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Does Defense Matter in Baseball?

Fielding plays a prominent role in baseball. Defense is involved in all plays that do not end in a strikeout, walk, or home run. It is a necessary part of the game and certain teams are able to really use their defensive proficiencies to their advantage. However, despite fielding making up such a significant portion of the sport, is there actually any value in having adept fielders? Strong defensive players are a premium, but what difference do they truly make in regard to winning baseball games. 

An elite defensive team will not guarantee a team a postseason spot. In sports like basketball and football, a defense can carry a team throughout the playoffs, but in baseball, there is only so much power that side of the field has. Even with fantastic fielders, runs will still be driven in. Organizations do not target Gold Glovers the same way they target Silver Sluggers. Players who know how to handle the bat will always overshadow the players who can pick it. This is the reason why the designated hitter has become a more universally accepted position over the years. Solid hitters have just become more meaningful contributors in the eyes of most franchises.

After analyzing the defensive metrics from the 2020 season, results showed there was very little correlation between superior fielding ability and winning ball games. There are always exceptions to certain statistics as many variables are involved, but fielding percentage gives a rough overview of overall defensive play. The worst team in this category was the New York Yankees, a playoff team that had legitimate title aspirations. The best team was the Houston Astros, who finished under .500 and just barely snuck into the playoffs because of the new format. Even the World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers ranked 19th in fielding percentage.

*Check out The Broken MLB Wild Card Round for a full breakdown of the new system.

L.A. City Council to ask MLB to award Dodgers World Series trophies - Los  Angeles Times
Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

The difference between the best and worst teams for fielding percentage was .976 to .991. This disparity was approximately a 28 error separation, as the number of putouts, assists, and total chances are also calculated into this statistic. A fairly substantial gap, yet the balance between playoff teams and non-playoff teams was scattered throughout these rankings. 

In fairness to the other defensive metrics, errors can be a misleading statistic. This is because an error is based on the official scorer’s discretion and therefore, it may not truly measure a player’s ability to field properly. For instance, a middle infielder with range will create plays that can lead to a fielding or throwing error, while ordinary fielders may just let that same ball go through for a base hit, with their scorecard being protected.

To really understand the value of fielding, it is necessary to dive into the more statistical aspect of sabermetrics. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) is one of the best measures for fielding effectiveness. The top four teams in this category were all in the playoffs, including the Dodgers, but the fifth best team was the Pittsburgh Pirates. The worst team in baseball by six games in a shortened season saved the fifth most runs. It is an impressive feat, as the Pirates had 22 DRS, yet faltered at nearly every other aspect of the game.

There were more playoff teams in the upper echelon of the league for DRS, but there were also bad teams like the Pirates high up in the rankings, while more talented teams like the Yankees and Atlanta Braves struggled to save runs. The sport revolves around preventing and producing runs, but what does it say about defense when one of the best fielding teams in the sport has the worst record.

*Team Defensive Runs Saved for 2020

Numerous factors are taken into account while a general manager is assembling a roster. Obviously hitting and pitching are priorities, but aspects such as ballpark, climate, and location all play roles in determining if a team signs or trades for specific players. Even in stadiums with massive outfields, teams will probably be willing to sacrifice defense in exchange for a quality bat. There is a reason why former Gold Glove Award winners like Juan Lagares, Byron Buxton, and Brett Gardner are not playing every day. These are outfielders who save games with their efficiency with the glove, but because none of them hit at a consistent level, they ride the bench, sit in the minors, or are subjected to the bottom of the lineup. 

There are some terrible outfielders like Dominic Smith and Kyle Schwarber, who start every day without hesitation because they can rake. Matt Holliday was the epitome of this, with -47 DRS over the course of his career, but because he was almost a career .300 hitter, he played. Holliday definitely hurt his team when he was playing the field, but he was able to make the simple plays. The 2007 batting champ got the job done at his position and that is all that really matters.

Teams do not approach their trade targets and free agent prospects with defense in mind because it is not an integral part of winning games. Obviously, teams would prefer a strong defensive team, but it is never prioritized during the off-season because most positions are interchangeable, especially the outfield and open spots on a roster are usually better suited for an offensive weapon. 

There are a few positions on the diamond that require a good defensive player. Catcher, centerfield, and middle infielders are the most defensive dependent positions. The catcher is involved in every play and his catching ability is vital for not only the fielding aspect, but the pitching one too. It is one of the thinnest positions in the sport, which is why players like J.T. Realmuto, Willson Contreras, and James McCann are very high valued. Finding offensive prowess at catcher is difficult, therefore settling for a defensive catcher has become the more popular option for teams around the league.

Center field is generally the captain of the outfield, but even this position has started to become less defensively oriented. The common theory for managers now is that as long as a player knows how to play the outfield, they can throw them in anywhere. Center fielders like Kevin Kiermaier and Trent Grisham excel at what they do, but the majority of managers would choose to play a player like Michael Conforto or Wil Myers instead because of their offensive impact.

Outs Above Average (OAA) is a way to measure how many additional outs a certain player provides their team. Last season, Kiermaier had 5 OAA and Grisham had 6 OAA. It was a short season, but as a frame of reference to scale a full season Kiermaier had 17 OAA in 2019. Both him and Grisham have lower than a .250 career batting average and do not hit for much power. While both Myers and Conforto hit well over .280 with a .900+ slugging percentage in 2020. An average player would have 0 OAA, moreover is five to six additional outs really worth the decreased offensive production. A few runs get saved on defense, but how many are being lost on offense. 

To heck with the awards, Rays' Kevin Kiermaier is good as gold
Denis Poroy/Tampa Bay Times

Middle infielders are essential because they are usually the main catalysts involved during the turning of a double play. Second baseman and shortstop tend to have the most range among the infielders as they need to cover the most ground. Shortstop specifically is supposed to be the best defender on the team because the position gets the most opportunities in the field. Andrelton Simmons has been the best infielder in the sport since he debuted in 2012. Despite having a lackluster 2020 from a defensive standpoint, Simmons is still on pace to become the best fielder since Ozzie Smith. 

The legendary shortstop was a great all-around player, but his Hall of Fame status was earned in large part due to his defensive prowess. Smith owns a 44.2 Defensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which is the best in MLB history by nearly five WAR. This is a statistic that accumulates more the longer a player is in the league, but still very difficult to raise. At just the age of 30, Simmons has a 26.6 Defensive WAR, which is 14th best all-time.

The knock on him is that he is just an average hitter. Defense can only get a team so far. Simmons may be the best defensive player to ever play the game one day, but over his nine-year career, he has barely made an impact on his team’s success. He could not help the Braves go anywhere special in his first four years in Atlanta and he has not helped the Angels get any further in the season than before they acquired him. Defense can be flashy and will play crucial roles in some games, but at the end of the day, its impact is minimal in comparison to the power of a hitter or pitcher.

Replaceability is the key factor. Everyone at the MLB level knows the fundamentals of the game and will be able to field ground balls and catch pop ups at a decent enough rate. The disparity between the worst and best fielders is significant, but not an obstacle that cannot be overcome. Defense does matter, however its value only holds so much weight in terms of winning baseball games. Pitching and hitting are the primary focuses of the sport, while fielding is just “expected”. This is why players who shine on the diamond do not get the same money as the home run hitters and lights out pitchers. Fielding is important, but winning is not dependent on it. 

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