I’m not a big sabermetrics guy. I don’t mean to dispute their value; WPA and RE24 are certainly telling of situational successes, but because I didn’t get an advanced degree in statistics and probability, it takes me a little longer to understand what each number means (although I don’t really need those stats to tell me that Mike Pelfrey isn’t as good as Chris Sale). That said, I am a hugeVlad Guerrero throwing a seed sucker for defensive metrics. I worship the Gold Gloves and would voluntarily watch Andrelton Simmons field ground balls for hours, and one of my most watched videos on YouTube is a young to pick off a runner at home plate.
With the rise of scouting reports and video analysis such as StatCast’s catch rating on a 5-star scale, high quality defense isn’t just becoming expected of all players, but it is becoming the norm and almost preferred. Certain players find their spot in the lineup safe because they can defensively save more runs than they can offensively produce, which can be frustrating in terms of selling tickets. To a certain extent, catchers have always been defense first positions; if you can find a catcher who throws out 35% of potential base stealers and can frame strikes above league average, a .330 OBP doesn’t sound too bad.
I always struggled with the glove when I was growing up. I was inaccurate, had stiff hands and slow feet, and didn’t read the ball off the bat well at all, but every coach I ever played for told me something along the lines of “as long as you can hit, you’ll have a place to play.” Looking at the current trends of managerial preferences, I’m not so sure that’s true. Last year’s World Series-winnings Cubs were one of the best defensive teams in the league; Ben Zobrist was the only player to post a negative DRS rating (put differently, he was the only below-average defender on the team), and it was only a -3, marginally below average at worst. Addison Russell tied for the best DRS rating (19) among NL shortstops with Brandon Crawford, Javy Baez had the 2nd best DRS (11) among 2nd basemen (in about a quarter as many innings), and Jason Heyward had the best rating among NL rightfielders (14 – sidenote, Mookie Betts and Adam Eaton put on a clinic in right field last year with totals of 32 and 22, respectively).
Offensively, however, these three defensive wizards leave quite a lot to be desired. Russell heated up during the postseason, slapping many clutch home runs that undoubtedly helped propel the 2016 Cubs towards immortality, but let’s look on a larger scale. He’s off to a slow start this year, but through two full seasons as the Cubs’ starting shortstop, we can begin to gather that he’s a defense-first player – and there is no shame in that. A career .712 OPS and 91 wRC+ and nearly a 24.5 K% are signs of low contact, low patience, and power, but that’s not what the Cubs are paying him to do. His defense is so good, he essentially saves more runs than he produces, and the Cubs have decided that works for them (clearly). Baez and Heyward are similar cases but even more extreme. Heyward has won 4 Gold Gloves (including the last 3 for NL RFs), and managed to crack his way into a stacked Cubs lineup despite posting career worsts in OPS and wRC+ (had Schwarber been healthy, things might be different, but hey). Things are looking up for him offensively, but he’s off to an even better start defensively than he was last season, so he’ll have even more wiggle room should he begin to slump again. He is miles ahead of fellow NL rightfielders in terms of zone ratings and DRS, so like Russell, even though he doesn’t produce that many runs, he saves even more, and again, like Russell, that’s what his big contract was for. The Cubs are paying him to mash, that’s what Rizzo and Bryant are for. Anything extra from his bat is just gravy. Lots can be said for Baez’s quick hands and tags, but he strikes out with the best of ’em (29.4 career K%), but as you’ve learned by now…his defense more than makes up for it.
It feels to me that the new generation of stars are bringing with them a wave of not only defensive talent, but also defensive expectations. Gone are the days of “if you can hit, you’ll play”, unless those hitters aspire to be a designated hitter, and now the new normal is a two-way star that increases win probability as much with the glove as they do the bat. Nolan Arenado. Manny Machado. Mookie Betts. Even Trout and Harper, the two marquee names in marketing young players, are becoming much more adequate defensively. Kevin Pillar and Kevin Kiermaier are near carbon copies of each other, catching what feels like every ball hit within a 3-mile radius of them.
The tricky thing is no one has the time nor the tools to calculate such advanced defensive metrics. With the rise of StatCast, we can now analyze route efficiency and first step speed, but that requires extremely advanced technology that is still in its formative stages. You won’t find that in high schools or junior colleges or in international academies, but with some work ethic and a calculator you can comb through box scores and determine most offensive metrics, which is still what gets (let’s be honest) older scouts’ attention. For the time being, it appears that defense in young prospects is still a bonus, and until they get more face time in the minors or in college is when coaches can determine if their defense is worth putting up with some substandard offensive skills.
It doesn’t surprise me that it took a managerial hipster like Joe Maddon to rely on defensive metrics to win a World Series.
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