Welcome to the World Series of Defensive Excellence

By MARK SIMON

Despite the abundance of strikeouts, walks, and home runs, there has been plenty of outstanding defensive play this postseason and the two teams that have featured it in high volume in October will play in the World Series.

The Dodgers finished second in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved in 2020. The Rays were tied for sixth.

These are two teams that have valued defense for awhile. The Dodgers have a streak of five straight seasons ranking in the top eight in Runs Saved, including first and second the last two seasons. The Rays have four straight seasons ranking in the top seven.

So with that in mind, let’s spotlight the players who could show some type of defensive excellence in the next two weeks. There are plenty to pick from.

Mookie Betts, Dodgers RF

It was hard to figure out who to list first between the top two choices, but Betts won out. He has the most Fielding Bible Awards of anyone on our list (3 entering 2020) and he had an incredible defensive series in the NLCS against the Braves.

Betts has saved 104 runs since 2016, the most of any player in that time. Most outfielders don’t put up great numbers tracking down both shallow and deep balls but Betts does, making the shoestring catches and home run robberies.

Let’s not forget that Betts has a very good arm. He saved 8 runs with it in right field in 2018 and 2019, second at the position to Aaron Judge’s 11. He has 1 assist without the assistance of a cutoff man this season. He averaged 6 the previous four seasons. Maybe a ridiculous throw is what’s next from him.

The Rays have seen it before. He had two great ones in the same series against them last September, including this one.

Kevin Kiermaier, Rays CF

We’ve been tracking Defensive Runs Saved since 2003. Kiermaier rates No. 1 among center fielders in that time with 122. In short, he’s all-around elite and now he gets to show it on the grandest stage for the first time.

He uses his great closing speed to track down fly balls in spots that other players can’t reach. When he needs to, he’ll jump to make a play. His 36 jumping catches over the last three seasons are the most in the majors.

This season, Kiermaier’s arm was a huge part of his game. His 6 Outfield Arm Runs Saved led all outfielders, as he recorded 6 assists, 5 without the assistance of a cutoff man. Cody Bellinger got a good look at it in 2019.

Cody Bellinger, Dodgers CF

Bellinger won Fielding Bible Awards for right field and multi-positional excellence in 2019. He moved to center field full-time for 2020 and saved five runs, which isn’t quite Kiermaier territory (Kiermaier had 10) but is still pretty good.

In fact, if you look at the last three seasons, Bellinger’s just a smidge below Kiermaier in Runs Saved per 1,000 innings in center field, his 15 just short of Lorenzo Cain and Kiermaier’s 17.

Like Betts, Bellinger can get to the deep fly ball and the shallow one. As long as he’s healthy, he’s likely to make an impact. Maybe as significant as this catch.

Willy Adames, Rays SS

Adames made a huge jump from 2018 (-5 Runs Saved) to 2019 (12 Runs Saved) in his performance at shortstop. We saw firsthand the pre-game work he was putting in to make these improvements. Though Adames saved only 2 runs in the 2020 regular season, he’s sparkled this postseason, repeatedly making high-difficulty plays.

Joey Wendle, Rays 3B

What’s funny about Wendle is that he has a much better statistical history at second base (17 Runs Saved in the equivalent of just over a full season since 2018) than third base (3 Runs Saved in just under 500 innings in that time) but he’s killing it at the hot corner in October. This isn’t a surprise based on Wendle’s past. He’s been a good defensive player for a while.

“I never saw him do anything without focus and intent,” Jad Prachniak, his college baseball coach at Division II West Chester, told us a couple years. ago.

Manuel Margot, Rays OF

Margot ended up splitting his time between all three outfield positions in his first season with the Rays. He’s historically put up good, though not gaudy numbers in center field (22 Runs Saved from 2017 to 2019, which ranked 8th). His range has never been an issue. His arm has, though not this postseason.

Margot’s memorable plays in the outfield during the regular season were minimal but he showed off his range and athleticism with one of the most impressive plays of the ALCS, tumbling over a wall in foul territory while hanging onto the ball.

Kiké Hernández, Dodgers 2B

Hernández has started only three games this postseason, though that’s a product of his offensive shortcomings not his defense. Hernandez tied Nicky Lopez of the Royals for the lead in Defensive Runs Saved by a second baseman this season with 8, a year after finishing second in that stat to Kolten Wong of the Cardinals. Hernández plays a deep second base and uses his range to make plays from all sorts of odd angles.

Hernández is also the most versatile player in the postseason. At different times this season he’s played first base, shortstop, and all three outfield spots. Wherever he is, he could be a difference maker.

Hunter Renfroe, Rays OF

Like Hernández, Renfroe has made only three starts this postseason, as Randy Arozarena and Margot have supplanted Renfroe at the corner spots.

Though Renfroe finished with -1 Runs Saved in right fieldin 2020, remember that in 2019, his 23 Runs Saved in the outfield matched Bellinger’s total and trailed only Victor Robles’ 25 for most in the majors. You saw a hint of that with this catch in the ALCS.

Best of the Rest

Brett Phillips, Rays OF – Phillips may not be on the roster, but if he finds his way into a game, look out. He’s saved 24 runs in not even 900 innings for his career.

Ji-Man Choi, Rays 1B – What Choi lacks in range, he makes up for with his ability to hold the bag when stretching for throws. As we noted last week, he rates among the best throw scoopers in MLB.

Chris Taylor, Dodgers Utility – Taylor has been starting postseason games at second base and finishing them in left field. He’s capable at the former but better at the latter, with 14 Runs Saved in just under 1,000 career innings there

Austin Barnes, Dodgers C – Barnes is the better defensive catcher of the Dodgers’ two backstops. He’s a good pitch blocker and an elite pitch framer. He ranks third in Strike Zone Runs Saved on a per-inning basis the last 4 seasons. Here’s one example:

Mike Zunino, Rays C – Zunino’s eighth season was the first with a negative Runs Saved total, but we like his track record. His history of getting extra strikes and throwing out basestealers is solid and he could still impact a game with his glove.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers P – Let’s sneak one pitcher in here to close this out and we’ll make it Kershaw for his ability to stop the running game. In his last 21 postseason appearances spanning 107 2/3 innings, Kershaw has more pickoffs (2) than stolen bases allowed (1).

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