What have we learned about defense so far?

By MARK SIMON

Defense in total is better this season.

Entering Monday, the MLB ground ball & bunt out rate was 75.5%. It has been 73.8% in 3 of the last 4 full seasons. Put that it terms of batting average (or reached base average) and it’s the equivalent of going from .262 to .245.

Similarly, the out rates on balls hit in the air that stayed in the ballpark have gone from 65.5% overall (and 58% on those hit to the outfield) from 2017 to 2019 to 67.7% and 60.3% in 2020.

We can put it in big bold type. This is THREE SEASONS of data versus 2.5 WEEKS. But it’s interesting because there are unusual blips, especially in July and August when hitters normally thrive.

What can we tell from looking at some of the defensive numbers so far? Maybe we can’t predict anything, but we can give an assessment of what has happened and these are the things that stand out.

The Dodgers are good, no surprise

It was only a handful of days before the Dodgers moved to the top of the Defensive Runs Saved team leaderboards. This isn’t shocking. The Dodgers were the best defensive team in baseball last season, returned almost everyone, and added a defensive superstar in right fielder Mookie Betts.

The Dodgers defense has saved 11 runs, the most in the NL and tied with the Twins for second-most in the majors behind the Indians (13).

Three Dodgers have already saved at least 4 runs, including two of their most versatile players – Kike Hernandez (5), Chris Taylor (4), and Betts (4). Betts has already shown he can handle the right field corner at Dodgers Stadium in the same way he handled it at Fenway Park and that he has one of the best outfield arms in the game.

Ground Ball Gobblers

The Dodgers rank third in the majors in ground ball & bunt out rate at 81%. They trail the Cubs (85%) and the Indians (82%). The Indians lead the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. The Cubs would be right there if not for the struggles of Ian Happ in center field (-5 Runs Saved).

The Cubs are among the teams that have significantly increased their rate of using defensive shifts. They ranked next-to-last in overall shift usage against balls in play in 2019 (5.5 per game) but are at 12.3 in 2020 (even with that increase, they still rank 23rd).

Another team that has dramatically changed its infield defense approach is the Tigers who have increased their shift usage by 80% from 2019 and now rank second in shifts on balls in play per game (16.9).

The Tigers’ ground ball out and bunt out rate in those shifts is nearly 85%. They’ve turned potential hits into humdrum ground outs.

The Tigers ranked last in MLB in turning ground balls into outs last season at 70%. They’re at 78% overall in 2020.

By the way, shifts are up 29% measuring the beginning of the season against 2019.

The top five teams in shift usage are the Dodgers, Tigers, Twins, Mariners, and Braves.

The bottom five are the Rockies, Mets, Padres, Yankees, and Athletics.

Hunting Flies

Looks like Byron Buxton is healthy again. He’s already got 4 Runs Saved in center field for the Twins, with a ledger that includes this running catch against the Padres.

Not to be outdone, Kevin Kiermaier continues to do his thing in center field for the Rays.

The two of them stand atop the centerfield leaderboard lead and figure to battle it out all season for both the AL Gold Glove and our Fielding Bible Award. The Twins head the leaderboard for Runs Saved by outfielders with the Rays and Orioles just behind them.

On the other end of things, the Mets outfield has cost the team 9 runs this season, the worst total in MLB. Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto share equally here, each having been dinged for 4 runs in center field and right field, respectively. They’re each one run off the MLB basement (shared by Happ and Rays catcher Mike Zunino).

The Giants have some problems

Did you see Hunter Pence lose a fly ball in the sky, a play that ended Johnny Cueto’s no-hit bid in the sixth inning on Saturday?

That play was somewhat symbolic of the Giants’ season so far. They’ve committed 44 Defensive Misplays & Errors*, the most in the majors this season.

Second baseman Donovan Solano has the most with 7, though he’s made up for that by hitting .455 with 14 RBI in 15 games. Catcher Tyler Heineman has 6, including 3 errors. Shortstop Brandon Crawford has five, though that’s partly offset by 5 Good Fielding Plays.

The Rays and Royals are tied for second with 40 Misplays & Errors. They’ve got some things to be concerned about on that front too.

* SIS tracks Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays & Errors. There are more than 60 categories of Defensive Misplays & Errors, including slipping and falling, overthrowing the intended target, and failing to complete a double play in a situation in which is was possible to record one. They also include wild pitches and passed balls.

There are about 30 categories of Good Fielding Plays, which include variants of what many people know as Web Gems, but also include cutting off balls to prevent extra-base advancement, and turning a double play with a runner bearing down on you.  

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