I love defense in baseball. In my former years here at BtBScore I had a running feature called “Let’s Talk About Defense.” Prior to my rejoining the site, I had started a brief and ill-fated Substack that went by “Glove Language.” Defense is my thing, both from an aesthetics point-of-view and just the nature of it all.
The defensive side has always been fascinating to me in the context of baseball due to the fact that it’s just so...messy. It’s messy in terms of the analytics and their value, but also the fact that no position is treated equally in evaluating that side of the ball. First basemen, especially, get hosed by defensive metrics just due to the nature of their position. In the age of intense analytics, it’s still very much in the early stages of it’s evolution, and people much smarter than me still don’t have all the answers for what transpires in the field.
Regardless of how volatile the very concept of defensive analytics might be, you can still glean a pretty good deal of information from those numbers. The trick is simply not putting too much stake in them in drawing a complete conclusion of the defender which you might be examining. In this case, though, I specifically want to look at a few defenders who are exceeding expectations in terms of the defensive metrics. It’s less guys that are surprising you and more so guys you just weren’t paying attention to in that respect.
And in the spirit of the “not paying attention to” angle, we can start with Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Kevin Newman. As primarily a shortstop, and occasionally a second baseman, Newman hasn’t exactly been a defensive wizard during his time in Pittsburgh. In 2019, when he bounced around the field a bit more, he posted a Outs Above Average (OAA) of -8 when at short. He also finished with -7 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and a Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of -5.2. He followed that up with an OAA of -2 in 2020 at the position, while coming in at -3 and -2.8 in DRS and UZR, respectively.
This year, however, has been an entirely different story for Newman at shortstop. His OAA ranks among the league’s best, with his 6 ranking 11th among all position players. He’s got a DRS of three and an 11.9 UZR/150 (which we’ll use for this exercise throughout) in over 440 innings at the position thus far in 2021. His added success rate based off of the estimation is at four percent. In a broader shortstop context, Newman trails only the usual suspects (Nick Ahmed, Andrelton Simmons, Francisco Lindor) in OAA and is pacing the position in both UZR/150 and FanGraphs Def metric.
So what changed here? It’s not a situation where shifting increased his competence on the defensive, as Pittsburgh has always been at the forefront in shift rate.
More than anything, this seems to be a case of a guy who just plied his trade at the position and got better. It helps that he hasn’t been required to move around as much as he has in the past, with only 20 innings at a position other than shortstop so far this season. Perhaps settling into the position and evaluating his own performance is all the explanation we need here. His outcomes on the offensive side have been fairly miserable, but there’s a lot to be said for a middle infielder who can play defense at a high level even without the benefit of the bat. Just ask Nick Ahmed.
Any headlines that García has grabbed in 2021 largely have to do with the bat. And why not? He’s been one of the more significant power bats in the league (.253 ISO) even for a listless Texas Rangers team. But where he’s demonstrated even more success is on the defensive side.
Not that that’s a surprise. But when the bat has become the most discussed thing about a player, the defensive prowess and strong throwing arm that have always been staples of the scouting report need to try a little bit harder in order to remain noteworthy.
However you want to classify an “elite” defender, García’s defensive chops have definitely been in that realm. Looking at it in a positional context, his OAA sits at five, which ranks fourth among Major League outfielders while the figure ranks in the 97th percentile overall. He already has a DRS of four in centerfield, which puts him 10th among those who spend their time on the grass. Even the finer details love him. He grades out positively in reaction (0.6) and burst (2.0), which help to compensate for a route efficiency that comes in at -0.2 (though worth noting that Mike Trout leads the league at 1.1. On plays that classify as a 2-Star or a 3-Star, according to Baseball Savant, García has recorded 22 outs in 23 opportunities.
So that jump, which ranks in the 89th percentile, along with his 82nd percentile speed, help to compensate for his more average routes in centerfield. The power bat is nice, but considering the shortcomings on the offensive side, it’s the defense where García is really making his bones for Texas.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Similarly, there’s another young star garnering all of the attention for his bat, but less so with the glove, and that’s your leading American League MVP candidate. The difference between someone like García and Guerrero Jr. is that the former is up there with the league’s elite, whereas the latter is simply showcasing improvement. Which is fine, since we’re examining overlooked defense and not anything else. In Vladito’s case, overlooked certainly fits the bill.
Guerrero Jr.’s defensive outputs in 2020—his first year at first base—didn’t look terrific. He graded out in the bottom half of the league’s first sackers, with a -3 OAA and three percent less in his success rate vs. what was expected. He posted a -4 DRS and his UZR came in at -1.8 (albeit with just over 220 innings of sample size). Coming over from third base, you’d expect the hands and the instincts to be above average on the other corner. It was just a matter of the adjustment over the course of last year into 2021.
And while he doesn’t grade out as anything spectacular, Guerrero Jr. has been quite good at first base this year. He comes in at exactly average in OAA, while his -2 DRS shows an improvement, even if it’s still technically below average. His UZR/150 thus far sits at 3.4, which is a significant improvement from anything he’s done on the defensive side of the ball, regardless of which corner he’s lined up. His 72 percent success rate is also exactly where it should be.
Again, the thing with Vlad Jr. here isn’t that it’s elite, but it’s showing fairly significant improvement. When you combine even average defense with the offensive output that he’s demonstrating, well, you already see it.
In all honesty, I never thought there would be a point in my life where I would ever include Mike Tauchman in an article. I just never felt the need. But for a San Francisco Giants team that just refuses to go away, Tauchman has been a defensive catalyst all over the outfield grass.
Among outfielders, Tauchman’s OAA of four trails only three names (including the aforementioned García) and sits in the 93rd percentile among all position players. He has a DRS of seven, which is second-most among outfielders, while his UZR/150 sits at 11.1. He’s been especially strong in left field, which makes sense given the dangers of center and right in his home park.
What’s impressive about Tauchman’s presence on this list is A. the fact that he has been a largely inconsistent fielder throughout his career, by most metrics, and B. that he doesn’t necessarily have the physical tools of some of his outfield counterparts. His sprint speed sits in just the 61st percentile. But his reads and his jump in the outfield have contributed to him converting three out of eight 4-Star catches and above, which is among the league’s best in terms of conversion rates.
Defense is among the anchors of this continually-surprising Giants team, with Tauchman featuring as a heavy contributor. Even if the overall numbers are buoyed by his left field play, it still speaks to his strength there.
Hoerner’s been on the Injured List for some time with a hamstring issue, but he deserves credit for what he turned in during a relatively small sample, nonetheless. You might be asking yourself, “Randy, you idiot, why are you rearing your ugly Cubs bias and bringing in a guy who has logged roughly 120 innings at second base when there are likely more deserving candidates in hilariously large pool of players?”
There’s really two answers to that. Reason 1: There are a lot of reasons to talk about the Chicago Cubs. They’ve wildly outplayed expectations, their bullpen is spectacular, and their offense has been strong. On the other side, they have no starting pitching and their penny-pinching ownership is still facing the prospect of multiple core players walking after the season. If the goal is to look at overlooked players, why in the world would anybody talk about Nico Hoerner, even when he’s healthy? Reason 2: Nico Hoerner has been really damn good at second base.
In 122.2 innings, Hoerner’s notched five DRS and a UZR/150 of 13.5. The former ranks third among second baseman who have at least as many innings, while the latter leads the group (likely due to the smaller sample). From a Baseball Savant standpoint, his OAA of five trails only José Peraza. Probably the most impressive figure to emerge from all of this is the fact that Hoerner has a success rate of 85 percent against an expected rate of 77 percent. That success rate in itself is the highest among second basemen, while the success rate added trails only Peraza.
The fact that Eric Sogard has been Hoerner’s primary replacement enhances the meaning of defense at the position even more. He’s at a -2 OAA and has a lower success rate than is expected of him. Plus, you really just have to consider how much fun it is to watch a combination of Hoerner and Javier Báez up the middle when the younger of the two is healthy.
Ultimately, this is a snapshot of just a few guys who I, personally, felt needed their proper due in matters of the glove. Again, none of this is to say that these guys are elite. You could probably make that in Newman’s case. García’s too. But there’s something to be said for guys that are either showing marked improvement with the stick or are generating so much discussion at the plate that we forget to acknowledge the other side of things. In any case, I’ll swing back around for some more in the coming weeks.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.