By MARK SIMON
All statistics through Saturday’s games
I received a tweet recently that asked if I could demonstrate the difference between the team with the most Defensive Runs Saved (the Diamondbacks with 120) and the team with the fewest (the Phillies with -102).
It seemed a reasonable question to wonder – can the difference between the two be more than 200 runs? We wouldn’t question the best and worst teams being that far apart in terms of their offense or their pitching. But for defense, we don’t have as good a feel for the value of certain statistics.
It’s important to note that when we give a team’s DRS total, that represents the sum of their players’ DRS. It’s not a value solely assigned to the team, but rather the accumulation of many values.
With that in mind, let’s go through a few notable positions around the diamond.
Catcher: Diamondbacks 21 DRS, Phillies -9 DRS
Differential: 30 Runs
This is a substantial gap. It’s one of the biggest differentials we’ll see.
The Diamondbacks are unusual in that they have three catchers, each of whom has been outstanding by SIS’ defensive metrics.
Jeff Mathis leads all catchers with 12 Defensive Runs Saved. Alex Avila has 6. John Ryan Murphy has 3. Mathis rates near the top in our Strike Zone Runs Saved metric, and Murphy is right there with him. The three have combined for 13 Strike Zone Runs Saved in that stat.
Mathis also excels at blocking pitches, with five runs saved there. He ranks second in our pitch-blocking stat, successfully blocking 97 percent of pitches in the dirt.
Meanwhile Philadelphia’s primary catchers, prior to their acquisition of Wilson Ramos, Andrew Knapp (88 percent) and Jorge Alfaro (86 percent), ranked fourth-worst and worst respectively in that stat.
Mathis, Murphy and Avila have combined for 940 pitch blocks and 54 wild pitches and passed balls.
Knapp and Alfaro have combined for 490 and 74.
Similarly, the Arizona trio has recorded 109 more strikes than expected for their pitchers based on pitch location, batter handedness and count.
Alfaro rates well at this, but Knapp does not. Together, they’ve combined to cost their pitchers 15 strikes.
Also Alfaro’s success catching runners stealing is negated by Knapp’s struggles in that area. And Alfaro has significant issues with bunt defense to where it’s cost the Phillies four runs.
This is why they got Ramos.
Shortstop: Diamondbacks 18 DRS, Phillies -14 DRS
Differential: 32 Runs
The Diamondbacks have one of the game’s best shortstops in Nick Ahmed, whose 17 DRS top the leaderboard.
What makes Ahmed great is that he can go deep into the shortstop-third base hole to make plays that are difficult for other shortstops to make, either due to skill or positioning. The Diamondbacks have turned 74 percent of ground balls hit between second base and two-thirds of the way to third base into outs in an unshifted defense (mostly by Ahmed). Within that same area, the Phillies have converted 68 percent.
For the Diamondbacks, the differential is nearly 30 extra plays made. And that doesn’t factor in other things Ahmed does well, like catch line drives and pops and turn the double play. And it doesn’t factor shifts (which we’ll get to).
The Phillies have three shortstops who have cost the team four runs apiece: Scott Kingery, who rates well below average in the short-third hole, and J.P. Crawford and Pedro Florimon, who are both below average fielding balls hit up the middle. They’ve since turned the position over to Asdrubal Cabrera.
Shifts: Diamondbacks 29 DRS, Phillies -9 DRS
Differential: 38 Runs
Much has been made of the Phillies’ struggles on shifts, but less known is that the Diamondbacks get the most value from their shifting of any team in baseball. It’s this simple:
The Diamondbacks convert 80 percent of ground balls and short line drives into outs when in a shifted defense. The Phillies convert 70 percent. The difference is about 50 extra plays converted by the Diamondbacks to this point in the season, without even looking at whether those balls are singles or doubles.
Center Field: Diamondbacks 15 DRS, Phillies -9 DRS
Differential: 24 Runs
The Diamondbacks’ 15 runs come from Jarrod Dyson, Chris Owings and A.J. Pollock and in each case, the key element is catching fly balls hit to the deepest part of the park (Arizona’s total would be higher if not for Pollock’s -5 DRS on throws). The key point to remember is that when those catches are made, the balls they’re snagging would be doubles and triples.
Meanwhile Odubel Herrera (-10 DRS) is having issues on a ball he’s never had before: the one hit to shallow center field. Per Statcast, Herrera is playing at an average depth of 323 feet this season, seven feet deeper than he typically plays. He’s trading off balls falling in front of him for making catches on deep balls.
But it’s been a net negative. He’s cost the team 11 runs on range and positioning. The Diamondbacks play their center fielder deeper than any other team’s center fielder at Chase Field. And for them, it works.
Consider this: Let’s take the area 45 feet to left center and 45 feet to right center from straightaway center field.
On balls hit at least 360 feet to that area, the Diamondbacks convert 67 percent of balls that stayed in the park into outs. The Phillies convert 60 percent. Without factoring exact hit probabilities, that’s about a dozen more doubles and triples spared, just on balls hit to those spots.
Pitchers: Diamondbacks 11 DRS, Phillies -15 DRS
Differential: 26 Runs
A gap of 26 runs is sizable and is explained thusly: Zack Greinke, Patrick Corbin and Zack Godley, who have combined to save 13 runs, are all adept athletes, who put themselves in position to succeed with their follow-throughs and make more plays off the mound than most.
The Phillies have only one pitcher above average in that regard: Enyel De Los Santos. He’s pitched 12 innings.
That accounts for more than two-thirds of the differential. The rest comes from pitcher responsibility for stolen bases (the Phillies have allowed 40 more, but have only six more caught stealings).
Those positions (and shifting) account for 150 runs of the differential. The other spots on the diamond are more of the same. In short, the Diamondbacks are really good. The Phillies have performed poorly. And the difference between them is pretty large.