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Exploring some strong defensive starts

By AUSTIN LEONARD

Good defense is quite fun to watch and inherently difficult to quantify, as there’s often a gap between a player’s ability to make highlight plays and his true defensive talent.

At Sports Info Solutions, we have ways of working around this. The most prominent of these is our Defensive Runs Saved statistic, which attempts to quantify how many runs a defender has prevented (or cost his team) with his fielding acumen.

Along with this we have Good Fielding Plays (GFPs) and Defensive Misplays (DMs) which use the eye test to track Web Gem-level plays (and goofs), as well as solid fundamental plays like keeping a hard-hit grounder in the infield to prevent an advancement (or allowing an advance with an ill-advised throw, or some other blunder).

Another tool you’ll see referenced here is our play difficulty scale, in which our game watchers (whom we call Video Scouts) rank every play from 1 (routine) to 5 (impossible).

With those metrics in mind, we can get a bit more of an objective take on defense. Of course, defensive numbers are notoriously volatile, and often take multiple seasons to stabilize, giving this entire article a giant disclaimer: we’re working with a super-small sample size here, and these numbers could easily look completely different in just two weeks, let alone at the end of the season.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s examine four players who are excelling in the field.

Tommy Edman, 2B/RF, St. Louis Cardinals  

Edman leads all players with 11 GFPs this year, which is three more than any other non-first baseman (first basemen tend to have more than other positions because of the number of throws they scoop).

What’s made Edman’s season so interesting is that he’s been above-average defensively at both second base and right field, posting a positive DRS at both positions. The versatile Edman has played at least one game at every position besides pitcher and catcher in his career, and he’s been at least league average at all of them.

Edman’s defense is mostly powered by his impressive range at both spots, which you’ll see in his highlight reel below. But there’s more to it than that – By his DRS splits, 2 of Edman’s 4 Runs Saved at second base have been attributed to what he’s done after he fielded the ball (throws, base tags).

If you look at the individual components of his DRS, you can find some (addressable) flaws. At second base, he’s converted 8-of-17 of his double play opportunities, including 3-of-9 opportunities as the pivot man.  In his debut season, Edman converted 22 of 25 double play chances overall, but has only done 10-of-22 since.

In the outfield, he’s allowed 4-of-7 baserunners to advance on base hits he’s fielded. That subtracts a run of value from his DRS total for now.

Edman’s range and fielding capability have made him a solid defender his entire career, and that’s holding true this year. His athleticism, quickness, and competence at both positions have powered him to a notable 5 Defensive Runs Saved. He’s a solid defender, and a player any team would love to have.

Tommy Edman highlight reel

Asdrubal Cabrera, 3B, Arizona Diamondbacks

This is probably the most shocking defensive start in the whole league. Cabrera is 35 years old and sits in a tie for fourth place with 6 DRS this year. It’s unusual for a player his age to be near the top of this leaderboard, but here we are.

What’s even more surprising is that Cabrera hasn’t been a positive defender at any position – and he’s had time at every infield position in his career – since 2008, when he was mostly a second baseman.

Cabrera’s DRS total is not supported by a high amount of GFPs; in fact, he’s made just one this year. All signs point to him being fundamentally solid and making nearly every play that comes his way. Those fundamentals are reflected in his throwing statistics: Cabrera’s a perfect 37-for-37 on throws this year, with no throwing errors or throws that have required a tough scoop by the first baseman.

To his credit: Cabrera’s converted 4 of his 5 plays that are a Difficulty Rating of 3, or what our Video Scouts consider as “50-50” plays.

The Diamondbacks rank 11th in shift usage this season and Cabrera has benefited. Four of Cabrera’s 5 Runs Saved at third base have come from a shifted position.

Perhaps some of this total is attributable to their creative defensive positioning: The Diamondbacks often send the third baseman to the right side of second base when they employ a full shift against lefties, and this subtle defensive change gives an older defender like Cabrera shorter throws and easier plays to make, which likely helps his numbers.

Still, you have to actually make the plays in order to have such an impressive DRS total, and he has, so he gets the credit.

Given Cabrera’s age and his poor defensive track record, it’d be a tad surprising to see this start hold. I’m hoping it does, just for the fun of it. He’d be the oldest player to finish in the top 10 of DRS since catcher Jeff Mathis in 2017. If he can keep making plays consistently, the Diamondbacks’ clever defensive mindset may help him achieve that mark.

Asdrubal Cabrera highlight reel

Byron Buxton, CF, Minnesota Twins

Buxton has been incredible this year, putting up staggering offensive numbers while displaying his signature stellar defense. The 2017 Platinum Glove winner has been dealing with injury issues his entire career, but he’s been excellent when healthy, and that’s showing through here.

Buxton has 5 Defensive Runs Saved this year, which puts him in a tie for third place among outfielders. He’s also posted 6 GFPs with just one Defensive Misplay and one error. Buxton leads all outfielders in GFPs, and his are of a different caliber than most.

When Buxton makes a GFP, it’s front-page highlight material. He’s perfected the full-extension Superman-style dive, and he pulls it off with a high success rate (his one DM came on a failed dive, but we’ll chalk that one up to good hustle).  Buxton has caught 5-of-7 balls on what our Video Scouts defined as the toughest plays to make, four-star plays.

His elite speed makes tracking down hard-hit balls in the gaps easy work, and he’s got the athleticism and vertical leaping ability necessary to rob home runs with ease. If he stays healthy, don’t be surprised to see him near the top of the DRS leaderboard at season’s end. He could make a bid for his second Platinum Glove as well.

Byron Buxton highlight reel

Isiah Kiner-Falefa, SS, Texas Rangers

Kiner-Falefa’s had quite the journey to arrive at regular shortstop playing time (taking detours through catcher and third base in the last three years), but he’s looked good this season. He’s been worth 5 DRS this year, tied for first among shortstops.

Of note with Kiner-Falefa, however, is he’s looked quite mistake-prone so far. He’s already got 8 Defensive Misplays and 3 errors. These have cost him 2 DRS – Kiner-Falefa leads MLB in the PART (Position, balls in the Air, Range, and Throwing) component of DRS, but his misplays have subtracted 2 runs from his total, while his double play performance has subtracted another.

That contradiction between DMss and DRS is interesting: there are eight shortstops with a worse net GFP – DME score (that’s Good Fielding plays minus Defensive Misplays and errors) than Kiner-Falefa’s -6. Of those eight, only two, Gleyber Torres and Andres Gimenez, have a positive DRS.

Kiner-Falefa has made enough plays to make up for his mistakes. The numbers on Kiner-Falefa detail that he’s saved six runs due to his range, which is contributing greatly to his league-best PART component of DRS. Kiner-Falefa has adept, but not elite, speed; his range can be attributed to getting great reads off the bat. He seems to particularly excel when moving to his left (aka towards second base), as he’s saved 7 runs this season when doing so.

Kiner-Falefa isn’t as well-known as other premium defenders at his position, but he’s making a name for himself with his quickness, good hands, and great range. If he can tone down the misplays and mistakes, he could be in the running for a second straight Gold Glove – this one at a different position than last year’s (something only previously done by Darin Erstad and Placido Polanco).

Isiah Kiner-Falefa highlight reel