Which team had the best defensive outfield of the 21st century?

By MARK SIMON

We’ve been exploring a variety of topics related to best of the century the last couple of weeks. We’ve looked into both the best defensive players and best defensive teams.

But how about this one: Which outfield combination was the best of the 21st century?

Our metrics, which date back to 2003, can help answer that question.  Our outfield Defensive Runs Saved numbers incorporate both range and positioning (meaning the coaching staffs likely deserve some credit for putting players in the right spot), as well as their throwing arm, their home run robbing success, and their ability to make Good Fielding Plays (like cutting a ball off in the gap to prevent an extra base being taken) and avoid mistakes (like an overthrow).

Here are the team leaders in Defensive Runs Saved by Outfields Since 2003.

2005 Braves62
2007 Braves59
2014 Red Sox58
2017 Red Sox55
2016 Red Sox54
2013 Royals53

2005, 2007 Braves

One thing that emerged from creating this leaderboard was that franchises had years clumped together if they were able to keep their core stars on the roster and healthy. For example, the top two teams in Outfield Runs Saved since 2003 are the 2005 Braves and the 2007 Braves.

The common bonds here are center fielder Andruw Jones and right fielder Jeff Francoeur. Jones was an all-time great at chasing down fly balls who ranked third in the majors in Runs Saved in center field in 2005 and led the majors in that stat in 2007 (remember, he debuted in 1996 at age 19). Francoeur led right fielders in both seasons, with nearly half of his Runs Saved credited to his amazing throwing arm.

What separated the 2005 team from the 2007 team was its other outfielders. The Braves had four outfielders record at least 10 Runs Saved, with Ryan Langerhans and Kelly Johnson joining Jones and Francoeur. Langerhans saved at least three runs at each outfield position and finished with 14 Runs Saved. Johnson had 11 Runs Saved in left field. The 2007 team wasn’t quite that good, but did have Willie Harris (10 Runs Saved in left field) and Matt Diaz (7 Runs Saved in left field) to complement Jones and Francoeur.

2014, 2016, 2017 Red Sox

The second clump on this list belongs to the Red Sox, as the 2014, 2017, and 2016 teams ranked No. 3 through 5 in Runs Saved from its outfielders. If you’re going to pick solely on the stats, the highest outfield Runs Saved total actually came from the 2014 team (the one that doesn’t have Mookie Betts as a regular starter). Though Betts wasn’t there, Daniel Nava and Brock Holt combined for 20 Runs Saved in right field. Pair that with Jackie Bradley Jr.’s 16 Runs Saved in center and a group effort in left field (where Nava and Yoenis Cespedes combined for 15 Runs Saved in 81 games) and you have a pretty good group.

Putting Betts in the mix results in the 2016 and 2017 outfields rating among the best. He accounted for more than half of the outfield’s Runs Saved in each season, saving 30 runs in back-to-back years, in each case the most among right fielders.

2013 Royals

I have a feeling that if we asked people to guess which outfield had the most Runs Saved that the 2014 or 2015 Royals would have gotten the highest percentage of votes. As it turns out, their predecessor is the next team on the list.

The 2013 Royals, who went 86-76 but didn’t make the postseason, had the Royals’ top-rated outfield (and sixth-highest since 2003) when it came to Defensive Runs Saved. Left fielder Alex Gordon won a Fielding Bible Award and finished second at the position with 15 Runs Saved. Lorenzo Cain’s 17 Runs Saved in center field ranked third. He also chipped in six Runs Saved in right field. Had a multi-position award existed that year, Cain would have had a good chance to win it. He’d be the first player to take that honor when BIS added it in 2014.

The 2013 team wins out among Royals teams because David Lough helped differentiate it. Lough, in his second and last year in Kansas City, saved 13 runs between left and right field.  Though Jarrod Dyson would become an impact defender for the Royals in future seasons, his presence wasn’t enough to push the playoff teams of ’14 or ’15 above the ’13 squad.

Other teams

Five outfield groups have totaled either 51 or 52 Defensive Runs Saved: the 2013 Diamondbacks,  2017 Rays, 2008 Mets, 2019 Astros, and 2019 Dodgers.

The Diamondbacks were led by 29 Runs Saved in right field from Gerardo Parra, along with 14 from fellow right fielder Cody Ross.

The 2017 Rays had twelve outfielders record at least one Run Saved and none finish with a negative total (Kevin Kiermaier’s 22 Runs Saved led the way).

Carlos Beltran saved 17 runs in center field to pace the Mets, though not far behind was Endy Chavez, who combined to save 16 more at the corner outfield spots. 

The 2019 Astros got a group effort in the outfield, with Josh Reddick’s 11 Runs Saved in right and Michael Brantley’s 11 in left the best of the bunch.

Cody Bellinger’s 20 Runs Saved in right field steered the 2019 Dodgers to a solid spot.

Pre-2003, the 2001 Mariners could be on this list, given that they had two Gold Glove winners in center fielder Mike Cameron and rookie right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, along with veterans Stan Javier and Al Martin. Their gloves helped the Mariners to an amazing 116 wins that year.

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