I believe defense often gets overlooked when evaluating pitchers for fantasy baseball purposes. In fact, occasionally it’s such an egregious oversight that we fail to see the obvious possibilities of a pitcher improving or stinking up the joint in large part due to the ability of the guys behind him to field the ball. What I hope to accomplish in this column is a dissection of the defenses around the league. I’m grading the teams behind the pitchers in hopes that we can identify what pitchers have a better chance of outperforming their general abilities.
The analysis should give a fairly simplistic grading scale to allow for easy reading. If a team has a grade, that’s good for their pitchers. If a team has a grade, then that’s a great boost for their pitchers. The minus signs work in the opposite direction, and some teams are graded as Neutral. In other words, think of pluses as good and minuses as bad as far as how the defense should affect each team’s pitchers.
Projected ERA and WHIP for a team’s pitchers should be adjusted accordingly, either up or down, based on the results. My own rule of thumb is to simply predict the pitcher to hit upper or lower percentiles of his projected outcome based on the defensive grade. The better the grade, the higher the probability the pitcher has of achieving a better percentile performance (think Baseball Prospectus and their PECOTA percentile performances).
|Worse than -25.0 UZR|
|Between -25.0 and -10.0 UZR|
|NEUTRAL||Between -10.0 and 10.0 UZR|
|Between 10.0 UZR and 25.0 UZR|
|Better than 25.0 UZR|
I’ve used Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) as a number guide for those looking to put numbers with the pluses or minuses. UZR is not a perfect statistic, but I think it serves a simple purpose here to aid the reader in understanding how many runs can be saved or lost based on defense.
I will be utilizing these results in an upcoming pitcher profile column to help sort out what type of performance we can hope to get from each player. So not only am I giving a generalized guide here, I hope to be as specific as possible for each pitcher in baseball once I’ve achieved an expectation for their team defense.
2010 UZR: 58.3
They’re going to take a big step back from being the best defensive team in baseball with the losses of LaRoche and Reynolds as well as a likely regression to the mean for guys like Stephen Drew and Kelly Johnson, but they’re still strong enough to be an asset. Willie Bloomquist and Geoff Blum don’t help at all either, unless you like grit.
2010 UZR: -35.7
It’s hard to imagine one of the league’s worst defenses in baseball somehow getting worse over the off-season, but that’s exactly what the Braves have done. Dan Uggla at 2B and Nate McLouth in center represent decided downgrades over Infante/Prado and Blanco/Ankiel. Couple that with a probably immobile Chipper Jones, and you’ve got a recipe for ERA disaster.
2010 UZR: -22.9
2011 Grade: NEUTRAL
There’s room for improvement amongst their starters who had negative UZRs (Adam Jones and Nick Markakis). And if Mark Reynolds‘ improvement at third is sustainable, there’s at least a 5 run improvement for the O’s at the hot corner. Jettisoning Wigginton, Atkins and Lugo should aid their infield tremendously, too, as Cesar Izturis ought to be a fantastic defensive utility guy for them, J.J. Hardy is a darned good defender at shortstop, and Derrek Lee is a solid 5-10 runs better than the tripe Baltimore ran out at first base last year. Overall, despite the Neutral grade, I’m pretty bullish on the O’s defense for 2011. I think they’re a near lock to improve, and if some things go right for them, they could even be an asset to their pitchers for a change.
Boston Red Sox
2010 UZR: -2.3
Kevin Youkilis is likely a 10+ run downgrade from Beltre at third, but Carl Crawford more than makes up for that difference. Crawford adds a 15+ run left fielder into the equation on top of what was a near 10-run defensive deficit at the position for the BoSox last year. Combine that with a healthy Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury sharing time in CF, and you’ve got the makings of a pretty strong defense – much to all of their pitchers’ delight, I’m sure.
2010 UZR: -7.3
2011 Grade: NEUTRAL
I like some of their peripheral moves (Augie Ojeda, Reed Johnson and Fernando Perez should all be assets in the field at some point in 2011 for the Cubbies, and getting rid of Xavier Nady helps, too), but the core of the team is the same. And it’s just not a terribly good unit. Marlon Byrd will probably see a regression to merely slightly above average in center, and there’s not much room for improvement amongst the rest of the bunch. Whatever improvement they see from jettisoning Nady for better fielding back-ups will probably be eaten up by Byrd’s regression. I think we’ll see more of the same from the Cubs this year.
Chicago White Sox
2010 UZR: -32.2
There’s a little wiggle room for improvement at 2B and 3B if Gordon Beckham works on his game and if Brent Morel wins the job outright over the defensive awfulness that is Mark Teahen. Paul Konerko‘s fall-off in 2010 was probably more blip than true indicator. Still, the White Sox are one Konerko injury away from experiencing Adam Dunn‘s epic atrocities at first. Don’t count on this unit to provide much help for their staff.
2010 UZR: 44.8
It boggles the mind just how good the Reds’ defense could be if they would only get rid of the (nearly) useless Jonny Gomes. Heck, even a slightly below average fielder would save them a bevy of runs in the outfield if he replaced Gomes. Crazy. Otherwise, this is a good fielding team from top to bottom. There’s some room for improvement by Drew Stubbs, which should make up for whatever regression or likely injuries (I’m looking at you, Scott Rolen) the team could expect to experience. Invest in their pitchers with confidence.
2010 UZR: -59.8
It’s probably not a coincidence that the Indians used their off-season to go out and sign a slew of defensive-oriented players. Adam Everett, Orlando Cabrera, Travis Buck and Jack Hannahan will all contribute in making the Tribe less abhorrent in the field in 2011, but I doubt it’s going to be enough in the end to matter too overwhelmingly much. What the Indians really need to decide is if Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop is going to work out as he’s been a fairly poor defender there now for a while. Perhaps the Cabrera (of the Orlando variety) signing signifies a shift to second for Asdrubal. It would also be nice if Grady Sizemore somehow found his old great defensive self in the microfracture operating room. I once found a Junior Mint in there, so hey, there’s always hope. In the end, Cleveland has plenty of youth, but none of them have as of yet shown that they know how to use a glove. Let’s hope they’re running their fielding drills early and often this Spring.
2010 UZR: -28.4
Any gains they made by no longer employing Melvin Mora‘s lead glove were undermined when they signed Ty Wigginton, a virtual black hole at pretty much any position he plays. At least Jose Lopez, an underrated fielder, should give them some help. And Hawpe’s gone for good, thank goodness. They’re going to need to keep Ryan Spilborghs as far away from the field as possible though if they really want to field a better team. A full year of Carlos Gonzalez in left, Seth Smith in right, and a slightly below average fielder in center would do wonders for them. Getting rid of Spilborghs and Hawpe in the OF might save them 15-20 runs overall. Still, it’s not enough to proclaim them an asset fantasy-wise for their pitching staff. At best, they’re average. At worst, Spilborghs becomes the new sabermetric whipping boy.
2010 UZR: 21.2
Credit Dave Dombrowski, after watching a wretched defense in 2008, with crafting a good defensive unit over the last two years. There may be a slight chink in the armor, however, with the signing of Jhonny Peralta to play short. There’s a possibility of a loss in the range of 10-15 runs of defensive value from their 2010 production at shortstop if Peralta plays badly (which seems like a not entirely awful bet). I doubt the Tiggers (no, that’s not a typo) make that difference up at second with the DH’iest of infielders, Carlos Guillen, manning the keystone either. Age may be catching up with the fielding abilities of Brandon Inge and Magglio Ordonez, too. I think Detroit is still good enough to be a positive value to their pitchers, but there’s a little downside here.
2010 UZR: -23.4
The Fish could net gain nearly 20 defensive runs with the combination of the Infante/Uggla swap and Hanley Ramirez taking the stick out of his ass and playing the field like he cares. They may give that all back with the likes of Chris Coghlan in center (and really, how many of you are counting on Hanley to care?), but there’s clearly upside here for them to not be as bad as they were in 2010. Baby steps. Now they need to work on finding a legitimate solution in center and get Logan Morrison and his walking legs out of a running position.
2010 UZR: -13.0
2011 Grade: NEUTRAL
The good news? Clint Barmes gives them an actual defensive asset at shortstop and Carlos Lee is no longer the team’s “left fielder”. The middling news? Hunter Pence and Michael Bourne’s defensive regression to the mean should cancel each other out pretty nicely. The bad news? Chris Johnson may be an awful third baseman and Carlos Lee is still a regular on the team, albeit at a much more manageable position. They should improve, but Lee and Johnson will decide if the team ends up as an asset or merely a group of guys not getting in the way of the pitcher.
Kansas City Royals
2010 UZR: -44.5
Alcides Escobar represents a 15+ run improvement all by himself (so long, Yuni!) And if Pedro Feliz gets at least half a season at third, he’ll save them a handful of runs in comparison to Wilson Betemit (The bad news there is that, um, he’s Pedro Feliz. I’ll let the reader decide on the pro’s and con’s of Betemit’s offense vs. Feliz’ defense.) Solid subtractions of defensive dead-weights like Podsednik and Bloomquist along with the addition of Lorenzo Cain also indicate improvement. The Royals won’t be nearly as awful as a defensive unit in 2011 as they were in 2010. It’s still a little early to project them an average defense, but I could certainly see them getting close to it by year’s end. Too bad all their good minor league position players are first basemen…
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
2010 UZR: 1.7
It’s fun to beat up on the Angels for their acquisition of Vernon Wells, but in reality, he does make them a better team. In left, he probably saves them a few runs (maybe more) over the likes of Juan Rivera, not to mention his offensive contributions. Torii Hunter in right versus center nets them another handful of runs. Add that in with a large regression from Howie Kendrick at second (last year looks like a big outlier in terms of defensive production for him) and a full season of the amazing Peter Bourjous as the wunderkid center fielder, and the Angels may actually be one of the better defensive units in baseball this year. They could easily eclipse the 20.0+ UZR mark, and if Bourjos plays the whole year, their upper limit is 30.0+. Invest in their pitchers with confidence.
Los Angeles Dodgers
2010 UZR: -32.0
2011 Grade: NEUTRAL
Want to solve your defensive woes, Mr. Mattingly? It’s a simple equation, so do keep up. Matt Kemp (LF) + Tony Gwynn (CF) = probable positive UZR right off the bat. Whatever other issues the Dodgers have, solving Matt Kemp’s fielding ineptitude should be at the top of their list. Shifting him to left and hoping his speed and surly talent equalize into an average fielder is by far and away the best plan imaginable for the team. Gwynn, on the other hand, is an absolute fielding dynamo. The issue has always been his offense, but frankly, his defense is so good that it would be worth it for the Dodgers to spend the year with him manning center and eating up every ball he sees, sniffs, or radars in on. Spring Training is going to tell whether Mattingly has the cojones to do this, but I think it’s by far and away in the best interest of the team. Juan Uribe should be a boon to them at second, too, not to mention the subtractions of Manny and Podsednik. I could envision this team as a neutral defensive team if Kemp improves and stays in center. But with Gwynn in center, this team could really take off and fly UZR-wise. Only Kemp’s volatility and Mattingly’s creativity is holding them back. And it’s holding me back, too.
2010 UZR: -0.7
Two (long) words define my pessimism for the Brewers’ negative defensive grade in 2011: Yuniesky Betancourt. The man sucks the energy and powers out of his fans’ (okay, okay, his team’s fans) and teammates’ psychological well-beings and saves them up in his ever expanding pot belly for use in his next fielding foible. There’s a good case to be made that this team loses 30 or more runs of fielding efficiency just with the losses of Edmonds, Cain, and Alcides Escobar coupled with the addition of Yuni. Yuck.
2010 UZR: 35.4
2011 Grade: NEUTRAL
I may get some flack for this, but the Twins let 30+ runs walk out the door when Punto, Hudson, and Hardy all left. Factor in a probable regression from Justin Morneau and Jason Repko, and that’s a huge chunk of change to make up. Sure, Alexi Casilla will get more playing time, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka is a wildcard up the middle. Overall though, this is a team that looks to take a significant hit where fielding is concerned in 2011, and I would bid on their pitchers accordingly.
New York Mets
2010 UZR: 7.8
There’s a little downside in an unknown like Ike Davis (UZR really liked him, but it’s only one year and scouts have been a bit bearish), so it’s a slightly shaky positive ranking, but overall the Mets have a chance to go up if the move to right field helps Carlos Beltran become a slightly above average fielder again, which I think is very possible. That’s a 10+ run gain, which could be a boon for a team that could use one.
New York Yankees
2010 UZR: 15.3
2011 Grade: for flyball pitchers/ for groundball pitchers
There’s clear downside here with aging veterans being the main issue, but they get a likely 5+ run swing going from Marcus Thames to Andruw Jones as their back-up outfielder. As long as one of the vets doesn’t go off the rails too much, they should be pretty similar to last season. The caveat here is that their outfield defense is much better than their infield. A-Rod and company really aren’t that good of a defensive infield. So, groundball pitchers would likely receive a downgrade while fly ball pitchers receive the bulk of the defensive value here.
2010 UZR: 38.9
There’s a probable regression built into this ranking, so bid with confidence. While we may witness small drop-offs from Kevin Kouzmanoff or Daric Barton totaling nearly 10 runs, David DeJesus should help out plenty in the outfield, and a lot of the defensive fat from their outfield a year ago has been trimmed. They’re a fun unit to watch field. Just time your bathroom breaks while they hit.
2010 UZR: -5.8
2011 Grade: NEUTRAL
Ryan Howard should be back to average in the field this year, so that nets them almost 10 runs. The real question is Domonic Brown – can he be a big league asset this year in the field (once he comes back from his injury)? If he can be just average, he nets the Phils another 10 runs over the dreck that he and Jayson Werth provided out there last season. That would make this unit an asset, but I’m not willing to go with the Over just yet until I see more of Brown. Just be careful of the injuries and age with these guys. And be careful of Raul Ibanez, too. I hear he bites Internet types.
2010 UZR: -66.2
The Pirates were an eyesore in the field last year (and most years, if you believe their fanbase). Andrew McCutchen will probably regress to average, so that’s good. What’s not so good is everyone else, including the mediocre (or worse… usually worse) free agents the Buccos brought in. It’s an awful team with an awful awful defense. I’d be wearing my Ray Charles glasses this year if I were a baseball fan in Pittsburgh.
San Diego Padres
2010 UZR: 50.0
This is a team built around defensive value, plain and simple. I don’t think they’ll have an elite defensive unit this year with the loss of Gwynn, downgrade to Jason Bartlett at short, a full season of Ryan Ludwick and a probable regression from Chase Headley to merely, “good”. However, I still think they can be in the +15-20 UZR range. And that’s enough to help out their pitchers in addition to the already ludicrous value of Petco Park.
San Francisco Giants
2010 UZR: 56.4
Even with a lot of regression, it’s pretty easy to envision this team as a +25 UZR squad. Fear the beard for sure. And also fear San Fran pitchers outperforming their FIPs.
2010 UZR: 15.8
For a team built predominantly around their defense, the 2010 Mariners were only good while their front office and fans all figured they would be great. Let this be a lesson in prognostication, folks: people are unpredictable. Franklin Gutierrez had stomach problems almost all year long. Chone Figgins did not take well to a position switch. Jack Wilson got injured (okay, that last one was predictable). So in 2011, Figgins will return to the position where he has been stalwart in the past. The M’s added defensive badass Brendan Ryan and another infielder known for his defensive value as well in Adam Kennedy. And Franklin will, hopefully, have his stomach issues resolved by the season’s inception. Screw unpredictability, this is a good defensive team.
St. Louis Cardinals
2010 UZR: -14.2
An organization that once prided itself on its grand defense; the current iteration of Cardinals seems remarkably below average defensively. There’s legitimate downside here with no one really sure how bad Lance Berkman will be in right field and the Cards deciding that their most important need was to replace their really good defensive shortstop with someone who should be a better fit in the clubhouse. Nick Punto should help when he comes back from injury, and Colby Rasmus should rebound from a mostly crappy year in center. But it’s hard to look at this team and think of their defense as anything but a likely negative.
Tampa Bay Rays
2010 UZR: 32.8
Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings aren’t as good as Carl Crawford, but they’re still really good defenders. Reid Brignac is going to surprise an awful lot of people with his fielding prowess. He’s heads and shoulders better than Bartlett has been in the last couple of years. This is a dangerous defensive unit, and it’s one I’d bid the extra buck on for their pitchers because of it.
2010 UZR: 18.1
All by himself, Adrian Beltre probably represents a 20 run improvement to the Rangers’ defense. Great gravity, is that man good. Is Beltre the Bizarro Michael Young? Elvis Andrus is much better than his UZR numbers indicated last year, too, so that could be another 10 run swing in the positive for Texas. Even with some regression by guys like Josh Hamilton and Julio Borbon, this is a really strong defense. Bid aggressively on their pitchers to beat expectations this season.
Toronto Blue Jays
2010 UZR: -1.1
2011 Grade: NEUTRAL
There’s a little room for pessimism here as Jose Bautista is a poor third baseman, Rajai Davis may be worse than Vernon Wells in the outfield, and no one’s sure if Adam Lind can even be passable at first base. They haven’t gotten discernibly better anywhere defensively with their moves, and there are poor defenders or only very slightly above average ones everywhere you look. In other words, I believe there is a slightly higher probability here for the Jays to hinder their pitcher’s success on any given day this season than to aid in it.
2010 UZR: 4.8
It will be interesting to see how Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond hold up the middle infield in 2011. Espinosa shined in his limited time at second in 2010, and he has a lot of physical tools that would lead me to believe he could be quite successful there, boosting the overall defensive value of the team. It’s his upside along with the addition of Jayson Werth (who I feel will have a bouceback defensively, back into a positive UZR) and a probable defensive boost from Nyjer Morgan that garner the Nats with a + ranking here. What fantasy owners need to watch out for, though, is Mike Morse. Be fearful of him – he’s a bloody butcher in the field. Roger Bernadina should be much more palatable and preferable both for Nats pitchers and their fantasy owners alike.