Looking at Defensive Projections: AL West Style

Since the beginning of the 2008-2009 offseason, three teams in the AL West, Seattle, Texas and Oakland, have been loading up on quality defensive players, making the division one of the clearest examples of the increasing awareness of defensive value around the game. Certainly, the plan worked, as the Mariners finished with the best UZR in baseball, the Rangers finished sixth in baseball, and the Athletics finished twelfth, just behind their AL west counterpart in LA, which finished tenth.

Oakland has long appreciated defensive value, as the team finished third in UZR in 2008, but the same wasn't the case in Texas or Seattle, as each team finished in the bottom ten in UZR in 2008, with the Rangers actually posting the worst UZR of any team in the game, at about 52 runs below average as a unit. Seattle's defensive resurgence was led by the implementation of top notch defensive outfielders in Franklin Gutierrez, Endy Chavez, and Ryan Langerhans, as well as the midseason replacement of Yuniesky Betancourt with Jack Wilson, regarded as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. Texas, on the other hand, saw most of their improvement in the infield, as defensive whiz Elvis Andrus replaced Michael Young at shortstop, with the latter moving over to third base, Ian Kinsler showed some apparent improvement at second base and Chris Davis was a clear upgrade on the bevy of stopgaps that Texas ran through first base in 2008. Meanwhile in LA, the Angels have replaced Chone Figgins' glove with that of Brandon Wood, and their major offensive acquisitions of the past two years have been poor defensive outfielders in Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui.

The teams have done nothing to change courses this offseason, as run prevention has continued to be the priority of the division's 2009 non-playoff teams. Seattle has retained Wilson and Langerhans, signed Gutierrez long-term, replaced the quality glove of Adrian Beltre with another quality glove in Figgins, and upgraded at first base with the addition of Casey Kotchman. They likely will see a drop defensively if they give the departed Kenji Johjima's playing time to Adam Moore, but overall the Mariners haven't done much to make their defense worse next season. Oakland has added Coco Crisp and Kevin Kouzmanoff to shore up center field and third base, respectively, and full seasons of Mark Ellis and Daric Barton should be a big upgrade on the right side of the infield. Texas has done nothing really, signing Vladimir Guerrero to DH while presumably moving Josh Hamilton to left field, but a full season of Julio Borbon in center field should help the team's outfield defense.

Given that it seems likely that each team is relatively done with their major work for the offseason (although my prediction that the Giants were done after the Huff signing shows how much I know..  anyone excited to see Molina bat fifth???), I thought that it might be time to look at how two different projection systems, CHONE's TotalZone projections and our very own Jeff Zimmerman's UZR projections, are anticipating the defensive performance of these teams for the upcoming season. 

I used each teams expected position player roster, CHONE playing time projections, and some small adjustments where necessary, but essentially this is a basic look at how each team projects for next season defensively based on these systems.

Obviously it's a reach to assume that all of these players will meet their playing time projections, and I'm not factoring in potential major injuries, call-ups and midseason acquisitions, but this is just a simple exercise to get a general idea of how these defensive units will perform next season, at least based on the statistical data at hand.

Here were the rosters used:

Oakland: Suzuki, Barton, Ellis, Kouzmanoff, Pennington, Davis, Crisp, Sweeney, Powell, Fox, Cust, Miles and Patterson.

Seattle: Moore, Kotchman, J. Lopez, Figgins, Jack Wilson, Langerhans, Gutierrez, Ichiro, R. Johnson, Hannahan, Carp, Bradley, and Griffey.

Texas: Teagarden, Davis, Kinsler, Young, Andrus, Hamilton, Borbon, Cruz, Saltalamacchia, Greene, Inglett, Guerrero, and D. Murphy.

It's worth noting that there are no UZR projections for the catchers, and I've assumed that Cust, Guerrero and Griffey won't play the field, given that they're pretty clearly DH's at this point.

The results of the projections made the order in which these defenses should be sorted by quality pretty clear: 1. Seattle 2. Oakland 3. Texas

CHONE projects Seattle to be 27 runs above average in 2010, compared to 24 runs above average for Oakland and 4 runs above average for Texas. Meanwhile, the UZR projections (remember that they're being applied to the CHONE projected playing times) have Seattle at about 37 runs above average, compared to 13 runs above average for Oakland and a startling 3.5 runs below average for Texas. Oakland's CHONE projection benefited greatly from the projections of catchers Suzuki and Powell, while their UZR projection was knocked down by Fox, Miles and Patterson, rightly so.

Sean Smith and Jeff each expect Seattle to have a plus defender at every position with the exception of catcher, where a UZR projection isn't provided but CHONE isn't very fond of Adam Moore, projecting him to be a disastrous 14 runs below average behind the plate. UZR expects better numbers for Seattle's outfield, but CHONE is more bullish on the team's infielders. The two systems are also in agreement with the Athletics for the most part, although the two systems differ on the defensive value of Davis and Patterson.

Texas is the team that's apparently toughest to project. CHONE is far more optimistic about Texas' defense than Zimmerman's projections, but there are some major discrepancies between the two projections. Andrus, Hamilton, Borbon and Young have at least six runs dividing their two respective projections, with CHONE projecting Borbon to be 14 runs better than UZR projects. Clearly the limited data for the four players has the two systems at odds for their future defensive value.

While there are many things that haven't been accounted for, and statistical analysis of defense at this point is seemingly more art than science, the data at hand seems to establish a pretty solid pre-season hierarchy for these three teams defensively. It wouldn't surprise me if things ended up going somewhat differently during the season, but as things look right now, there should be some awfully good defense being played in that division, once again.

Any high-contact pitcher should take a hard look at joining the rotation of one of these teams, if there's room. I'm guessing that Jarrod Washburn wouldn't mind a return to Seattle next season.

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