Most of the time when we focus on whether a baseball team got better in the offseason, we take a close look at its hitting or its pitching. But what about its defense?
This is a little harder to figure out, but that’s why we’re here. We’re looking forward to closely tracking defensive performance in the shortened 2020 season. We have some new methods for doing so, which you can read about here. For now, let’s focus on the question in the headline.
So who got better in 2020? Here are four teams we like to improve.
The Rays finished seventh in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved last season and built on that by crafting an outfield that will likely be very good
Tampa Bay traded for Hunter Renfroe, who played all three outfield spots well last season, saving 23 runs between the three spots. He tied Cody Bellinger for second in the majors in that stat, trailing only Victor Robles.
The Rays then made a deal with the Padres for Manuel Margot, who will probably play a corner spot since Kevin Kiermaier blocks his path in center field. Margot has saved at least six runs in each of his three seasons as a full-time player and history has shown that center fielders who move to corner spots tend to put up better numbers than they did in center.
The Rays outfield finished with 12 Runs Saved last year, which ranked 11th in the majors (the outfield ranked in the top four in each of the previous four seasons). If their regulars stay healthy, this could be a top-five defensive outfield again.
The Dodgers don’t look much different in the field than they did last season with one exception, and what an exception it is in three-time Fielding Bible Award winner in right field, Mookie Betts.
The Dodgers were already great in right field with Cody Bellinger there in 2019. But Betts’ acquisition allows Bellinger to move to center field, where the Dodgers recorded 2 Runs Saved (in other words, basically average). Bellinger has 11 Runs Saved in just under 700 career innings there. You might see highlight-reel plays on a nightly basis with Bellinger and Betts playing at the same time.
This one comes with some qualifications:
If Josh Donaldson is as good as he was last season (15 Runs Saved at third base, third-most in MLB)
And if Miguel Sano takes to first base alright (he’s played 223 innings there)
And if Mitch Garver maintains the improvements he made from 2018 to 2019 without last year’s catching coach there to help him (Garver went from -17 Runs Saved to 1 Run Saved under the guidance of Tanner Swanson, who is now with the Yankees)
And if Byron Buxton is healthy for almost a full season, like he was in 2017 (he played 137 games in center then, saving 23 runs, but played only 113 the last two years).
Than the Twins should be a considerably improved defensive team. They finished with three Runs Saved last season and still have issues in their middle infield, but they have pieces in place to be better than average in 2020.
At catcher, the Pirates have made Jacob Stallings their everyday guy. One of the reasons driving that is that Stallings showed himself to be a valuable defender, saving 14 runs in 463 innings last year. He rated above-average at pitch framing, pitch blocking and limiting opponents’ stolen bases (he caught 7-of-19 attempting against him and picked off three others).
They’ve also gained considerably at that spot by replacing Elias Diaz behind the plate with Luke Maile. Diaz had a worst-in-MLB -21 Runs Saved last season and was one of the game’s worst pitch framers. Maile’s specialty is pitch framing. He’s saved 20 runs as a backup the last four seasons. He’s fifth in Runs Saved per 1,000 innings in that span (among catchers who have played at least 1,000 innings).
The Pirates also look to have gained defensively by trading Starling Marte to the Diamondbacks. That sounds a little odd given that Marte was an excellent left fielder, but that success didn’t translate to center field, where he cost the team seven runs the last two seasons.
The more the Pirates play Jarrod Dyson in center field, the better their defense should be, so long as Dyson doesn’t get old fast.
That means having to live with Dyson’s limited offensive game. Dyson has saved 62 runs with his defense the last five seasons. Just over half of those Runs Saved (34) have come in center field. He’s averaging nearly 14 Runs Saved per 1,000 innings there in that time, and has fared even better when he plays the corners (as most outfielders do).
The Pirates also added J.T. Riddle, who saved 12 runs at shortstop for the Marlins in 2018. He played mostly center field in limited MLB time last season and was out with a forearm strain in the second half of the season. He’ll probably be in a utility role for this team.
All these additions do shore up some defensive weaknesses, but the Pirates have a long climb up (as they do in other areas too). They finished 24th in Defensive Runs Saved in 2019.