Previewing the Best and Worst Team Defenses for 2016

Early this morning, the full 2016 ZiPS projections went live on the site. This is probably news to many of you. Surprise! Happy ZiPS day. You can now export the full ZiPS spreadsheet from that link, find individual projections on the player pages, and view our live-updating playoff odds, which are powered by a 50/50 blend of ZiPS and Steamer. This is good news for everyone, including us, the authors, because now we have more information with which to work.

And so here’s a post that I did last year, and one which I was waiting for the full ZiPS rollout to do again: previewing the year’s team defenses. It’s been a few years running now that we’ve marveled over speedy outfielders in blue jerseys zooming about the spacious Kauffman Stadium outfield, and now those speedy outfielders in blue jerseys are all World Series champions. People are thinking and talking about defense more than ever, and you don’t think and talk about defense without thinking and talking about the Kansas City Royals. Defense: it’s so hot right now. Defense.

The methodology here is simple. ZiPS considers past defensive performance and mixes in some scouting report information to give an overall “defensive runs above or below average” projection. Steamer does the same, except rather than searching for keywords from real scouting reports, it regresses towards the data from the Fans Scouting Report project compiled by Tangotiger every year. The final number is an average of these two figures, and can be found in the “Fld” section of the depth charts and player pages. It isn’t exactly Ultimate Zone Rating or Defensive Runs Saved, but it’s the same idea, and the same scale.

Let’s look ahead toward the year in defense.

* * *

The Best

1. Kansas City Royals

This is one of my new favorite fun facts: the Royals outfield defense, just the outfield, is projected for 31 runs saved, which is higher than any other entire team in baseball. And with Alex Rios out of the mix in right field and Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando stepping in full-time, Kansas City’s outfield defense should somehow be even better than it’s been in the past.

They’ve got the highest projected right-field total. They’ve got the highest projected left-field total. They’ve got the third-highest center-field total. Oh, and every position in the infield is either average or better. Kansas City’s team defense is nearly two full wins better than the next team. Defense isn’t the reason the projections don’t love the Royals.

2. Toronto Blue Jays

You might not think of the Blue Jays as a defensive powerhouse, but they’ve got defensive stars in both the infield and outfield, and perhaps most importantly, they’ve got great defenders at the premier positions. From behind the plate to center field, they’re fantastic up the middle, and their only only weak spots defensively are where you don’t mind having weak spots: first base and the corners in the outfield.

Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson largely make up top-five projections at catcher and third base, and Kevin Pillar is at least a top-10 defensive center fielder. A perhaps underrated aspect of Toronto’s excellent defense is its bench; Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney are as good a pair of backup infielders as any in baseball with the glove. One of them will begin the season as a starter, with Devon Travis sidelined, and while his bat will be missed, the glovework will help soften the blow.

3. Baltimore Orioles

All the attention paid to the Royals’ defense has received over the past three years has perhaps overshadowed another consistently elite defense in Baltimore — the only other team with more than 100 runs saved by UZR in that timeframe.

By the projections, Manny Machado is the best defensive third baseman in the game, and he’s the leader of an all-around fantastic infield defense that projects for 22 runs saved — the best in baseball. J.J. Hardy‘s bat was borderline unplayable last year, but the glove still looks good, and he and second baseman Jonathan Schoop comprise one of the best double play combinations in the game. The outfield defense in Baltimore is certainly suspect — especially if Mark Trumbo has to play right field on a regular basis — but the infield defense is enough to keep Baltimore in the top three for now.

The Worst

28. Oakland Athletics

By now you know all about the Marcus Semien fiasco at shortstop, and while Semien did seem to improve during the year, the projections are understandably hesitant, and the A’s have the worst projected shortstop defense in the American League.

And while Josh Reddick is a bright spot in right field, the A’s still project to be below-average defensively behind the plate, at second base, third base, left field, and center field. Semien being closer to league average at shortstop could prevent the A’s from being a total disaster in the field, but an apparent lack of upside at other positions leaves the club little room for error (see what I did there?).

29. Chicago White Sox

An ever-present narrative of Chicago’s busy offseason was the quest to improve the team’s outfield defense, and thus far, it’s a quest that’s proved fruitless. The White Sox outfield was 22 runs below average by DRS last year, and 27 runs below average by UZR, and with the same group returning this year, things don’t project to be much better.

The White Sox have a bottom-three defensive projection in center and right field, and bottom-five in left field. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Chicago’s outfield, as a whole, has the worst defensive projection in baseball, and by a considerable margin. What’s worse is that the infield doesn’t look like it will pick up the slack; third base, now manned by Todd Frazier, is the only position on the team that receives an above-average projection. The White Sox should be able to hit and pitch, but if there’s one area that could prove to be their downfall, it’s likely what they do in the field.

30. San Diego Padres

The Padres held this same rank last year, and it was the main reason why the projections weren’t as high on San Diego as the hype of their active offseason might have suggested. The Wil Myers experiment in center field backfired miserably, and Matt Kemp continued to make his case for an American League-only player. By the middle of the season, Jedd Gyorko and Will Middlebrooks found themselves playing shortstop, so that’s how the infield went.

And now, here we are again. Maybe the projections are a bit harsh on Myers at first base. But Kemp is still responsible for, by far, the worst defensive rating in right field, and there isn’t a single position on the team that’s more than a couple runs above average. At least this year the expectations aren’t so high.

Most upgraded

  1. Los Angeles Angels (+30 runs from Opening Day last year) — This is what happens when you swap Erick Aybar for Andrelton Simmons. That, and Kole Calhoun has proven himself as a plus right fielder.
  2. Cleveland Indians (+28) — As Ben Lindbergh chronicled for Grantland (RIP) in September, the Indians just pulled off “the most dramatic midseason makeover we’ve ever seen.” The main catalysts being the arrival of Francisco Lindor at shortstop and the surprisingly smooth transition of Lonnie Chisenhall from third base to right field.
  3. Minnesota Twins (+28) — Last year, the Twins projected in the bottom three. This year, they’re middle of the pack. Eddie Rosario proved to be a whiz in the outfield, and Byron Buxton should step in as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. Just hold your breath when a ball is hit to Miguel Sano.

Most downgraded

  1. St. Louis Cardinals (-30 runs from Opening Day last year) — This is what happens when you lose Jason Heyward. It’s not that the Cardinals are expected to be bad defensively, they’re just not expected to be one of the best defenses in baseball, as they were last year. The outfield of Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty is suspect, and Matt Carpenter‘s transition to third base has not gone well, according to the numbers.
  2. Oakland Athletics (-26) — Covered above. Marcus Semien was worse than anyone could have expected, and going from Brett Lawrie at the hot corner to Danny Valencia and Jed Lowrie is a downgrade as well.
  3. Washington Nationals (-19) — Mostly, this has to do with Daniel Murphy at second base, where the Nationals receive the worst defensive projection in baseball. But also Jayson Werth looks worse than he did a year ago, and Ben Revere isn’t exactly known for his prowess in center field.

As a final aside, here’s the full, sortable table of projected runs saved for 2016, broken down by position:

Projected 2016 Team Defenses
Team C 1B 2B SS 3B LF CF RF Total
Royals 4 2 0 3 3 12 11 9 44
Blue Jays 4 -1 3 5 9 2 6 -2 27
Orioles 3 3 1 6 13 0 0 -2 23
Reds 0 4 5 6 0 -2 11 0 22
Rays -2 1 -2 -4 5 4 19 0 22
Red Sox 2 3 7 -2 -6 6 5 6 22
Angels 3 -2 -7 17 -2 5 1 6 21
Indians 5 4 -3 9 7 -2 0 0 20
Diamondbacks -2 7 1 6 4 -6 8 -1 18
Giants 2 7 2 6 8 -4 -3 0 17
Yankees 1 6 1 3 2 5 1 -4 14
Marlins 2 -5 2 2 2 5 0 4 12
Cubs 2 7 -2 4 2 -4 -8 8 10
Dodgers 0 8 -1 -1 -1 1 0 3 9
Astros 2 -1 -3 0 -1 0 7 2 6
Pirates 1 -2 -2 -1 -1 9 -5 6 6
Cardinals 8 3 2 -2 -5 -6 2 1 2
Twins -2 4 -1 -3 -4 7 7 -4 2
Mariners -3 -1 -2 -1 2 1 7 -1 2
Rockies -3 1 4 -9 10 3 -5 0 0
Rangers 0 3 -2 0 8 1 -5 -7 -3
Nationals 3 0 -8 1 4 -7 0 2 -6
Tigers 0 1 6 4 -11 -2 -4 -1 -7
Mets -2 0 -6 -10 -1 4 6 0 -8
Brewers 4 -3 -2 0 -3 -3 -2 0 -9
Braves -4 2 -1 -3 -4 -2 4 -3 -10
Phillies 0 -7 -5 -1 -6 0 4 4 -11
Athletics -2 3 -2 -10 -4 -3 -1 6 -12
White Sox -1 -1 -2 -2 3 -6 -7 -6 -22
Padres 2 -6 -2 -3 -3 0 1 -11 -23
SOURCE: FanGraphs depth charts


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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


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Cory Settoon
Member
3 months 2 days ago

That last sentence really sums it all up. “dfjngjkdg”

devo1d
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devo1d
2 months 24 days ago

The Royals OF is impressive, but the Giants IF at +27 is pretty crazy as well. Particularly without framing taken into consideration. Buster has been pretty good if not great there.

Orsulakfan
Member
Orsulakfan
3 months 2 days ago

With the failure of the Fowler signing, the Orioles defense in the outfield is a big question mark, aside from Jones in CF. Early reviews of Kim in LF are not enthusiastic, and who will play RF is up in the air. Fowler in RF would have made Jones better in CF, and now I am hoping that Showalter thinks of defense for that position. This would mean fewer reps for Trumbo and Davis, and probably leaves Urrutia on the outside-looking-in as well. Reimold is a great athlete, but no defensive whiz, although he has shown the ability to get on base. Rickard (Rule 5 guy from TB) is said to be good, and Dariel Alvarez has an 80 arm and solid athleticism out there, but his bat might not be ready. It will be a tough but crucial decision.

mtsw
Member
Member
mtsw
2 months 30 days ago

What will somewhat mitigate this is that OPACY has one of the smallest/easiest RFs in baseball, with a short porch and very little foul territory. If the Orioles have to have a hole anywhere on their defense, RF is a good place to.

dtpollitt
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Member
dtpollitt
3 months 1 day ago

Why are the Cubs projected to decrease so much in centerfield? Fowler was there last year and will be again this year.

formerly matt w
Member
formerly matt w
3 months 1 day ago

That -8 doesn’t signify a decrease of eight runs, it means the CF defense is projected to be eight runs below average. In the last two years Fowler has a DRS in center of -20 and -12 and a UZR in center of -21.8 and -1.7, so he’s projected to stay well below average.

soddingjunkmail
Member
soddingjunkmail
3 months 1 day ago

Indians RF at 0? It’s safe to say Lonnie won’t be as good as he showed last year in limited time, but 0?

No track record the problem?

RMD4
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RMD4
3 months 1 day ago

Why are those team projections top heavy in the positive? Shouldn’t UZR even out?

Bad Hermit
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Bad Hermit
3 months 1 day ago

This is only vaguely related to the article, but is there a place to see past season’s playoff odds? Thanks!

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
3 months 1 day ago

The Padres are just painful to watch, period.

Forrest Gumption
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Forrest Gumption
3 months 1 day ago

The A’s are right there too. If Gray gets hurt or slumps for any amount of time their very slim chances become zero. Very unimpressed with Beane’s team this year, he needed to go out and get a solid #2 who’s thrown 200 innings before, someone like Gallardo. Instead he got lottery tickets in Hill and Alvarez. The position players are just awful. So many slightly above average hitters but with no great ones.There’s not one keeper in that bunch, with the exception of Phegley but he’s a platoon catcher. When the best things you can say about a team are that they have a good platoon catcher, a bullpen that might be good and they have a solid frontline SP (who’s closer to a #2 than #1), yikes. That defense is in shambles, terrible across the board and even Reddick was not plus last year as well.

Rob Moore
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Rob Moore
3 months 1 day ago

Surprised the Dodgers score 0 at catcher, I thought Grandal was elite there.

JDX
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JDX
3 months 1 day ago

Don’t think framing is included here.

Sellys
Member
Sellys
3 months 1 day ago

I like how 85% of the Tampa and Anaheim defensive value comes from one player.

Would a defense composed of a bunch of 2 or 3 runs above average guys work out better than a defense with one defensive whiz and a bunch of below average guys?

JDX
Member
JDX
3 months 1 day ago

Probably the same overall, but with less game-to-game variance. Runs are runs, after all.

MGL
Member
2 months 30 days ago

I don’t think game to game variance is going to change no matter how the defense is distributed.

Doug Lampert
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Doug Lampert
3 months 1 day ago

Cue Royals fans complaining about the fact that the newly released 2016 playoff odds have the Royals with the worst chance in the AL of making the playoffs (10.9%, 8.3% of making it to the divisional round, 0.5% chance of repeating).

Meanwhile the Phillies are given a preseason 0.0% of making the playoffs! That feels insane, I wonder if a random component to playing time in making projections (to account for serious injuries) might not improve the accuracy of the projections. I can’t believe that the Phillies are actually so bad as to have <1/2000 chance of making even the wildcard.

rauce1
Member
rauce1
3 months 1 day ago

I’ll try and answer for the Royals fans here, re: “complaining”…

Do you think the Royals are the least likely team to make the playoffs this year? No? Ok, neither do we.

So I know some of us are super sensitive about being underestimated, etc., and it is kind of annoying that the projections don’t think we’re very good (again), but for me it’s more of a sign that sabermetrics is ever evolving and (at some point in the future) our understanding of what makes the Royals great will be improve.
Right now, the industry is struggling to -accurately- measure whatever it is the Royals are doing.

Jason B
Member
Jason B
3 months 1 day ago

Of course, this presumes that (1) the Royals *are* doing something different, and measurable, that enhances their playoff odds, and (2) adjusting all teams’ projections to correct for (whatever this thing is) results in a net improvement to the projections. Remember, if you have some new factor that should be included in the projections, or a factor that needs to be weighted more heavily, you have to adjust all 30, not just the Royals’.

SFG1
Member
SFG1
3 months 1 day ago

The best defensive team (by a wide margin), #2 in bullpen ERA, offense had by far the lowest K%, and while everyone criticizes the starting rotation, they had a playoff rotation of Cueto, Volquez, Ventura and Young. Not amazing, but far better than people seem to think.

So they catch the ball, shorten the game as well as any team, put the ball in play better than any team and had a solid rotation. It’s not rocket science. That isn’t the only way to win, but it’s one of them

tz
Member
tz
2 months 30 days ago

I have to think that the Royals defense has helped their newly acquired pitchers beat their projections, as a group.

devo1d
Member
Member
devo1d
2 months 24 days ago

If they win 90+ again this year, it’s going to be really fucking hard to view it as “statistical noise.” Four straight seasons of pretty much pooping on projections is no longer an outlier. It feels like the defense and contact is really getting missed in the projections. I hope Vegas puts them at +/- 77 wins, because that will be real fun.

LHPSU
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LHPSU
3 months 1 day ago

Does ZiPS day occur only once every 4 years?

God Albatross
Member
3 months 1 day ago

:mark buehrle’s lip reading on that A’s clip:

MikeS
Member
MikeS
3 months 1 day ago

So you are saying the White Sox are improving!

Now if they can just improve their MLB worst offense and fourth from worst baserunning. I’m a White Sox fan and I don’t really get why many people seem to think they can compete for a playoff spot this year. They can’t strike everybody out and when they don’t their fielders are not competent. They should be a little better at the plate, but until the coaching staff stops giving away outs, getting baserunners that don;t go anywhere won’t help.

witesoxfan
Member
2 months 30 days ago

They improved offensively at 3B and 2B significantly. They improved at catcher. Unless LaRoche is done, he will improve. There’s your offense. Really, that seems like 2-4 wins right there, very conservatively.

Do you understand how good Todd Frazier actually is?

Curious Gorge
Member
Curious Gorge
2 months 25 days ago

I understand he’s not as good as you think he is. He may be an improvement over what the Sox had previously, but the Sox added a guy that makes a lot of outs to an offense that makes a lot of outs. 309 OB last year, 321 OB career. Try to be rational in your analysis. For years the Sox have had problems with too many low on base guys, and they’ve done nothing to fix it.

Hyun-Jin Kershaw
Member
Hyun-Jin Kershaw
3 months 1 day ago

Could the Pirates maximize their outfield defense by moving Cutch to one of the corners mayhaps? It seems either Marte or Polanco would be at least average in center.

buctober
Member
buctober
3 months 1 day ago

Marte is easily the teams best CF. But right now, moving cutch the LF and Marte to CF wouldnt provide that much additional benefit, and you run the risk of really upsetting Cutch. Which I know shouldnt matter that much, but hes already taken a huge paycut and if you want any chance at resigning him, hes got to stay in CF, at least for now.

The Pirates have already upgraded tremendously in terms of defense by subing JHay in for No Range Neil at 2b and sliding JHK to 3b.

TampaRay
Member
TampaRay
3 months 1 day ago

What? No direct mention of Kevin Kiermaier.

earlyfan
Member
earlyfan
3 months 1 day ago

How can Kevin Pillar, who was second in the AL for the gold glove, be ranked so far down?

formerly matt w
Member
formerly matt w
2 months 30 days ago

The Jays are ranked at +6 in center field. Perhaps the projection systems regress Pillar’s rankings some because he doesn’t have a very long ML track record, but he’s ranked positively.

soupman
Member
soupman
3 months 1 day ago

the chart is interesting. it taught me that andrelton simmons probably plays for the angels now, and that kiermeirer is still with the rays.
i’m a bit dubious re: some people in positions very low in the defensive spectrum having more value than elite players at the top end of the spectrum

KenInToronto
Member
KenInToronto
3 months 1 day ago

Had a little fun with this…

Jeff Samardzjia threw 214 ip for the White Sox, let’s assume he repeats that figure with the Giants and both teams play 1458 total innings (162*9) That is 14.68% of all innings for the team. 14.68% of the 39 improvement of defensive runs saved is 5.72. Therefore, isolating this metric Jeff should reduce his ERA in 2016 by 0.24… cool!

DCE
Member
DCE
3 months 1 day ago

Joining the chorus of people nitpicking the projections… Jackie Bradley Jr has been a +15 defender in CF, making him one of the 3 or 4 best outfielders in the game. Here he is being projected to save less runs than his teammates in LF and RF… that’s an odd one

kbn
Member
kbn
3 months 1 day ago

Yeah, I’m a little confused about the JBJ projection as well. It’s probably offset by overly-optimistic Ramirez projections, and you can take the over/under on Sandoval depending on your personal persuasion, but I’d be shocked if Bradly had a UZR less than 10, and he seems more likely (in his first full season) to push closer to 20. Maybe ZiPS is just projecting a lot of playing time for Young? (which would be a defensive disaster in center, but isn’t at all outside the realm of possible)

MGL
Member
2 months 30 days ago

I’m not sure you can project any player to be a +20 defender, especially in CF, certainly not one without at least several years of full-time data.

Also, by the time you get that much data, a player is likely on the decline, as defense in the OF starts to decline early (as does all performance which requires speed and agility).

So projecting someone at +20? Nah… +15 is even a stretch.

kbn
Member
kbn
2 months 29 days ago

Kiermaier is projected as +19, and given the level of his play, that’s probably a pretty fair projection. By the eye test, JBJ has been at least as good. By old-school counting stats (e.g. errors and assists), he’s actually been *better* despite spending most of the last two seasons in the minors.

Obviously UZR and DRS are massively volatile stats, and just because I’m postulating that JBJ is a +20 defender doesn’t mean I would be surprised if he put up numbers below (or above) that mark just due to volatility. As with all projections, this is more a proxy for how strong we think that element of the player’s game is.

Damaso
Member
Damaso
2 months 30 days ago

+15 let’s him crack the top 10 defensive CF but doesn’t make him a top 5 defender in the game.

Last 3yrs CF UZR/150, min 1000in:

1.Kiermaier 1474in, +33.6
2.Dyson 1502in, +29.5
3.Lagares 2674in, +20.5
4.Hamilton 2220in, +20.4
5.Cain 2658in, +17.9
6.Fuld 1011in, +16.2
7.Pollock 2795in, +15.9
8.Bradley 1319in, +15.5
9.Pillar 1348in, +15.4
10.Gomez 3371in, +14.7

jongruber
Member
jongruber
2 months 30 days ago

Why is it that runs saved is not a zero sum stat? I assumed that the rightmost column would sum and average to 0 rather than to 188 and ~6.3 respectively. Are we comparing projected run saved totals to last year’s numbers?

Dmitry
Member
Member
Dmitry
2 months 30 days ago

Excellent chart August.. I would love to see a post hoc version of projected DRS in 2015 compared to the actual. Is this information easily accessible?

matt
Member
matt
2 months 30 days ago

Padres defense will still undoubtedly be in the negative thanks to Matt Kemp but I think Spangenberg is going to be a pleasant surprise at 2B and beat your projections, it’s understandable why a projection system isn’t high on him. Who the hell knows with Myers at 1B, Solarte has been better at 3B than 2B by UZR though DRS does have him at -3 each of last 2 years at 3B.

d_russ
Member
d_russ
2 months 29 days ago

That projection for Rays looks wonky. Negative runs at second base?

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