for the era at 4.30.) Houston’s 32-point improvement in DE from 2018 ranks second only to the Cardinals’ 34-point improvement, more on which below.

One reason why Houston’s DE is so high is due to shifting; as you can see from the table, they’ve already accumulated 17 DRS via that route, putting them on pace to obliterate the single-season record of 39, set by the Diamondbacks last year (the 2018 Astros, by contrast, had just five rTS, the majors’ seventh-lowest total). Via our splits, opposing hitters have been held to an MLB-low .231 BABIP when Houston shifts, roughly the equivalent of a .769 DE. The lowest full-season mark in this area belongs to that aformentioned Rays team (.196).

Turnover has helped the Dodgers defensively

The Dodgers have jumped from ninth in DE to third, improving by about 1.8 percent according to PADE, and already they’re nearing last year’s team total of 47 DRS. Like the Astros, shifting is a big part of their improvement; where they had 15 rTS all of last season, they’ve got 11 thus far, tied (with the Blue Jays and Diamondbacks) for second in the majors, and they’re second in shift BABIP at .248.

A whole lot of year-to-year turnover has gone into the Dodgers’ improvement, mostly for the better. Justin Turner has been available since Opening Day instead of missing the first 40 games of the season. The small-sample metrics suggest that Corey Seager has played better than he did with a compromised elbow before undergoing Tommy John surgery last May, and a bit better than the players who filled in during his absence, including Manny Machado. Likewise, Enrique Hernandez has been better at the keystone than Logan Forsythe or the less-than-able-bodied Brian Dozier. Leaden-gloved Matt Kemp is gone, and so is Yasiel Puig, for as spectacular as he could sometimes be. Cody Bellinger is putting up insane numbers not only at the plate but in right field (10 DRS, 3.7 UZR). The only real step backwards has been from the generally reliable A.J. Pollock (-0.7 UZR and 6 DRS last year, -2.9 UZR and -5 DRS this year), but he’s out for at least six weeks after undergoing surgery to clear up an infection in his right elbow.

The Cardinals’ defensive improvement is masking their rotation woes

The most improved team from last year to this one (through Wednesday, at least) in terms of DE is the Cardinals, who have jumped from .685, ninth-worst in the majors, and six points below the MLB average, to .719, fourth in the majors and 24 points above average. In terms of PADE, they’ve gained just over four points (from 0.32 to 4.33). The upgrade to Paul Goldschmidt at first base (from Matt Carpenter and Jose Martinez), greater shares of playing time for shortstop Paul DeJong (who lost seven weeks of 2018 to a fractured metacarpal) and center fielder Harrison Bader, and improved play from Dexter Fowler appear to be key factors on the individual level, though obsessing about less than a quarter-season of UZR or DRS is a fool’s errand. At the team level, the Cardinals have already matched last year’s shift-related DRS, with eight, pushing them from 19th (tied) to fifth in that category.

Where the improved defense is being felt the most is in front of a rotation that entered Thursday ranked dead last in the NL in FIP (4.96) but was a more respectable seventh in ERA (4.25). Even with Carlos Martinez sidelined due to a shoulder strain, the group of Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, and Dakota Hudson projected to be the majors’ 11th-best rotation, but they’ve collectively had trouble keeping the ball in the yard (an NL-worst 1.68 homers per nine), and they’re in the bottom third of the league in strikeout and walk rates, and K-BB%. Good defense — including the majors’ third-highest rate of converting double plays, according to Baseball Prospectus — has helped the unit outdo its FIP by an MLB-high 0.71 runs per nine.

The Mets’ defense is a mess

In the wake of the April 16 start in which Steven Matz failed to retire the first eight hitters he faced, and the subsequent Jacob deGrom elbow scare, I began working on a piece about the Mets’ rotation disarray and noticed that team was last in the NL with a .655 DE. They’ve since improved by 17 points, but still rank 28th in the majors there (they’re 21st in PADE). It’s not hard to understand why they’re struggling defensively. In an attempt to inject life into a moribund offense that ranked 12th in the league in scoring last year, they’ve risked sacrificing defense in the name of offense. When it comes to Robinson Cano, that has yet to pay off, and while Jeff McNeil’s bat in the lineup is a plus, he’s still learning the ropes in left field. For as hot as J.D. Davis started the year at third base filling in for the injured Todd Frazier, the since-returned Toddfather still carries a far superior glove.

The metrics say that the biggest concern is Amed Rosario. The 23-year-old shortstop graded as a plus fielder when he was a prospect, but last year’s -5.2 UZR and -16 DRS were grim numbers for a player in his first full season, and already, he’s up to -4.3 UZR and -11 DRS this year. That’s not to say that it’s his true talent level by any means, and to be fair, he’s had a revolving cast of neighbors on both sides. But to remain central to the Mets’ future, his glovework has to improve. Also of concern: Wilson Ramos‘ catching. He’s already at -5 DRS, including -2.7 runs in our new framing metric, the majors’ fourth-worst mark.

Oy, the Mariners

Despite shifting into rebuilding mode, the Mariners jumped out to a hot start, primarily on the basis of an offense that bashed out a remarkable 7.8 runs per game through those first 15 games. They’ve only scored 4.2 runs per game since, while going an MLB-worst 7-18, though their overall 5.55 runs per game is still third in the majors. Unfortunately, they’re also allowing 5.25 runs per game, and the defense is a big reason why. They own the sixth-worst raw DE and the 11th-worst PADE, but neither of those capture how badly the team fares in either UZR or DRS, where they’re dead last by wide margins — 15 runs and seven runs, respectively. Shifts appear to be a relatively small part of the problem; their .296 BABIP on them is 17th, their three rTS tied for 14th.

It’s at the individual level where things look remarkably bleak, and for the umpteenth time, the small-sample caveats should be noted; these numbers may not represent true talent levels. Still, it would be irresponsible not to gawk at this particular trainwreck, and when we do, we find that the left side of the diamond is a disaster. With Kyle Seager out due to a torn tendon in his left hand, Ryon Healy has been subpar at third base (-3.6 UZR, -4 DRS), but Tim Beckham has been even worse at shortstop (-5.2 UZR, -6 DRS). Even worse than those two is Domingo Santana, whose numbers suggest he’s playing left field with a blindfold (-8.7 UZR, -7 DRS); even given his -11.5 UZR/150 for his career, this is much, much worse. Center fielder Mallex Smith is deep in the red, too (-7.0 UZR, -6 DRS). Note that for an outfielder, the cost of a fielding mistake/miscue is higher because of the likelihood it produces an extra-base hit. Apart from the converting batted balls into outs, catcher Omar Narvaez is last in DRS (-7), and seventh-worst in framing (-1.6). Yikes.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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CC AFCmember
3 years ago

Dude, yeah. I was watching the game when Edwin moved over and I think the Mariners entire infield at that point was Healy, Beckham, Edwin, and Jay Bruce and I thought “good lord, I hope they have counselors on hand for their pitchers”

3 years ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Three DHs and whatever Tim Beckham is…that’s only technically an infield.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Beer league softball all stars!

3 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

The way things have gone for them lately, they’d lose even a beer league tournament. It has been brutal.