Players who made notable improvements to their defense in 2020

By MARK SIMON

Sixty games of a baseball season doesn’t give you a complete picture, but it does allow for preliminary reads on certain topics.

When it comes to evaluating defense, we can try to make judgements but we need to put up a caution that 60 games is not 162 and thus we must tread carefully.

But we can still investigate questions such as:

Who were the most improved defensive players from 2019 to 2020?  

If nothing else, it tips us off to some players whose defense we need to watch closely in 2021.

To try to figure that out, I compared numbers from the two seasons – the Defensive Runs Saved per 1,000 innings for players who played at least 500 innings in the field in 2019 and 250 innings in 2020.

The results come out a bit weird. Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart tops the list, going from 5 Runs Saved per 1,000 in 2019 innings to 32 per 1,000 and an NL Gold Glove in 2020. Nolan Arenado was also among the leaders.

That doesn’t quite fit the spirit of what we’re looking for.  So I’m going to cherry pick and look specifically for players who turned negative defensive numbers into positive ones, and select the most interesting names from the list.

J.P. Crawford, Mariners SS

“I made all the routine plays. Making the cool plays is awesome. The ones that tear me down are routine errors. Everyone remembers you for cool plays … but this year I finally made the routine plays and it paid off.”

That was J.P. Crawford on the conference call after winning the AL Gold Glove at shortstop for 2020. Crawford went from -5 Runs Saved at shortstop in 2019 to 7 Runs Saved in 2020.

And Crawford wasn’t kidding about the routine plays. In 2019, he averaged a Defensive Misplay & Error every 27 innings. In 2020, he averaged one every 57 innings.

J.P. Crawford – 2020 Season

SeasonGood Fielding PlaysDefensive Misplays & Errors
20191630
2020118

Add Crawford to the list of infielders made better by famed infield coach Perry Hill. Educated guess that he had Crawford improve on going to his right, because that’s where the statistical difference showed up most. His ability to get outs on balls hit in the shortstop-third base hole like this nifty play (with a little help from fellow Gold Glover Evan White) made a notable numerical impact.

Omar Narváez

If we’re going to give props to coaches, giving them to Charlie Greene and Walker McKinven with the Brewers for the work they did with Omar Narváez (as detailed at MLB.com).

These are Narváez Runs Saved totals encompassing pitch framing, pitch blocking, and other Good Fielding Plays a catcher can make.

SeasonDRS (Framing, Blocking, GFPs)
2017-6
2018-11*
2019-13*
20203

* -24 combined in 2018 and 2019 ranked last among MLB catchers

Narváez’s issue with framing in 2019 was that he caught pitches with momentum that took them out of the strike zone, like this one.

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=ac6d804a-29c1-43dd-a701-459e322e2505

Or this one

But in 2020 Narváez got better results on pitches like this one, an example of how its best to catch a pitch on the way up than on the way down.

Narváez went from getting called called strikes on pitches within an inch of a strike zone edge 37% of the time in 2019 to 48% in 2020.

As for pitch blocking, there was improvement there within a small sample too.

 Pitch BlocksOpportunitiesBlock Rate
201938543688%
202010911694%

César Hernández, Indians 2B

We covered this one near the end of the regular season detailing how Hernandez went from defensive liability with the Phillies to ground ball gobbler for the Indians.

Hernandez had a propensity to have ground balls bounce off his body and ricochet out of reach, leading to errors and Defensive Misplays, of which he totaled 40 in 2019. In just about a full season in 2020, he had only eight Misplays & Errors, and kept the ball in front of him with much greater frequency. In turn, he went from costing his team three runs to saving them six.

José Abreu, White Sox 1B

We also touched on this one as Abreu’s MVP candidacy developed.

Plays like that resulted in Abreu making a big statistical jump in handling balls hit to his right and an overall improvement from costing his team 8 runs in 2019 to saving them 4 in 2020.

Others to know

There were multiple shortstops to pick from. Tim Anderson has shown a tendency to make a lot of mistakes at shortstop for the White Sox, but he’s also shown that he can overcome them. His Runs Saved total has bounced around from 3 (2016) to -22 (2017) to 6 (2018) to -12 (2019) to 3 (2020). Like Crawford, the improvement in 2020 came on balls hit to his right. He’ll show a truer improvement in the field if he can string together another good season.

We can also mark Fernando Tatis Jr. specifically for cutting some of the reckless throws he made in 2019 -3 Runs Saved) out of his game in 2020 (1 Run Saved). Tatis has shown a propensity for making the dazzling play. He’s still young and refining his game and it’s logical to think other improvements will come.

At third base, Rio Ruiz of the Orioles bettered himself from 2019 to 2020, going from costing the Orioles 5 runs to saving them 2 in about half the playing time. Honorable mention at catcher to his Orioles teammate Pedro Severino, who had similar improvements in blocking and framing as Narvaez in boosting his Defensive Runs Saved total from -13 to -1 in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Lastly, in the outfield, once we got past position switches (Jurickson Profar) and outfielders with good numbers but inconsistent bad-good histories (Michael Conforto, Eddie Rosario) Ramón Laureano’s improvement stood out. The improvements he made at catching deep fly balls in center field paid off (as we just wrote about). He went from costing the Athletics 3 runs in the outfield to saving them 5. Honorable mention to Clint Frazier, though he didn’t meet the 2019 innings requirement. Frazier went from -8 Runs Saved in 2019 to 2 in 2020 and looked much more comfortable than he did previously.

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