Which middle-infield defensive combo is best in the DRS era?
By MARK SIMON
After looking at where the Athletics’ corner info combo stacked up against others in the Defensive Runs Saved era (since 2003), it made sense to continue the theme and look at middle-infield combos to see which ones ranked best.
In terms of having a current interest, a logical question would be whether the 2019 Cardinals combination of Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong is the top one, given how good they were last season.
Let’s use Defensive Runs Saved to take a look. We’ll do it slightly differently from our look at corner infields in that we’ll look at specific players rather than overall team performance.
2017 Angels – Andrelton Simmons and Danny Espinosa (49 Runs Saved)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Angels end up here given that they have the player selected the top defender of the 21st century. The 2017 season was Andrelton Simmons’ best year. He saved 40 runs with his defense, the most that any player has had in a season since 2003, the first season that the stat tracks.
All Simmons needed was a good second baseman for this combination to end up at the top and he had that, at least for a little while in Danny Espinosa, an infielder with a good defensive reputation who saved nine runs in 71 games playing second base there.
2008 Phillies – Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley (48 Runs Saved)
The Phillies won a World Series in 2008 with this revered pair manning the middle infield. Chase Utley’s 30 Runs Saved match the most that a player has had at the position in a season (Craig Counsell also saved 30 runs at second base in 2005). The most important run Utley saved that year didn’t count in his stats – it came on a play in Game 5 of the World Series.
The 18 runs saved by Jimmy Rollins led shortstops that season, equaled his career high and turned out to be his peak (he’d never save more than six runs at shortstop after that). Regardless, he’s held in high regard. Arguing that this season’s work is one of the best middle-infield defensive combos of all-time isn’t that much of a stretch.
2019 Cardinals – Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong (45 Runs Saved)
It’s a case of close but not quite for the Cardinals top infielders last season. Nonetheless, Kolten Wong saved 19 runs and won his second straight Fielding Bible Award at second base. Paul DeJong’s 26 Runs Saved tied Javier Báez for the MLB lead at shortstop and brought to light that he deserved to be mentioned when discussing some of the game’s top defenders at the position.
2007 Blue Jays – John McDonald and Aaron Hill (45 Runs Saved)
This is probably one you wouldn’t have guessed (unless you’re from Toronto), but it’s worth noting because this is the only instance of a team having a shortstop and a second baseman who each had at least 20 Runs Saved in a season.
Shortstop John McDonald had 23 in 102 games, the most he played at that position in his career. McDonald is now the Indians’ Field Coordinator after previously working as the organization’s Defensive Coordinator. Hill had back-to-back seasons of 26 and 22 Runs Saved in 2006 and 2007 but was never able to quite return to that level again. Nonetheless, he had a solid 13-year career in the big leagues, starring both in Toronto and Arizona.
2007 Rockies – Troy Tulowitzki and Kaz Matsui (45 Runs Saved)
Strong middle-infield defense played a role in the Rockies’ incredible late-season run that culminated with a trip to the World Series. This year was Troy Tulowitzki in peak defensive form (31 Runs Saved) and Kaz Matsui performing at a level he hadn’t reached before or since, with 14 Runs Saved. Tulowitzki, who wore No. 2 as a tribute to Derek Jeter, excelled at fielding the ball in the shortstop-third base hole that year at a level that was tough to match. And let’s not forget he turned an unassisted triple play (albeit on a relatively easy play)!