For many reasons, the influence of player defense on team performance remains a relative unknown within the sabermetric community, especially when compared with everything we can measure about a given player’s offensive contributions. Advanced defensive stats like UZR or Defensive Runs Saved provide some insight, but even these are hampered by sample size concerns (UZR numbers are best judged over three-year spans) and the difficulties inherent with measuring something so subjective as defense in an objective manner.
Which leads me to a point Dave Cameron of FanGraphs made at Saber Seminar a couple weeks ago. When asked how he felt about Shane Victorino’s contract now versus this past offseason, Cameron still felt Boston overpaid for its current right fielder. He did, however, add something noteworthy in his response, saying, "Baseball undervalues players who are average hitters and really good defenders, especially at the corner outfield positions."
A quick look at this past offseason’s free-agent market reveals Cameron has a point. While offensive stars like Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, and Nick Swisher garnered lengthy and expensive contracts, players like Victorino, Angel Pagan, and Carlos Gomez (who admittedly wasn’t a free agent, but did sign a team-friendly extension with Milwaukee in March) agreed to far cheaper deals.
Though these types of players don’t put up gaudy offensive numbers, the likes of Victorino and Gomez have proven far more valuable in 2013 than their costlier counterparts. Gomez ranks eighth in the majors in WAR at 5.6, and Victorino is not far behind at 4.3 WAR, which places him 22nd in baseball and third overall on the AL East-leading Red Sox. Pagan himself compiled 4.5 WAR last season, a total that outpaced Hamilton’s 4.2 mark just before the ex-Ranger signed a five-year, $125 million deal with the Angels.
Of course, neither Hamilton, Swisher nor Upton currently rank among the top 85 players in the majors in WAR, which leads one to question why good defensive players are so undervalued, while strong offensive performers have no problems landing big contracts? Players who hit tons of home runs are certainly more exciting to the common fan, and although putting more butts in the seats is something any franchise can get behind, the sheer size of the contracts teams are willing to hand out for players like Josh Hamilton remains mind-boggling.
Yet beyond an entertainment value perspective, the lack of certainty in defensive statistics is another factor worth mentioning. Even though teams have begun reaping tons of new data from Fieldf/x, MLB front offices are still searching for greater accuracy in measuring all this data and formulating significant conclusions from it, as John Farrell himself acknowledged at Saber Seminar. By valuing defense and run prevention more than other organizations, many teams have been able to exploit this uncertain landscape, most notably the Pirates in 2013, who have allowed the second-fewest runs in baseball. Their outfield defense has been phenomenal, moreover, with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte combining for 27 defensive runs saved.
What this all portends is a possible shift in focus towards defense within major league organizations and on the free agent market as the value of good defense becomes more clear. Given how ugly Hamilton’s contract now appears (along with many similar deals in recent years), how can teams afford to keep spending huge money on aging offensive stars while ignoring the value that good defenders like Victorino and Gomez provide?
The Tigers are currently the only subpar defensive team leading a division, and given their tremendous lineup and pitching staff, they stand as more of an exception than anything else.
Ultimately, difference-making defenders who don’t light up the scoreboard with their bats are the most undervalued player in the game. The knowledge gap between what teams know about offense versus defense has prevented these players from being as coveted on the free-agent market as many others are.
Considering how successful some teams have been in valuing defense, however, I would expect this to change sooner rather than later.
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All stats, including WAR figures, courtesy of FanGraphs.com.
Alex Skillin is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and also a Staff Editor for SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.