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The most improved outfield defenses

What outfield units have taken the biggest steps forward from 2016 to 2017?

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

We’re almost done with the dog days of August, and are headed into the final month of the season. At this moment, we know with a lot of certainty who will be going to the playoffs (with the notable exception of the AL Wild Card).

But I’m not going to talk about any of these. I want to talk about outfielders, and specifically, their defensive performance. Quick question: Do you know which teams have the best improved outfield defensively? Go ahead, check the leaderboards (but number one should be obvious).

OK, time’s up. Here’s the list of the top 10 most improved outfield defenses from 2016 to 2017, sorted by UZR/150.

Improved OF Defense

Team 2016 UZR/150 2016 DRS 2017 UZR/150 2017 DRS URZ/150 Dif DRS Dif
Team 2016 UZR/150 2016 DRS 2017 UZR/150 2017 DRS URZ/150 Dif DRS Dif
SEA -5.6 -27 7.0 7 12.6 34
DET -10.2 -50 1.3 -21 11.5 29
CIN -0.8 -1 6.2 30 7.0 31
MIN -6.4 -30 -0.3 21 6.1 51
BAL -11.2 -51 -6.0 -19 5.2 32
PIT -6.8 -17 -1.6 -3 5.2 14
ARI -7.5 -19 -5.2 -16 2.3 3
MIA -0.4 10 1.8 19 2.2 9
WAS -0.1 -12 2.0 -24 2.1 -12
Top 10 Improved OF Defense by UZR/150 Data from Fangraphs.com

Well, look at that. According to UZR/150, the most improved defensive outfields belong to the Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, and Cincinnati Reds. How come?

Seattle Mariners

SEA OF 2016-17

Player 2016 Innings 2016 UZR/150 2017 Innings 2017 UZR/150 Dif
Player 2016 Innings 2016 UZR/150 2017 Innings 2017 UZR/150 Dif
Leonys Martin 1275.0 4.2 262.1 23.6 19.4
Nori Aoki 891.2 -8.0 0.0 0.0 8
Seth Smith 730.0 -16.6 0.0 0.0 16.6
Franklin Gutierrez 475.2 -16.9 0.0 0.0 16.9
Nelson Cruz 400.2 -7.4 28.0 -21.6 -14.2
Guillermo Heredia 234.2 7.2 699.0 9.9 2.7
Shawn O'Malley 158.0 14.9 0.0 0.0 -14.9
Ben Gamel 108.0 -29.8 871.1 -1.9 27.9
Daniel Robertson 53.1 4.9 0.0 0.0 -4.9
Stefen Romero 35.0 19.8 0.0 0.0 -19.8
Luis Sardinas 9.0 -148.6 0.0 0.0 148.6
Danny Valencia 0.0 0.0 16.0 22.4 22.4
Jarrod Dyson 0.0 0.0 865.1 11.2 11.2
Boog Powell 0.0 0.0 45.0 82.5 82.5
Mitch Haniger 0.0 0.0 533.1 2.2 2.2
Taylor Motter 0.0 0.0 84.2 -0.7 -0.7
Seattle Mariners outfielders Data from Fangraphs.com

Small caveat: when checking the changes in UZR/150, I did not filter for minimum innings, so take them with a grain (or pile) of salt for players with low amounts of playing time.

Seattle is an interesting starting point. By innings played, their top outfielders in 2016 were Leonys Martin, Nori Aoki, and Seth Smith. Combined, they were worth -20.4 UZR/150. They also gave Franklin Gutierrez and Nelson Cruz starts in 52 and 44 games, respectively, with the unsurprising result being a terrible defensive outfield. Let’s face it: when you have Nelson Cruz in the outfield, things are probably not going to be good. You want him for his bat and nothing else. So what happened to make them passable in 2017?

For starters, Ben Gamel was given much more reps (currently 871 13 innings played). In a larger sample, Gamel’s -29.8 UZR/150 became -1.9, a very welcome improvement. They also acquired Jarrod Dyson from the Royals, who has not been the same defensive whiz kid he once was, but is still been good.

All in all, of the 9 players who have manned the outfield at Safeco Field this year, just three have provided a negative UZR/150, and two of those players have done so in very small samples.

Detroit Tigers

DET OF 2016-17

Player 2016 Innings 2016 UZR/150 2017 Innings 2017 UZR/150 Dif
Player 2016 Innings 2016 UZR/150 2017 Innings 2017 UZR/150 Dif
Jim Adducci 0.0 0.0 194.0 2.8 2.8
J.D. Martinez 1027.1 -21.5 438.0 -16.1 5.4
Mike Aviles 260.1 -8.2 0.0 0.0 8.2
Alex Presley 10.0 50.5 296.2 -13.6 -64.1
Cameron Maybin 775.1 -9.8 0.0 0.0 9.8
Justin Upton 1299.0 -6.6 991.2 6.4 13.0
Anthony Gose 238.0 7.0 0.0 0.0 -7.0
JaCoby Jones 28.0 -10.7 150.2 29.2 39.9
Mikie Mahtook 0.0 0.0 610.2 -1.5 -1.5
Tyler Collins 316.2 -5.7 299.1 3.4 9.1
Steven Moya 193.1 -35.2 0.0 0.0 35.2
Andrew Romine 136.0 14.1 276.0 6.7 -7.4
Matt den Dekker 0.0 0.0 14.0 -1.6 -1.6
Detroit Tigers outfielders Data from Fangraphs

Detroit’s regular outfielders in 2016 were Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez, and Cameron Maybin. In 2017, that has changed to Upton, Mikie Mahtook, and J.D. Martinez (who is now an Arizona Diamondback).

For 2016, the three players were a combined -37.9 UZR/150 — really bad. J.D Martinez alone was responsible for -21.5 of that combination. Given that Detroit employs the DH, one wonders about the roster choices that prevented them from hiding Martinez there and playing a better defender in right field.

In 2017, however, Upton has again posted positive defensive numbers, while Mahtook has shown that he is not completely bad. Martinez was subpar again, but has been replaced by a combination of Tyler Collins, Alex Presley, and Andrew Romine. The three of them have a far better combined UZR/150 of -3.5.

Given that Detroit is probably on its way to a rebuild, it makes sense that they employ younger players who might be more versatile defenders. It also helps that Upton has upped his game — sorry about that — and is playing a better corner outfield than he was a year ago.

Cincinnati Reds

Honestly, when I originally checked the data for this article, the third spot in the leaderboard was occupied by the Minnesota Twins — and it made sense, given Byron Buxton’s breakout defensive year!

Alas, in the week it took me from checking the data to actually writing about my findings, the Reds have overtaken them. But it doesn’t make much sense.

Adam Duvall has been good at the plate but his defense has gone from 9.6 UZR/150 to 0.5 - an 180 percent decrease. On the other hand, Scott Schebler and Billy Hamilton have improved, albeit Schebler only slightly, from -3.7 to -3.5.

But Buxton! He’s doubled his UZR/150 between 2016 and 2017, and pumped out highlight after highlight.

Look at this robbery on August 15th.

Or this spectacular catch to take a hit away from Miguel Cabrera.

Byron Buxton is the anchor of a strong Twins outfield defense, and while they aren’t technically third on this list, they’re third in our hearts.


Curiously, Seattle and Cincinatti are the top two outfield defenses of the season. Detroit and Minnesota fall in at 13th and 18th respectively. But despite this, they still show signs that they have improved.

Maybe Seattle’s and Minnesota’s defenses aren’t responsible for their Wild Card push but they do contribute. Let’s hope that they produce more highlight reels.

Martin Alonso writes for Beyond the Box Score and BP Bronx and is constantly geeking out over baseball and Star Wars. You can find him on Twitter at @martnar.