Defensive improvement pays off -- especially for the Dodgers
A number of writers, at SI and elsewhere, have recently discussed how a quick and cheap way for a major league team to improve its fortunes from one season to the next in this (presumably) Post-Steroid Era is to revamp its defense. In April,
Now that the 2009 season is well into its second half, it has become clear that improving defensively is not only a relatively easy way for a team to rapidly jump into contention: it might now be the most popular way. Six MLB teams -- the Mariners, Rangers, Tigers, Giants, Rockies and Dodgers -- are currently on pace to win at least 10 more games than they did in 2008, and every one of those teams has benefited from an upgraded defense, as measured by UZR. For five of those teams -- all except the Rockies, whose overall defense projects to save 10.1 more runs than it did in '08 -- the upgrade has been significant
The Mariners, Rangers, Tigers, Giants and Rockies all finished below .500 last season, and while their newfound defensive efficiency has allowed each of them to remain firmly in their respective divisional and wild-card races, they all appear to possess flaws that will preclude them from sustaining runs deep into October. The Dodgers, though, are different.
The Dodgers were already a very good team last season, when they won the NL West and advanced to the NLCS despite an exceptionally bad defense: Their overall '08 UZR of -48.0 was the National League's worst. This season the Dodgers' UZR stands at 0.2 -- essentially average, yes, but an improvement that constitutes a major reason why a club that lost one of its top two starting pitchers (
The Dodgers' defensive renaissance has sprung primarily from three positions, up the middle of the diamond: shortstop, second base, and center field. A back injury limited shortstop
Eight Dodgers received starts at second base in '08, but 40-year-old
The Dodgers, however, have perhaps benefited most from the defensive development of 24-year-old
Dodgers players and coaches believe that their newly stingy defense has not only allowed them to prevent runs on the whole, but also to prevent them when it matter most: in tight ball games. "When it comes down to close games, that's when you really notice it," Kershaw said. "The sure-handed teams seem to win those close games." L.A. is a remarkable 19-9 in games decided by one run.
Last season's Tampa Bay Rays are usually -- and justifiably -- viewed as the model of a club that rode a substantially improved defense to an unexpected postseason berth. Those Rays, as we now know well, had the worst cumulative UZR in the majors in '07, and the best in '08. However, they were also an above-average offensive club, thanks in large measure to the unexpected contributions of then-rookie