This past winter, the public noticed something that has been clear for a while: Clever operators think defense is the best value in the game.
Run down what many of the better general managers in baseball did this offseason, and you'll see they were fixated on gloves. The Red Sox's Theo Epstein brought in third baseman Adrian Beltre and center fielder Mike Cameron. The Mariners' Jack Zduriencik acquired third baseman Chone Figgins and first baseman Casey Kotchman. The White Sox's Ken Williams rejiggered his infield by trading for third baseman Mark Teahen, which allowed him to move Gordon Beckham to second base and thus improve at two positions, and signed shortstop Omar Vizquel, partly to serve as a sort of unofficial infield coach. All of these moves made good sense, yet none of them have done much to keep Boston (third in the AL East), Seattle (last in the AL West) and Chicago (fourth in the AL Central) from rating among the most disappointing in the game. All of which raises a question: Has the emphasis on defense gone too far?
To get at the answer, we first have to make a distinction that has too often been missed by people looking to hype the new Moneyball. The worth of new defensive statistics such as UZR and Plus/Minus isn't that they prove defense is good, or even that they identify good defensive players. It's that they allow teams to put a relatively precise dollar value on defense, and thus compare it to offense and pitching, which has long been more easily quantified. In other words, you don't need a spreadsheet to know that Beltre is an incredible third baseman. But having one helps if you're trying to figure out whether his incredible play is worth $5 million or $15 million.
This isn't a fad in that smart teams have suddenly noticed that it's good to have players who can catch the ball, but rather that they've noticed that a run saved is cheaper than a run driven in. Cameron, to give a concrete example, is a slightly better overall player than the Angels' Torii Hunter. Largely because his value is tied up in his defense rather than his bat, though, Cameron signed a contract this winter that will pay him less over two years ($15 million) than Hunter makes in one ($18 million this season).
To make a really sound criticism of the moves that GMs like Epstein, Zduriencik and Williams made last winter, you have to point to specific players that they could have obtained who would have given them more value for their dollars than the ones they actually acquired. Where you can do that, the point isn't that these men were dazzled by the idea of cheap defense, it's simply that they made bad calls. Williams had a good idea to spend his limited funds on improving a shoddy defense. He had a bad one in trying to do so with Teahen and left fielder Juan Pierre.
Other defensive-minded teams, though, have done better. The Rays, whose 2008 run to the World Series can be largely credited to their front office's eye for glovework, have the best UZR in the American League, with standouts such as left fielder Carl Crawford and All-Star utilityman Ben Zobrist rating particularly well. The Padres give a lot of playing time to spare parts whose value is tied up in their defense like second baseman David Eckstein and center fielder Tony Gwynn, but they have been the surprise of baseball this year, and their UZR ranks second in the National League. Teams such as the Rangers, Cardinals and even the Yankees have gone to some lengths recently to put good defenses on the field, and it's showing up both in objective rankings and in the standings.
Probably more important is that the emphasis on defense seems to be making the game a little bit crisper and more entertaining. Granting that it's early, scoring in the American League is down to what would, if sustained through the year, be its lowest level since 1992. This isn't so in the National League, where scoring is actually up since last year, but the NL is enjoying an unusual number of excellent pitching seasons, with eight starters boasting earned run averages below 2.00. Not coincidentally, five of them play for the Giants, Padres and Cardinals, teams which have made some room for defense-first players and have been rewarded with the top three spots in the league's UZR rankings.
This may be the best reason to hope that the value of a run saved in the field stays relatively low for some time to come. For a full generation now, baseball has been centered on the walk and the three-run home run. That's fine, but it's not something that shows the game at its very best or encourages players to develop the subtle skills that can make baseball so much fun to watch. Prioritizing defense first won't save a team with imploding starting pitching, or one that can't hit the ball out of the infield, or one that can't tell a good outfielder from a bad one. If it helps clear room for players more notable for soft hands than for hitting the odd opposite-field home run, or encourages teams to field the kind of players who can help turn a seeming bust like Barry Zito into a temporary ace, it will have done something quite worthwhile.