Truly excellent defensive baseball is highly misunderstood by most fans today for a couple of simple reasons. The statistics (UZR, defensive runs saved, errors, assists, range factor) we currently have to evaluate an individual’s defensive contributions aren’t all that informative with each one containing inherent flaws, the fact that most people don’t have the time of day or the drive to watch more than a couple of teams, and the idea that most people don’t have a great understand how Major League defense actually works. The highlight shows on ESPN don’t do much to help that perception because they can make defenders who are a step late and need to dive look like All-Stars while simultaneously ignoring players who get excellent jumps on the ball off the bat, thus rendering the aforementioned dive as unnecessary. Well, I’m here today to help with all of that by discussing a few of the best defensive teams and units in baseball, starting with the best of the best in the outfield.
The best outfield defense that I have seen all year in baseball belongs to the Atlanta Braves. No franchise boasts as many qualified Gold Glove candidates as Atlanta does, and the entire roster as a whole understands how to flash the leather. The Braves have been excellent in the field for most of the season, hanging around the top 10 in defensive efficiency, currently ranking 9th. For the Braves it all starts in the outfield with Michael Bourne, Martin Prado, and Jason Heyward. Batters beware if you plan on trying to bloop a hit in this Bermuda triangle of defense, because chances are that the ball isn’t going to land safely.
Michael Bourne is the prototypical centerfielder, possessing outrageous range that allows him to cover both outfield gaps with ease. He’s tracked down more balls than any other National League centerfielder this season, recording 377 while making just 2 errors. Bourne’s speed also has the added effect of halting base runners in their tracks. Bourne has played in every Braves game this season except for 1, and Atlanta centerfielders lead the league in a statistic known as held percentage. What is held percentage? While I’m glad you asked.
Held percentage looks at a variety of base running scenarios when an opposing offense has a base runner on base and gets a potential opportunity to advance said runner two bases on a single, three bases on a double, and the various sac fly situations. Now, it doesn’t take into account how the ball was hit or where it was hit in the field, but it’s a solid estimate of how well a fielder holds a runner to the minimum number of bases. And Michael Bourne is damn good at that, holding the runner a league high 51.5% of the time in 171 chances. Bourne only has 3 assists total this season, which means that he’s doing his work before a throw is required by doing little things like getting a good jump on the ball and using his world-class speed to get to it as quick as a flash. If you get to the ball right away base runners don’t have the opportunity to, you know, actually run.
Left fielder Martin Prado is also excellent at holding runners to the minimum amount of bases, posting a 73.7% held rate in 99 chances, which is excellent for a right fielder. Now the reason Prado’s number is higher than Bourne’s is because it’s easier for left fielders to prohibit advances, especially to 3rd base because very few players in baseball even consider trying to advance to third from first on a single, and even fewer can actually do it. Prado also has 9 assists this year in only 112 outfield games, which ranks 3rd among left fielders despite the fact that he’s played up to 300 fewer innings than most of the leader board. His versatility to play multiple positions is also a big plus to Atlanta’s defense.
Finally, in left field we have Jason Heyward, who has emerged as a force with both the bat and the glove. His biggest strength on defense is his rocket launcher arm that ranks 2nd in the National League in assists by an outfielder with 13. The big right fielder is actually the weakest member of the trio at preventing runners from advancing, but that’s normal for right fielders on the whole, because generally they have the longest throws to make. Heyward also covers plenty of ground as well, ranking as the number one left fielder in putouts, Total Zone Runs and defensive runs saved.
Put all of these great fielders together and you get defensive nirvana. The Braves trio ranks 3rd in the NL in total hold percentage, keeping base runners to just the one base 55.2% of the time in the 5 situations listed above. And Atlanta is just percentage points behind leaders Cincinnati and San Francisco, both of whom also boast strong glove men in the outfield.
You really begin to see the difference between the good defensive outfielders and the bad when you start to break the numbers down. For example, the Pirates rank last in the NL in held percentage at a meager 47.4%, with the Rockies in 2nd to last at 50.7%. The Braves have had 504 of these type of chances this year and have only allowed the runner to advance 226 times. Contrast that with Pittsburgh, 272 advances in 517 opportunities, and Colorado, 322 advances in 653 opportunities and you can really see the effects. A good outfield defense can basically save you around 40-60 bases a season compared to the worst trios in the league, and about 15-30 bases compared to a defense that’s about league average. Those bases equal runs and can really hurt a team in the loss column as well.
All three members of the Atlanta outfield should receive strong consideration to win a Gold Glove. Bourne should take the trophy in center hands down, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Heyward take home some hardware as well, although he’s a little less deserving. Prado’s usefulness as a utility player will probably cost him an award, but if the league handed out a Gold Glove for one utility guy, the Braves 2nd base/outfielder would be your man. Atlanta’s chances at giving Chipper Jones a proper sendoff – you know one that ends with a parade – appear to be very high. The pitching staff, Kris Medlen in particular, has been lights out unhittable during the 2nd half and the offense does a solid job scoring runs, ranking in the middle of the National League. Combine a good defensive infield like Atlanta has with its glovely outfield, and you have a potential recipe for success.
Other outfields in consideration: Cincinnati Reds, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox