The 2010 Seattle Mariners were supposed to be the team to show us what defense can mean to a team. Despite their objectively poor lineup and relatively shallow pitching staff, Seattle’s defense was supposed to give them a chance to win the AL West. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and certain websites may have taken a bit of flak as a result. But don’t think for a second the model can’t work. As Seattle assistant GM Tony Blengino told us at one of our events in Arizona this year, if a team is average in every respect and great in one, they have a chance to win a lot of games.
Meet the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays. They have a 100 wRC+ and a 104 FIP-. Average pitching, and average hitting. And their record? 44-35, only two games out of the wild card race and 2.5 out of the AL East lead. And their defense? Nothing short of great.
Observe: team BABIP allowed for the 2011 season.
The Rays stand alone at the top. The gap between them and second place Boston is one point larger than the gap between Boston and 10th place Oakland. And although BABIP is often influenced by luck, particularly in half-season sample, at the team level we’re already talking about over 2,000 balls in play for every team, about four seasons worth for a single batter.
Just as the Rays are first in the simple version of Defensive Efficiency Rating (denoted by 1-BABIP), they’re also first in the slightly more complex version used at Baseball Prospectus (which adds errors to the equation) as well as their park-adjusted version of the statistic. They’re first in UZR, although some other teams are near. Not so for DRS, where the Rays’ total of +55 is nearly three times that of second place Texas (+20).
No doubt, the Rays are great at defense. And with the rest of their game at least average, the Rays stand a chance to win a bunch of games. Don’t let the failure of the 2010 Mariners fool you: the defense-heavy team model can work, and the 2011 Rays are the shining example.