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.
Exactly 10 years ago the shortstop position was going through a golden age. Five different shortstops, A-Rod, Jeter, Garciaparra, Tejada, and Vizquel, would all be named to the AL All-Star team. One of those players, Miguel Tejada, would take the award over another, Alex Rodriguez. The position was one of incredible depth, and the common notion of the era was that it took a good shortstop to win the World Series. 10 years later, there are once again All-Star caliber shortstops popping up in cities everywhere, playing great defense, hitting for average, and hitting for power. The position has been on fire this season, with many players posting elite numbers currently. Let’s take a look at a few.
Tulowitzki has held the unofficial title of best shortstop alive for the past 3 seasons running. In the National League, he has monopolized the awards circuit, winning the past 2 Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers. Tulo is once again off to a solid start, hitting .295/.390/.500, while drawing walks in a career-best 15% of his at-bats. Tulowitzki also has the ability to drive the ball like few others at short can, blasting a position-leading 89 homers over the past 3 seasons. The defensive metrics are also very pro-Tulo, ranking him near the top of almost everyone. Shortstops with this combination of power, average, and defense are absurdly rare, and Colorado was wise to lock him up for the next decade.
The shortstop currently hitting the best in all of baseball is one of the oldest at the position. Jeter is a rare bird at age-37, providing offensive production that has never been seen before at his age. His currently batting line: .366/.395/.610 with 2 homers and 4 doubles. Jeter has shown more pop in his bat during the first 2 weeks of 2012, than at any point in the last 2 seasons, and he’s doing this out of the leadoff spot. His production over the years is legendary, as he has racked up 7 top-10 MVP finishes, 5 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers, and 12 All-Star appearances. He was one of the 3 best shortstops in the league a decade ago, and has maintained his skills in a way that none of the other players could. Jeter is a surefire, 1st ballot Hall of Famer with 5 World Series rings as well, more than any other current player outside of his teammate Mariano Rivera.
From shortstop past to shortstop future, Castro is a precocious 22-year-old, who has a seemingly endless supply of talent. The Cubbie is crushing opposing pitchers this year, to the tune of a .359/.395/.436 slash. He is also a demon on the base paths; ranking 2nd in baseball in steals with 6 without being caught. He is a career .306 hitter in around 1200 career at-bats, which is elite for a shortstop. He needs to work on his ability to draw walks and his defense however. He is a bit sloppy in the field leading the NL already in 2012, after leading the league a year ago. But he has excellent range and quickness, which allows him to cover a large area. As he cuts his errors down with experience look for Gold Gloves in his future.
The Washington Nationals’ shortstop came into spring fighting for his position, after an abysmal 2011 that saw his numbers drop across the board. Desmond, like the rest of the list, is tearing the cover off the ball so far in 2012. He’s hitting .354/.380/.479, and his defense is looking much improved. His range has never been in question, as he has ranked in the top-5 in the league each year in assists, but he has been error prone in the past. At age-26, he seems to have finally calmed down in the field, and is making both the routine plays and the spectacular ones. If Desmond continues to play at a high level the Nationals will be for real this year.
At age-33, Rollins is now one of the more senior shortstops in baseball. He has struggled with injury the past couple of seasons, but is still capable of putting up a huge year. Rollins is a 3-time Gold Glove winner, a former MVP, and a World Series winner. So far in the young season he’s hitting .351/.368/.378 with 2 steals. His power may be drying up, seeing that he only has 2 extra-base hits, but in the Phillies current lineup, Rollins has very little protection, so pitchers are staying away from the middle of the plate. When Utley and Howard return, expect an uptick in his production.
Asdrubal had his coming out party in 2011, crushing the ball to the tune of a .273/.332/.460 slash with 25 homers. He was named to his first All-Star team, and took home the Silver Slugger award for his efforts. Cabrera has power to all fields, is an excellent gap hitter, and has the ability to successfully steal bases. Much of Cabrera’s value also lies in his fantastic range in the field. He can frequently be seen making some of the flashiest plays in baseball, diving, flipping the ball behind his back, and more. At age-26 he is just entering his prime and should be an All-Star for years to come. Cabrera has had a good start to his 2012 campaign, hitting .282/.333/.513 with 2 homers and 3 doubles.
JJ Hardy was finally able to stay on the field in 2011, hitting a massive 30 homers and 27 doubles. Hardy has been cursed with the injury bug for most of his career, after beginning it with such promise. During 2007 and 2008 he hit a combined 50 homers and 61 doubles for the Brewers, making 1 All-Star team. Hardy has struggled out of the gate this year, but should be expected to top 25 homers and hit around .265 again, which are excellent numbers up the middle. Hardy is also an excellent defender with great instincts. His throwing arm is strong, and he is excellent on relays and balls hit in the hole. If the Orioles could put together a decent team, Hardy would probably be a lead competitor to win the Gold Glove award.
There are plenty of other young, talented shortstops on their way up as well. Down in Miami they have Jose Reyes, a premier offensive talent with blazing speed. The Dodgers speedster Dee Gordon is fun to watch and leads the National League in steals with 7 in 10 games. Zach Cozart is only 26 and has been hitting the ball hard every time at-bat for Cincinnati. Rafael Furcal may be in the midst of a renaissance season in St. Louis, hitting .292 and swiping 2 bags already after years of injury sapped his speed. And Elvis Andrus is still just 23 and has already swiped 30+ bases in 3 seasons. Baseball is always better when the shortstop position is deep, and this may be one of the most talented groups of players since the Holy Grail a decade ago.
The second base position is loaded going into 2012 with talent permeating throughout the Major Leagues from players just hitting their primes, like Brandon Phillips in Cincinnati, to up-and-comers such as Dustin Ackley in Seattle . The elite class of second basemen however, play for the powerhouses in the AL East, Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia. The second base debate was touch on a little last season, but let’s give it a little more in-depth look.
Dustin Pedroia and Robinson Cano each finished in the top 10 of the MVP balloting last season, and for good reason. The pint-sized Red Sox hit .307/.387/.474 with 21 homers and 91 RBI, while receiving a majority of his at bats in the 2 hole. Not to be outdone, Cano hit an impressive .302/.349/.533 with 28 homers and 118 RBI while primarily hitting 5th in the Yankee lineup. Both players are highly effective fielders as well, with each splitting the last 2 Gold Gloves in the AL.
Pedroia is most known for his endless grit and hustle, both of which will be discussed anytime you turn a Red Sox game on. If you watch him on defense, before each pitch he starts in the shallows of the outfield, takes a large leap to the edge of the infield dirt, gets low and into position. All this movement can distract a batter and makes Pedroia a little quicker to the ball. Pedroia was 5th in the American League in assists last season, with 425, which can be attributed to how many more ground balls he is able to reach compared to the average 2nd baseman.
In addition to his production at the plate, he steals bases at a good clip, with an 80.9% success rate over his career, after a career-high 26 steals in 2011. Pedroia does come with some downside, with a 36 point drop in his batting average on the road, hitting .287 compared to .323 in Fenway Park. His OPS takes a 113 point dive, down to a solid .780. This is a relatively minor issue because he still produces at a near-elite level outside of Boston but it is worth noting. His home/road power numbers are fairly evenly split over the course of his career (40 homers to 35 on the road), disputing the notion that he only can go deep in Fenway. He is also fantastic at working a pitcher deep into at bats and drawing a walk. Last year Pedroia walked a career-high 86 times and worked the count full 106 times OPS’ing an absurd 1.132 in those situations. He grinds out every at bat, which makes the opposing pitcher show him and his teammates all his pitches.
Robinson Cano, age 29, is at the peak of his career, coming off of three straight fantastic seasons. He has been eerily consistent hitting at least 40 doubles, 25 homers, producing between a .870-.920 OPS, while playing excellent defense. His power for the 2nd base position is impressive. Cano also has had no issue over the course of his career hitting left handed pitching. He has a career OPS of .854 against righties, while hitting for a .818 OPS against lefties. Cano does have a couple weaknesses. He does not walk very much, relying on a high batting average to keep his OPS up. The two seasons in his career when he did not hit .300 were also the only two in which he OPS’d less than .800. Cano also does not steal many bases, and he gets thrown out quite a bit when he does going only 28-53 in his career, for an abysmal 52.8% success rate.
Cano has one of the strongest arms for the position and he turns the double play quicker than any 2nd baseman in baseball because of it. He was able to turn 97 last year, second in the American League and only 4 behind Ian Kinsler. Because he can make an accurate throw without having his feet in proper position, he is able to mow down quicker runners and save the Yankees runs. His range is also excellent, as he was second among American League position players in assists at 444. The perception that he is slow-footed and does not get to as many grounders as the elite fielders is incorrect. Cano is one of the 3 best defense second baseman in the league and should be viewed as such.
Overall, you can’t go wrong if your starting 2nd baseman is Dustin Pedroia or Robinson Cano. Your team will most definitely put up a winning record and compete for a spot in October baseball. There are other great 2nd basemen in the league as well. Ben Zobrist is a jack-of-all-trades, Dustin Ackley is going to be a star, Ian Kinsler and Brandon Phillips can both mash, but none are as good as Cano or Pedroia. If I had to choose one player however, I would take Cano because he grades out slightly ahead of Pedroia offensively while playing him to a draw defensively. Cano has hit for a higher OPS the last 3 seasons, hits for more power, and drives in more runs. Pedroia’s advantage in talking walks and working deep into counts does not make up for that.