I recently had a chance to sit down with The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2010 and was completely captivated by the quality writing and analysis it contains. I cannot recommend a book more highly than this year’s THT annual. I was honored to contribute a piece on two interesting defensive developments from the 2009 season. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
Two years ago, in 2008, the Detroit Tigers were going to set the world on fire. There was talk of scoring 1,000 runs as a team, a feat accomplished only twice in the last 70 years. They were supposed to be an offensive juggernaut. They threw defense to the wind. To bolster the offense, they moved their slick-fielding third baseman (Brandon Inge) to catcher. This made room for the newly acquired basher Miguel Cabrera. At that point Cabrera already had proven with his previous team (Marlins) that he was woeful at third, but the idea was that his offense would more than make up for his defense.
That particular experiment lasted exactly 14 games.
Cabrera made five errors and lost three runs defensively in those 14 games. The Tigers then threw everything and everybody but the kitchen sink at the third base position. It was like tee-ball. (You know: Everyone gets a chance to try out at every position.) Seven different players played third for the Tigers that season, and every single one of them lost runs defensively for the club. Except Inge, the guy they could have been playing all along:
Defensive Runs Saved – 2008 Detroit Tigers Third Base
Defensive Runs Saved
This motley third-base crew lost 21 runs defensively for the Tigers, their worst defensive position in 2008.
The thing is, in 2007 the Tigers were a very good defensive club. They had 57 defensive runs saved as a team, fourth best in baseball, and they won 88 games. And third base was their strongest defensive position with 20 runs saved, thanks to Inge.
In 2008 the Tigers lost 88 games, and third base was their weakest defensive position.
In 2009 the Tigers rediscovered defensive religion. They realized that what they tried in 2008 simply doesn’t work in major league baseball. All offense and no defense doesn’t cut it. A team needs balance. Inge went back to third base, and the Tigers brought in one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, Gerald Laird, to take his place behind the plate. At shortstop, the offensive-minded but mediocre defensively Edgar Renteria was sent packing. He was replaced by the best defensive shortstop of the 21strrd century so far, Adam Everett. (That is my assessment based on my defensive metrics outlined in ! The Fielding Bible and The Fielding Bible, Volume II.)
What happened? The Tigers improved by 29 runs defensively at third base. They improved by 17 runs at shortstop. They improved their win total by 12 games and won 86 games for the season. They just missed the playoffs by losing the 163rd game of the year to the Twins, but they spent more time in first place in 2009 than any other team in the American League.
The Seattle Mariners were the most improved team in baseball in 2009. They improved their record from 61-101 in 2008 to 85-77. That’s an increase of 24 wins in one year.
The Seattle Mariners also were the most improved defensive team in baseball this past season. This is not a coincidence. They improved their Defensive Runs Saved as a team from 17 runs saved in 2008 to 109 runs saved in 2009. That’s an increase of 92 runs in one year.
The rule of thumb among stat-heads is that 10 runs is about equal to a win. Using this, we can estimate that Seattle’s defensive improvement gained the Mariners about nine additional wins in 2009 over the 2008 club. That certainly doesn’t account for the entire 24-win improvement. After all, hitting and pitching are also essential, but it does show how much defense matters. Nine games out of the 24-win gain are significant. Give any team in major league baseball 92 more runs and see how far it moves up in the standings.
How did the Mariners do it? Outfield defense is the main answer. In 2008 they had only 11 runs saved defensively from their entire outfield. Defensively, all they had was Ichiro. He split time between right field and center field. In right field he saved 15 runs defensively, but in center field he was pretty much average (-1 run saved). In 2009 the team brought in two of the best defensive outfielders in the game to join Suzuki. Franklin Gutierrez had just completed two seasons playing right field for the Indians, where he saved a total of 32 runs defensively. Endy Chavez saved 23 runs playing all three outfield positions in the previous two years for the Mets. And neither player was a regular on his team those years; neither started as many as 100 games in either season.
On the 2009 Mariners, Ichiro was moved back to right field and Gutierrez became the center fielder. Chavez didn’t play full time, but played most in left field. The results were spectacular. The outfield saved 56 runs defensively, the best in baseball.
Don’t like defense? Then you would be clueless in Seattle.
Team defensive charts accompany the article in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2010, and full defensive analysis is available on Bill James Online. (Full disclosure: THT 2010 is published by ACTA Sports.)
“Used with permission from John Dewan’s Stat of the Week®, www.statoftheweek.com.”