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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, Tim Marchmanpersuasively argued on SI.com that the Mariners' upgraded defense had turned them from AL West laughingstock into legitimate contender, and I detailed how the Rangers are following a similar path to success in a June Inside Baseball column in SI.

Albert Chen wrote a must-read feature for SI's Baseball Preview issue about the statistical revolution that has resulted in the invention of metrics that allow us to isolate what was previously all but unknowable: the ability -- or lack thereof -- of a team's defense, and its defense alone, to prevent runs. Among the most useful (and publicly available, at the Web site fangraphs.com) of the new defensive metrics is Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which was created by the statistician Mitchel Lichtman and measures how many runs a player's defense costs or saves his team, as compared to an average player at his position.

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 (see chart below). By contrast, only three of the six are on track to score more runs than they did last year.

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 (Derek Lowe) via free agency and had its best hitter (Manny Ramirez) suspended for 50 games for PED use currently boasts the best record in the majors (59-34), and is on pace to win 19 more games than it did in '08, and might represent the NL's best chance to win the '09 World Series.

Manager Joe Torre requires only one word to summarize the impact that improved defensive play has made on his Dodgers: "Huge." Said Larry Bowa, Torre's third-base coach and a two-time Gold Glove shortstop with the Phillies, "We don't give away outs anymore. When you give teams four or five outs an inning, a lot of pitchers pitch away from contact because they don't want the ball hit on the ground because [the defenders] don't catch the ball, and it's tough to win that way. You can take all the offensive numbers you want -- I think defense is so underrated, it's unbelievable."

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 Rafael Furcal to 35 starts last year, forcing the Dodgers to replace him with a series of subpar or inexperienced defenders that included Angel Berroa, Nomar Garciaparra, Chin-lung Hu and Luis Maza. Furcal, whom the Dodgers re-signed as a free agent over the winter, has stayed healthy this season, and despite his uncharacteristic offensive woes (he's hitting .251) ranks as the sixth-best defensive shortstop in the majors, according to UZR.

Eight Dodgers received starts at second base in '08, but 40-year-old Jeff Kent got the vast majority of those (114), and he finished the season with the worst UZR (-11.8) of any second baseman in baseball. "Nothing against Jeff Kent," said Bowa, "but when you get towards the end of your career, your range declines. It's human nature. He had good hands, but the range wasn't what it was when he was coming up." Free-agent signing Orlando Hudson, a three-time Gold Glover, has solidified the position.

The Dodgers, however, have perhaps benefited most from the defensive development of 24-year-old Matt Kemp, who has in one season advanced from an average center fielder (1.3 UZR in '08) to an outstanding one; his current UZR of 11.3 ranks him behind only the Mariners' Franklin Gutierrez and Cardinals rookie Colby Rasmus. "He covers so much ground out there, and he's so athletic," Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw said. "Helps us as pitchers know that we don't have to strike everybody out, you can just let them put the ball in play, and if it's a catchable ball it's going to be caught."

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 Evan Longoria, and ranked third in the majors in ERA, due to breakout years from a number of their pitchers (Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, James Shields, J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour) -- breakout years that were, of course, connected to the team's defensive play. While an improved defense can boost a club into respectability, the teams that have it all (at least in some measure) have the best shot to emerge as bona fide contenders for a championship. The Dodgers, who in addition to their improved defense rank third in the NL in runs scored (4.92 per game) and second in ERA (3.60), look like one of those teams.

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