In praise of the defense, which is better than ever

Tuesday September 10th, 2013

Jose Iglesias has been a notable upgrade at shortstop for the postseason-bound Tigers.
Paul Sancya/AP

You might look back on either the 1930s or the Steroid Era as the glory days of hitting, or either the Deadball Era or the 1960s as the height of pitching, but when it comes to defense, there can be no debate: It has never been better in the major leagues than it is today.

If you want quick confirmation from the numbers, satisfy yourself in knowing that fielding percentage (.985) is at an all-time high and errors per game (0.57) are at an all-time low, bettering the record rates set in 2009 (.984 and 0.59, respectively). Both the Orioles (41 errors) and the Rays (54) are likely to break the record for fewest errors in a season (65, by the 2003 Mariners).

(One disclaimer: anecdotal evidence suggests that official scoring never has been more forgiving. Sometimes it seems as if a fielder needs to absolutely butcher a play to be charged with an error. That said, I don't think that that forgiving trend happened overnight this year.)

So if defense has indeed never been better, why is that? And what does it tell us about which contenders have the defense to win the World Series? Did the PED-using Jhonny Peralta, for instance, do a favor for the Tigers with the shortstop's 50-game suspension, which forced the trade for Red Sox defensive wizard Jose Iglesias? Can teams like Detroit win a title with a below-average defense? The answers may be surprising.

Let's begin with something else that never has been better: field conditions. With the exception of the A's, no club in MLB shares a field with an NFL team. (Our culture has become so sports-obsessed that we won't stand for the indignity of pro teams having to share one facility.) Also, most teams now drag and rake their infield two or three times a game, rather than just once. When John Schuerholz took over as Braves GM after the 1990 season, his first hire was not a player or executive but a groundskeeper to upgrade the notoriously poor Fulton County Stadium field. Atlanta promptly went from dead last in MLB in defensive efficiency (a measurement of how often a team turns batted balls into outs) to third. Even notoriously tricky infields such as those at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field have been rebuilt and re-graded in recent years to pristine conditions.

Remember, too, that defenders don't have to make as many plays these days because the strikeout rate has been on the rise for the last six years. For instance, there have been 309 occasions in which a defender piled up 500 assists in a season. But in the past six years, it's happened only once -- by Baltimore shortstop J.J. Hardy, who had 529 assists (113th all-time) in 2012.

Better fields and fewer balls in play help, but fielders are also just better today than ever before, probably because of better gloves, better training, more scouting report data on opposing hitters and the proliferation of video and highlights. Teams no longer have to fill the shortstop spot with compromised defenders the way the Dodgers did with Jose Offerman, the last player to make 40 errors in a season (42 in 1992), and the inspiration for the joke, How do you spell Offerman? Two Fs and 40 Es.

Hall of Famer Robin Yount once made 44 errors at shortstop, in 1975, and Joe Cronin, another Hall of Famer at that position, made 62 errors in 1929.

Nobody gets even close to those numbers any more. Even the worst fielders are very good. This year, only one shortstop has made even 20 errors -- Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox, who has 21. If you take a look by decade at how many shortstops have made 30 errors in a season, you can get an idea of just how much defense has improved:

1970s: 37
1980s: 19
1990s: 9
2000s: 4
2010s: 1

Imagine trying to pick a Gold Glove third baseman in the AL. Nobody is better than the Orioles' Manny Machado. But Evan Longoria of Tampa Bay and Adrian Beltre of the Rangers may be just as good. All of them are superlative, but only one of them can win the Gold Glove. And it's a shame that years from now people might talk about one of them as having won "only" a certain number of Gold Gloves -- as if they were inferior.

Defense has become so much improved across the board that I'm not sure there is a bad defense out there. The Astros are the worst team this year at turning batted balls into outs, with a .678 defensive efficiency. But even that rate is better than those of 27 other teams from the past eight years.

This year, the Reds have the best defense in baseball by most measurements, as well as by reputation. If I were to rank the best defenses among the contenders, I would list the top five this way: 1. Cincinnati, 2. Atlanta, 3. Tampa Bay, 4. Baltimore, 5. Pittsburgh.

But what does that mean? Are the best defensive teams more likely to go to the World Series? Great defensive teams once enjoyed a significant edge at winning championships, but that edge has been muted now that defense has improved across the board.

For instance, among the 14 World Series teams from 2004-2010, 13 of them ranked in the top 10 in MLB in defensive efficiency. The worst team in that span was the 2009 Phillies, who ranked 12th.

Yet three of the past four World Series teams have been below average, or way below average, on defense: the 2012 Giants (17th), the 2011 Cardinals (23rd) and the 2012 Tigers (26th).

Defensive metrics are less absolute than offensive metrics, but by any measure the 2012 Tigers were not a good defensive team. In addition to ranking 26th in defensive efficiency, they ranked 20th in fielding percentage, 25th in defensive runs saved above average and 30th in total zone runs above average. And yet they won the American League pennant. They proved you don't need a great defense to get to the World Series.

This year Detroit better on defense with Iglesias replacing Peralta, who is eligible to return from his 50-game PED suspension when the postseason begins. But the sample size just isn't large enough yet for Iglesias to have made a big impact on the numbers. He should especially help ground-ball starting pitchers Rick Porcello and Doug Fister, but both hurlers actually have much higher batting averages on balls in play since Iglesias arrived on Aug. 2 than they did before (Porcello .341-.310 and Fister .373-.310). The team ERA was 3.66 before Iglesias and it is 3.91 since.

Iglesias can make plays Peralta can't, and in the ultimate small sample experiment that is the postseason, one impact defensive play could make the difference between a win and a loss. So yes, regardless of numbers, Iglesias should remain the Detroit shortstop in the postseason. He does give the Tigers a better chance of winning. But if someone tries to tell you the Tigers are doomed to fall short of their first title since 1984 because they have a "lousy" defense, just keep in mind that they won a pennant last year with a worse defense than what they have now, and that the quality of defense across all of baseball has improved so much that even Detroit's D is good enough to win.

People like to complain about a slippage in the quality of play -- that hitters don't know how to bunt any more, that pitchers get forced into the majors before they know how to pitch, that outfielders don't have strong arms like they used to, that runners don't know how to run the bases, or that expansion has watered down the competition . . . It's almost all baloney, but such complaints feed our sense of nostalgia. When it comes to defense, though, there is no room to complain. It's better than ever.

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