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
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
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'
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
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
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