Defense has always been an important part in determining a baseball player’s value.
In recent years, however, the importance of defense has been given more weight as the data has become easier to quantify.
A player’s run prevention numbers are now getting as much weight as his run production and it’s helping major league clubs decide who to go after in the free agent market.
The success of the Kansas City Royals, who were built around pitching and defense (including three Gold Glove winners this week) have been a shining example of this trend.
I think it’s a copycat industry on some level. You have some players who are really known for their defense that are out there. It will be a true test of how the industry does value it.
Rangers GM Jon Daniels
“The game is cyclical and I do think there’s a trend in that direction,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said at the GM meetings this week. “Every five to 10 years different attributes are valued a little more highly in the industry. I think defense right now is a lot more of a focus in part because we’re able to quantify it a little more than we were.”
That includes breaking down run prevention, including a fairly new statistic known as “defensive runs saved,” which ranks players on the number of runs they saved or cost their team compared with the average player. Positive numbers are above the league average, negative numbers are below.
For instance, Rangers right fielder Shin-Soo Choo ranked No. 213 out of 216 players who played right field with a minus-11 score. Cardinals right fielder Jason Heyward, one of the year’s top free agents, led the majors with a plus-22.
“I think people just have more confidence in the analytics behind defense so it’s easier to quantify,” Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said. “Therefore, when you’re looking to square the circle and evaluating someone it’s something you can use.”
Defensive fundamentals was an early talking point during manager Jeff Banister’s first spring training with the Rangers. Texas’ defense improved in the second half as players such as shortstop Elvis Andrus, second baseman Rougned Odor and Choo overcame slow starts (defensively and offensively) to finish the regular season strong. They each finished the season below average at their position in defensive runs saved.
New Angels general manager Billy Eppler said defensive metrics aren’t outweighing production at the plate, but clubs are now more interested in finding players with a good balance.
“You’re looking for that best balance of run production and run prevention,” Eppler said. “I think it’s also what the marketplace bears, too. It kind of feels equitable to me.”
This year’s free agent market will be a good test to see how much clubs covet defense, especially in the outfield, with Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon, Justin Upton and Heyward all available. Of course, those players are known for their bats as much as their gloves.
“I think it’s a copycat industry on some level,” Daniels said. “It’ll be interesting to see this year on the free agent market. You have some players who are really known for their defense that are out there. It will be a true test of how the industry does value it.”
Stefan Stevenson: 817-390-7760, @StevensonFWST
Here’s how the Rangers stack up with the 2015 league leaders in defensive runs saved, which compares players on the number of runs they saved or cost their team compared to the average player:
Mitch Moreland, +2
Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks, +18
Rougned Odor, -7
Ian Kinsler, Tigers, +19
Elvis Andrus, -1
Andrelton Simmons, Angels, +25
Adrian Beltre +18
Nolan Arenado, Rockies, +18
Robinson Chirinos, 0; Chris Gimenez, -4
Buster Posey, Giants, +17
Shin-Soo Choo, -11
Jason Heyward, Cardinals, +22
Leonys Martin, +15, Delino DeShields, -10
Kevin Kiermaier, Rays, +42
Josh Hamilton, +1; Joey Gallo, +2
Starling Marte, Pirates, +24