Top 10 defenses in the majors
December, 29, 2013
By Buster Olney | ESPN.com
There probably has been more focus on evaluating and maximizing defensive efficiency than any other part of baseball in the last five years. If we're looking for explanations about why offensive production has been declining, increased defensive production might be responsible.
In Part IV of our series, we look at the top 10 defenses in Major League Baseball.
1. Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles posted pictures of their Gold Glove winners in their spring training facility, and with good reason: Buck Showalter’s club has continued the organizational tradition -- fostered by the likes of Paul Blair, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Cal Ripken Jr. and others -- of strong defense. The best of the group is third baseman Manny Machado (“The best at his position, and it’s not close,” said one evaluator), although we don’t know what condition he'll be in during his first months back on the field since having knee surgery.
They have Gold Glove defenders at shortstop (J.J. Hardy), center field (Adam Jones) and at catcher (Matt Wieters). Right fielder Nick Markakis and first baseman Chris Davis are solid defenders, and newcomer David Lough posted one of the best UZR/150 ratings among outfielders with at least 650 innings last season. If Jonathan Schoop gets a lot of playing time at second base, he’ll be regarded as a plus defensively.
It’s inarguable that so far this winter the Orioles have lost ground, surrendering Jim Johnson in a salary dump and letting Nate McLouth and Brian Roberts move on. If they are to contend next season, their defense will be the backbone of their success.
2. Kansas City Royals
Kansas City is strong defensively at every position, with Salvador Perez (“One of the more underrated catchers,” says one evaluator), Alcides Escobar (“He was Andrelton Simmons before Simmons arrived,” says another evaluator), Eric Hosmer, Omar Infante and Mike Moustakas. Alex Gordon has been one of the most dominant defensive left fielders in the last decade, and Norichika Aoki and Lorenzo Cain are regarded as plus players with the glove. As Justin Havens of ESPN Stats and Information noted, the Royals finished last season as MLB’s best in defensive runs saved. You could easily make a case for them being No. 1 on this list.
3. Atlanta Braves
Oh, sure, many scouts believe they are average or below average at catcher, third base, second base and left field. But they have the Miguel Cabrera of defenders, shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Last summer, when I asked Atlanta coach Terry Pendleton how he would compare Simmons with his former teammate Ozzie Smith, he referred to Simmons as “The Difference” -- as in the difference between the Braves being successful or not. Simmons makes difficult plays, routine plays and plays in all directions.
He led MLB in defensive runs saved last year, and to have a shortstop that much better than any other -- Simmons’ DRS total is more than three times that of any other player at his position -- is an incredible weapon. Jason Heyward is a Gold Glove right fielder and Freddie Freeman is also considered a plus defender.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
I heard from evaluators who love the Diamondbacks’ defense -- and perhaps might have ranked them first overall. “Great gloves all over the place,” said one AL executive. According to an NL evaluator, Arizona has “above-average defense at all infield positions -- the best defensive infield in baseball, in my mind. [Gerardo] Parra is an impact defender in the outfield. [A.J.] Pollock is underrated.” Havens added: “I think Arizona deserves top-five consideration. They were second among all teams in defensive runs saved last season. Outstanding outfield defense -- including Parra, one of the best -- and Paul Goldschmidt was also outstanding last year.”
5. Texas Rangers
Shin-Soo Choo was below average as a center fielder, but as a left fielder he could have a lot of impact with his throwing arm in the way that Gordon does. The Rangers have one of the greatest defensive third basemen of all time in Adrian Beltre, shortstop Elvis Andrus is excellent, Jurickson Profar should be really good at second base and center fielder Leonys Martin and right fielder Alex Rios are also good defenders.
6. Tampa Bay Rays
The retention of James Loney, a first baseman who throws well and actually likes to throw -- not always the case with players at his position -- is key for the Rays. Evan Longoria is a three-time Gold Glover at third base, Yunel Escobar is a good shortstop and Ben Zobrist is sound wherever he plays. The Rays also have two catchers they regard as very good defensively and are masters at framing pitches: Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan. Desmond Jennings is a really good center fielder, flanked by former center fielders in David DeJesus and Wil Myers.
7. St. Louis Cardinals
Generally speaking, the Cardinals are not an elite defensive team. They have defenders considered by rival evaluators to be average to below-average in a lot of spots: first base (Matt Adams), third base (Matt Carpenter), shortstop (Jhonny Peralta), left field (Matt Holliday) and right field (Allen Craig). But the Cardinals now have a high-end center fielder in Peter Bourjos, and the ability of catcher Yadier Molina is beyond comparison. Last year, the Cardinals allowed only 39 stolen bases in 65 attempts, by far the fewest in the majors.
8. Colorado Rockies
According to defensive metrics, Nolan Arenado is not that far behind Machado for his acumen with the glove, and he and Troy Tulowitzki provide what is arguably the best left-side defense in the majors.
9. Cincinnati Reds
Brandon Phillips has won Gold Gloves at second base and Joey Votto is extremely aggressive with his positioning. “To me, it’s the best right-side defense,” said one evaluator. Billy Hamilton will be an upgrade over Choo in center field, and Jay Bruce is one of baseball’s best right fielders.
10. Pittsburgh Pirates
Andrew McCutchen runs down everything in center field, Starling Marte rated well in left field and Russell Martin scored high for his defense at catcher. Part of the reason why the Pirates pitched so well is because of the work Pittsburgh did defensively, employing shifts.
Honorable mention: The Milwaukee Brewers, with Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura and Jonathan Lucroy through the middle of the diamond; the Detroit Tigers, who should be greatly improved by Jose Iglesias at shortstop (I still can’t believe he got to this ball). Other possibilities include the Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals.
• Yasiel Puig was arrested on a reckles-driving charge for the second time this year. There has been a lot of concern within the Dodgers’ organization about Puig’s off-field habits.
• Here are some of Casey McGehee's comments on Masahiro Tanaka, from Juan Rodriguez's story:
Tanaka, 25, in helping the Golden Eagles win the Japan Series championship went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and struck out 5.72 batters for each one he walked over his 212 innings.
“You could see from day one he’s kind of a different animal,” McGehee said. “He’s unbelievably competitive. The jury is out on how many pitches he has, but he’s got at least three that are weapons, not just pitches he uses here and there. He can lean on any one of his fastball-slider-split at any time."
Under the recently agreed upon posting system, major league teams have to put down $20 million for the right to negotiate with Tanaka. Rakuten receives the money from the team that ultimately signs him.
Considered the best available starting pitcher, Tanaka won’t have a shortage of options. Some have estimated the bidding could reach $100 million beyond the $20 million posting fee.
Foremost in Tanaka’s repertoire: a split/forkball he commands at will.
“His forkball is the best one I’ve seen,” McGehee said. “A lot of guys over there throw one. He’s the one guy that was able to manipulate it and have it do what he wanted. He could throw it for strikes. He could take speed off of it. He could throw it harder. He could bounce it. He was really special with that pitch.
“Whoever gets him ... it’s going to be money well spent.”
• MLB is worried about kickbacks in the Tanaka situation. This is not a new phenomenon: There have been rumors of demands for these kinds of payments for more than a decade.
• Tanaka’s talent is tough to ignore, writes John Tomase.
• Richard Griffin writes that Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos is on thin ice.
• Carlos Martinez is working as a starting pitcher for now, writes Derrick Goold.
• This has been a winter of content for the Nationals, writes Thomas Boswell.
• The signing of Joaquin Benoit is official, and Josh Byrnes says Huston Street is the closer.
• The Yankees need a couple of youngsters to step up.
• Peter Schmuck wonders: Is the window of opportunity closing for the Orioles?
• Dan McGrath has submitted this Hall of Fame ballot. Here’s Dan Shaughnessy’s Hall of Fame ballot.
• For the 15th and final time, Jerry Green votes for Jack Morris for the Hall of Fame.
The thing that always jumps out when writers post Hall of Fame ballots that they intend to be steroid-free is that it’s nothing more than a guess. There are players listed on ballots all the time by the steroid police/writers who, during their careers, were actually very much suspected of steroid use. So in one sentence, voters are proclaiming they must protect the dignity of the Hall of Fame (a ridiculous standard, by the way, given the past of some current members, PED users among them), and then they declare unwitting votes for players suspected of heavy steroid use.
This has been the core problem all along: We don’t know exactly who did what and when they did it. So maybe it’s time the writers should stop pretending to grasp for something impossible to attain. Maybe it’s time for writers to stop trying to put up checkpoints that even Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame haven’t constructed, given that Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire are all regarded as members in good standing, currently employed by teams.
The history of the steroid era is ugly, but it is the history, whether we like it or not. There’s no point in aiming retroactive morality at a small handful of players for a problem that happened because of the failures of thousands within the institution of baseball -- including union leaders, owners, the dirty and clean-but-passive players, and the media.
And today will be better than yesterday.