The 30: Ignore Defense at Your Own Peril

Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Every team pays lip service to it. Reams of advanced stats attempt to quantify it. New technology tries to help us visualize it. Yet, again and again, teams ignore one of baseball’s most important skills by throwing ungodly sums of money at one-dimensional sluggers and saddling themselves with expensive albatrosses for years to come.

This week, we’re talking about defense. Unsurprisingly, the clubs that have been booting grounders, botching fly balls, and blowing double plays over the first 14 days of the season have also suffered in the win-loss department. Today, we check in on four of those stone-handed teams — the Twins, the Yankees, the Indians, and the Nationals — and ask one very important question: What do these clubs need to do to make every ball put in play look less like an impending crisis and more like this?

It’s Week 2 of The 30.

Best Spider-Man Imitation

With would-be starting left fielder Michael Saunders on the disabled list, the Jays have turned to Kevin Pillar for everyday duty. A mediocre hitter with a weak batting eye, Pillar has made up for offensive shortcomings by putting on an absolute defensive clinic. First, he made this spectacular running catch in Baltimore:

A few days later, Pillar transformed into a superhero, scaling the huge left-field wall at Rogers Centre and making the catch of the year of the first two weeks:

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Thanks to Pillar’s ability to turn America’s pastime into a parkour session, you will not be reading about the Blue Jays this week.

Sluggish Slackers

Despite glimpses of competence, it’s been mostly hard times for our bottom tier.

30. Milwaukee Brewers (2-10 record, minus-35 run differential, no. 27 last week)
29. Philadelphia Phillies (4-9, minus-24, LW: 29)
28. Minnesota Twins (5-7, minus-20, LW: 30)
27. Texas Rangers (5-8, minus-15, LW: 28)
26. San Francisco Giants (4-10, minus-25, LW: 14)
25. Miami Marlins (3-10, minus-15, LW: 21)
24. Chicago White Sox (4-7, minus-14, LW: 26)

Last year, the Minnesota Twins were the second-worst defensive team in baseball — and it wasn’t particularly close. According to Baseball Info Solutions’s Defensive Runs Saved metric, the Twins cost themselves a staggering 73 runs thanks to poor glovework. If we accept that 10 runs are roughly equal to one win,1 some quick math says that Minnesota racked up seven losses last year on shoddy defense alone.

This year, the defense isn’t much better: Through the first 12 games, the Twins again rank 29th in team defense per DRS. Like in 2014, the outfield and guy behind the plate continue to cause problems — and their new starting shortstop isn’t helping either.

Compared to the average major league right fielder, Twins right fielders combined to cost their team a total of 23 runs last season, which was the worst mark in baseball. Oswaldo Arcia, a young slugger known far more for his bat than his glove,2 did most of that damage, so in an effort to bolster the outfield defense, Minnesota signed 39-year-old Torii Hunter to a one-year, $10.5 million contract. In addition to the goodwill engendered by bringing back a franchise legend, it hoped he would provide some leadership and also allow the club to move Arcia to the slightly less demanding left-field position.

Well, the Twins better be getting tons of veteran guidance because on the field Hunter has been awful. He’s hitting just .225/.256/.350, and his defense has been just as bad. The trademark range and athleticism that made him a Gold Glove center fielder and human highlight reel is now long gone, and DRS rates Twins right fielders (mostly Hunter) as the worst in the majors again this year.3

The team’s catching has been similarly awful. Last year, Minnesota catchers were collectively 28 runs worse than average, and most of that falls at the feet of Kurt Suzuki. While the 31-year-old has never carried a particularly bad defensive reputation during his nine-year major league career and even made the All-Star team in 2014, advanced metrics loathe his defense. Over the past four seasons, Suzuki combined to cost his team 46 runs more than the average MLB catcher and ranked 25th, 30th, 28th, and 34th in the majors in DRS over that period. Somehow, those numbers might actually underestimate his negative defensive value: Last year, Suzuki was also 20 runs worse than the average catcher by advanced pitch-framing metrics, the fourth-worst mark for any backstop. With another year on Suzuki’s contract, in addition to a $6 million player option for 2017, the Twins have someone worth shopping in the near future — if they can find another club that doesn’t care about behind-the-plate defense.

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Worst of all might be Danny Santana, who ranks last in the majors in DRS and has somehow already cost his team six runs on defense in just 12 games. Thanks to a seemingly excellent rookie season in 2014, Santana won the Opening Day shortstop job, but his shiny .319/.353/.472 effort last year can largely be chalked up to a tremendously flukish .405 batting average on balls in play. In 2014, Santana struck out five times more than he walked, and he projected as one of MLB’s most likely regression candidates heading into this season. Instead of a gentle pullback, the early returns have been brutal: a .195 batting average, just one extra-base hit, 13 strikeouts, and no walks in 42 times at bat. Throw in the rough fielding and Santana might be the worst player in the majors through these first two weeks.

Let us spare a thought for Minnesota’s pitchers. They’ve struggled to strike batters out for so long that it’s become a bit of a sad running joke, but the team’s run-prevention problems have been compounded considerably by the club’s lousy D. With Arcia, Brian Dozier, and Kennys Vargas complementing Joe Mauer, there’s some real talent on this club, and with top-notch prospects Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and an exciting new generation of pitching prospects carving their way through the minors, there’s even more on the way. They’ve won four of their last five, but if the Twins really want to get back to the form that made them one of baseball’s best teams last decade, they better start finding some guys who can catch the damn ball.

Slow Out of the Gate

A bunch of mediocre squads are joined by one preseason darling.

23. Houston Astros (6-6, minus-6, LW: 25)
22. Cincinnati Reds (5-7, minus-13, LW: 19)
21. Tampa Bay Rays (6-7, minus-12, LW: 20)
20. New York Yankees (6-6, plus-8, LW: 23)
19. Arizona Diamondbacks (7-6, plus-11, LW: 24)
18. Atlanta Braves (8-4, plus-10, LW: 22)
17. Colorado Rockies (7-5, plus-6, LW: 18)
16. Seattle Mariners (5-7, minus-15, LW: 9) 

New York’s 2015 pitching staff isn’t quite peak-era Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. This season, only six American League teams have allowed more runs per game. Only one member of the starting rotation sports an ERA below four. And relievers Dellin Betances and Justin Wilson have tallied more walks than innings pitched.

Still, a good chunk of the 56 runs allowed by Yankees pitchers this year comes down to factors beyond their control. New York’s arms actually rank in the top 10 for strikeout rate, and they’ve been about average in walk rate. So we can attribute some of the run-prevention struggles to bad luck: The mirror image of San Francisco’s struggles to bunch hits together, Yankees pitchers have seen hits against them clustered more frequently than all but five other teams, according to Ed Feng’s cluster luck statistics.

But beyond the not-always-good pitching and the sequential misfortune, there lies a leaky defense. Six of New York’s eight nonpitcher positions have produced below-average defensive results this year, per DRS. For a team that’s seen its offensive talent depleted because of defections and age, the team’s margin for error really can’t accommodate the subpar defense it has played.

The worst offender has been Jacoby Ellsbury. When the Yankees signed Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract in December 2013, they did so in the hopes of turning an old, slow, defensively challenged team into one that was faster, more athletic, and better afield. Having saved 23 defensive runs from 2011 through 2013, making him a top-10 center fielder over that span,4 Ellsbury had the pedigree to make that happen. Through 160 games, he hasn’t. 

Again, defensive numbers can vary in smaller samples — and even occasionally over a whole season — but Ellsbury took a step back last year, costing the Yanks three runs compared to the average center fielder. Per DRS, center field has been the Yankees’ worst defensive position this season too. Moreover, Ellsbury has been punchless at bat in the early going, hitting just .286/.364/.306. That offensive downturn continues a trend that’s lasted a lot longer than two weeks: In 2011, Ellsbury posted a .321/.376/.552 line with 32 homers, but over the past four seasons combined, he’s hit 29 dingers to go along with a .282/.337/.408 line.

Of course, there’s still plenty of time for all of that to turn around, but Ellsbury turns 32 in September, and he’s signed through 2020. With each passing game in which he makes Johnny Damon’s arm look like Vladimir Guerrero’s, it seems more likely that the Yankees have another contract that the club will soon grow to regret.

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So can Yankees fans take solace in … anything? Sure! Through the first two weeks, their team has employed two of the most compelling players in the league.

New York’s most talented pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka, has been a joy to watch ever since he was owning fools back in Japan with his wide array of befuddling pitches. Now, he’s pitching with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, so there’s an added level of drama to Tanaka’s expected brilliance. While he’s dialed back his approach by relying less on four-seam fastballs, it’s hard not to watch New York’s ace and wonder if any given pitch will be the one that results in that partial tear becoming complete. For now, though, the gamble seems like it’s paying off: Against the Rays on Saturday, Tanaka fired seven innings, struck out eight, and allowed no runs, no walks, and just two hits.

The other must-see Yankee this season has been Alex Rodriguez. Barring injury, he’s sure to provide fertile subject matter over the next five months, so for now, let’s just say that this … 

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… makes me feel like this:

Whose Division Is It Anyway?

Three AL East clubs jockey for position in this crowded group.

15. Cleveland Indians (4-7, minus-11, LW: 15)
14. Chicago Cubs (6-5, plus-2, LW: 17)
13. Pittsburgh Pirates (6-6, plus-9, LW: 13)
12. Los Angeles Angels (5-7, minus-7, LW: 11)
11. Oakland A’s (6-7, plus-24, LW: 10)
10. San Diego Padres (8-5, plus-12, LW: 12)
9. Toronto Blue Jays (6-7, plus-9, LW: 3)
8. Boston Red Sox (7-5, minus-1, LW: 6)
7. Baltimore Orioles (7-5, minus-8, LW: 8) 

Remember how we said Minnesota was the second-worst defensive club by DRS in the majors last season? The only team behind them was the Cleveland Indians. This year, it’s not much better, as the two poorly fielding squads have just swapped spots among the bottom two.

Michael Bourn isn’t anywhere near the skilled fly ball catcher he used to be. Brandon Moss is a major liability in the outfield but is mostly stuck there on a team playing three DHs nearly every day. Neither David Murphy nor an eventually healthy Nick Swisher would be much better in right field. Although there’s reason to expect at least some improvement once top prospect Francisco Lindor makes it to The Show and replaces Jose Ramirez at shortstop, things probably won’t change all that much. For better or worse, this will remain a team with lots of skilled position players — only, most of that skill sits on the offensive side of the ledger.

However, your porous defense can’t screw things up when opposing batters aren’t hitting the ball. So for the Indians to shake off this slow start and meet preseason expectations, they’re going to need a heavy dose of what made them a contender last year: breakout performances by young pitchers. In 2014, it was Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, the overnight success story many years in the making. This season, the Tribe have not one, not two, but three twentysomething starters who could be primed for big things.

Going all the way back to his days at UCLA when his unorthodox training regimen and lights-out results made him a highly sought-after draft commodity, Trevor Bauer has been his own version of the Dos Equis guy. His big-time pedigree, combined with his tantalizing repertoire, made him a popular preseason breakout pick for many people — and the early returns have been promising. Last week, Michael Baumann wrote about how the 24-year-old right-hander’s nonconformist approach led to his lofty April results: Through Bauer’s first two starts and 12 innings, he’s struck out 19 batters and allowed just two runs on four hits. And even his failures are fascinating, as he’s managed to mix in nine walks with all of that unhittable stuff.

We’ve brought up the final 10 starts of Carlos Carrasco’s 2014 season before, but this bears repeating: 69 innings pitched, 78 strikeouts, 11 walks, 45 hits, two homers allowed, and a 1.30 ERA. Somehow, his first start of this season trumped that pace: 6.1 innings, 10 strikeouts, three hits, one walk, and no runs.5 The enthusiasm following his first start quickly dissipated when a Melky Cabrera comebacker hit Carrasco square in the jaw in the first inning of his second appearance, knocking him out of the game. Thankfully, the 28-year-old was (relatively) lucky and is now expected to start Tuesday against the White Sox. The talent and swing-and-miss stuff are there for a big year.

And yes, damn it, we’re going back to the well for Danny Freaking Salazar. I touted Salazar hard last year, citing his own 10-start stretch of domination in 2013 and a scintillating fastball/slider/splitter arsenal as big reasons to get excited. The results were erratic, to say the least: a 4.25 ERA and just 110 innings pitched, thanks to early-season struggles that prompted an extended trip back to the minors. Even within that mess, though, you could see his oozing talent: Salazar struck out 120 batters in those 110 innings, and his fielding-independent numbers were nearly a full run better than that bloated ERA. Called up from Triple-A Columbus on Saturday, he dazzled in his first major league start of the year, fanning 10 batters and allowing just two runs and two walks over six innings. If you’re in a fantasy league, go get him now. If you’re an Indians fan, hope that the second hype cycle is the charm. 


What Kluber, Bauer, Carrasco, and Salazar all have in common is an impressive ability to miss bats. Given Cleveland’s severe defensive limitations, those strikeouts pretty much have to be the key to any serious 2015 success. 

Central Powers

The Tigers and Royals continue to rule the roost two weeks into the season.

6. New York Mets (10-3, plus-16, LW: 16)
5. Washington Nationals (6-7, plus-1, LW: 7)
4. St. Louis Cardinals (8-3, plus-19, LW: 4)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (9-3, plus-17, LW: 5)
2. Kansas City Royals (9-3, plus-28, LW: 2)
1. Detroit Tigers (10-2, plus-33, LW: 1)

The start of Washington’s season has been a comedy of figurative and literal errors. They’ve been the worst team in the National League by DRS and also lead the majors in errors.

Front and center in the defensive blunder-fest is Ian Desmond. Since the Montreal Expos drafted him in the third round 11 years ago, the 29-year-old shortstop has been far better known for his bat than his glove. He’s the only player in baseball to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases in each of the past three seasons, and he’s been the third most-productive shortstop at bat during that time, trailing only Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez. With a .314/.375/.451 line in 2015, Desmond’s offense is still there, but, man, has he ever been a train wreck in the field. He’s already made eight errors, which has created a bit of a crisis of confidence: “I don’t know what to do,” Desmond said last week. And while it’s hard to imagine the errors continuing to pile up at their current rate, advanced metrics have rated Desmond as a below-average defender throughout most of his career, so that’s probably not going to change in 2015.

The nadir of the Nationals’ fielding nightmare came during the seventh inning of last Tuesday night’s game against the Red Sox. With the bases loaded (the first runner reached on a Desmond error) and one out, Ryan Hanigan tapped a ball in front of home plate. Nats reliever Blake Treinen fielded it and tried to transfer the ball to his throwing hand, only to drop it. In an attempt to recover, he reached down, grabbed the ball … and chucked it into the stands, allowing two runs to score and erasing a 7-5 lead. 

The Nats went on to lose the game, 8-7, which dropped their record to 2-6. I watched that grisly affair at a bar near Dupont Circle, and the assembled D.C. sports fans’ reaction ranged from frustrated laughter to “Forget baseball. When can we fire Randy Wittman?” Still, there’s a very good chance we’ll look back on that double error as the low point in an otherwise successful Nationals season. Washington has gone 4-1 since that ugly loss, and the team’s wounded list is dwindling by the day.

Jayson Werth returned to the lineup last Monday, and Denard Span came back yesterday. At 35 years old, Werth rates as one of the worst defensive left fielders in the league, but Span, who replaces shaky rookie Michael Taylor, should give the Nationals a big fielding boost in center. Meanwhile, Anthony Rendon could return to action by May and provide the Nats another big defensive lift: For all the attention his big offensive numbers received during his breakout 2014 campaign, Rendon was also a dazzling plus-12 at third base last year, per DRS.6

Let’s not ignore the offensive impact of Werth, Span, and Rendon, though, as it’s where the trio’s return will have the biggest impact. The Nationals were the fourth-best offensive team in the National League last year by park-adjusted metrics, and Werth, Rendon, and Span were, respectively, their best, second-best, and fourth-best hitters. Their reintroduction to the lineup should boost what’s been a middle-of-the-pack offense this year.

Granted, the Mets have looked terrific in the early going, and Washington’s only series win of 2015 did come against these guys:

But combine a once-again beefed-up attack with a dominant starting rotation that led the majors in ERA and FIP last year, only to then add world-beater Max Scherzer over the winter, and Washington remains the NL East favorite. Of course, this franchise has its sights set a bit higher, and if the defense improves even just a tiny bit, the Nationals could soon emerge as the World Series pacesetters we all thought they were.

This post has been updated to reflect that Danny Espinosa, not Ian Desmond, will likely move to the Nationals bench when Anthony Rendon returns from injury, and that Jayson Werth plays left field, not right field.

Filed Under: MLB, Jonah Keri, Baseball, MLB Power Rankings, MLB Stats, The 30, Toronto Blue Jays, Kevin Pillar, Minnesota Twins, Torii Hunter, New York Yankees, Jacoby Ellsbury, Cleveland Indians, Danny Salazar, Ian Desmond, Washington Nationals

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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