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The best and worst defenders face off

What would it look like if we pitted the league's worst glove men against the best defenders baseball has to offer?

You can't catch them all, Raul.
You can't catch them all, Raul.

Defense is still undervalued by most who watch and cover baseball. You see it in all sorts of awards, honors, and rankings across the sport. People pay lip service to the leather, but when push comes to shove they only really care about what happens in the box and on the mound. This is an extreme test of defense and it's purely hypothetical. What would happen if we put together a team of the eight best defensive players in baseball and had them face off against the eight worst defenders in the sport?

The criteria are simple. To decide on the sample of players, we'll sort by UZR/150 from 2010-2012 at each of the eight positions. This will tell us who the best and worst defenders were entering the 2013 season. The catch is that they have to have played at least 2000 innings at the position during that time period (about half a season or more in each year) and have played more than 729 innings at the position in 2013. We want to know who are the best and worst players who actually covered that spot on the diamond.

It should be noted that the "worst" team includes selection bias because in order for them to get consistent reps in the field despite awful defense, they are likely proficient at some other aspect of the sport. If you're super terrible at defense and an awful hitter, there's virtually no chance you made it to the 2000 and 729 inning thresholds. For example, despite my letter writing campaign, an utter lack of athletic ability prevented me from getting 2,800 major league innings over the last four seasons.

Also, for catchers, I used DRS per inning for catchers who met the same innings criteria and present the data for catchers as DRS per 1,350 innings (~150 games). We'll assume league average pitching and perfectly equivalent performances by each bench. Let's meet the players, with their defensive numbers from 2010-2012:

The Best

Position Player UZR/150
C Yadier Molina 12.5*
1B Adrian Gonzalez 9.2
2B Chase Utley 14.3
SS Brendan Ryan 14.3
3B Evan Longoria 15.1
LF Alex Gordon 11.0
CF Jacoby Ellsbury 14.2
RF Giancarlo Stanton 8.6

The Worst

Position Player UZR/150
C John Buck -6.3*
1B Eric Hosmer -13.6
2B Neil Walker -6.7
SS Asdrubal Cabrera -10.1
3B Chris Johnson -16.4
LF Raul Ibanez -10.3
CF Dexter Fowler 10.0
RF Nick Markakis -6.9

*DRS per 1,350 innings

To judge performance, we'll turn to fWAR and will assume that everything is equal other than these eight players. We'll also assume away little problems like the potentially confounding affect of multiple terrible defenders playing next to each other.

The Best

Position Player UZR/150 fWAR
C Yadier Molina 14.5* 5.6
1B Adrian Gonzalez 6.5 2.8
2B Chase Utley 2.0 3.9
SS Brendan Ryan 3.2 -0.6
3B Evan Longoria 16.2 6.8
LF Alex Gordon 7.3 3.4
CF Jacoby Ellsbury 12.9 5.8
RF Giancarlo Stanton -9.9 2.3

The Worst

Position Player UZR/150 fWAR
C John Buck -14.6* 1.6
1B Eric Hosmer 2.2 3.1
2B Neil Walker -0.8 2.7
SS Asdrubal Cabrera -16.8 0.6
3B Chris Johnson -8.6 2.8
LF Raul Ibanez -25.9 0.0
CF Dexter Fowler -2.8 2.2
RF Nick Markakis -5.8 -0.1

So the worst defenders got creamed by a score of 30.0 fWAR to 12.9 fWAR and not surprisingly, almost all of the bad defenders were bad at defense again in 2013. The only true exception was Hosmer, which makes sense given his age relative to the rest of the group. He's still figuring it out at first and developing while the rest of the worst defenders are well-established. The best defenders stayed good except for Giancarlo Stanton, but he made up for it by hitting the ball pretty well.

I'm not sure the results of this exercise were as interesting as I hoped they would be when I began. I thought there was a chance that the worst defenders would make it close based on the selection bias issue, but it turns out the obvious expectation was the right one. What I'm struck by, however, is how much fun I think a series of games between these two teams would be to watch. I find the aesthetics of baseball to be one of it's best qualities and watching one team perform ballet on a diamond while the other imitated a bear on skates would be an excellent way to spend an afternoon.

In this experiment, I placed certain restrictions on playing time to make sure I had data that was somewhat useful, but it would also be fun to draft players based on smaller samples. Peter Bourjos should be involved in this game. We'd probably want Prince Fielder out there too. Go ahead and imagine a terrible defense and an excellent one and then gift both teams Bartolo Colon and Kevin Correia so that every ball would be a ball in play.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.