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It was the spoken offseason priority. Whenever GM Ross Atkins and the Blue Jays voiced their winter needs, the term 'run prevention' was always atop the list.

It meant adding a starting pitcher and beefing up the bullpen, as most expected, but it also foreshadowed something else—a fresh commitment to fielding. The acquisitions of hurlers Erik Swanson and Chris Bassitt plugged needs in the rotation and 'pen, but newly-Jay outfielders Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho represent a shifted mentality. 

The former Ray, Kiermaier, has saved more defensive runs than any other outfielder in his 10-year career while Varsho ranked out as one of the best defenders in baseball in 2022. With Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernández out, the replacements represent a +18 defensive runs saved (DRS) improvement and embody a defensive investment the Blue Jays are hoping to see immediate returns on in 2023.

The clearest justification for Toronto's fielding upgrade is that it was the biggest area for potential growth, at least after the bullpen. The Jays ranked fourth in MLB in runs scored and ninth in rotation FIP, but the defensive numbers lagged behind. Some fielding metrics praised the Jays more than others, but Toronto ranked 29th in Ultimate Zone Rating and 21st in defensive efficiency in 2022.

Adding swing-and-miss pitching and upgrading the 'pen were also on the Blue Jays' offseason needs list. But, an improved defense helps mitigate those holes. When a ball was put in play against Toronto last year, the Jays successfully fielded it 69.1%—the lowest mark of any AL playoff team. More whiffs, therefore fewer balls in play, is certainly one way to address the issue. But better fielding helps, too, and addressing the issue at the root should help a soft-contact inducer like Bassitt.

Blue Jays Batter Additions/Subtractions This Offseason:

The WAR and defensive metrics for Toronto's offseason additions and departures

The WAR and defensive metrics for Toronto's offseason additions and departures

Good defense is also winning baseball in 2023. Each of MLB's five best teams by Defensive Runs Saved last year won their division and made the postseason, averaging over 100 wins between them. The five worst teams by DRS, on the other hand, averaged 68.8 wins. The same trend holds mostly true for OAA.

It also seems like fielding is a constant variable for success, not some blip correlation in 2022. The two best teams by DRS over the last five years have been the Astros and Dodgers—baseball's pinnacle of success on the field and in the front office. The Jays rank 18th over that time.

The 2022 Jays were a case study in the variability of offense. At times they were confounding, why weren't they playing at the level of baseball's best? Why were they 'less than the sum of their parts'? Never all firing at the same time? 

As they say, defense doesn't slump. Even if a few bats go cold or the day's starter allows a few hard-hit balls, Toronto's defense should be a consistent strength in 2023. The true core of Toronto's winning recipe will remain an elite offense and rotation upside, but with an investment in fielding the Jays have created more paths to success.