Best Tools 2012: Best Defense

Feb 25, 2012; Fort Myers, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia (15) during practice at spring training at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The Boston Red Sox have made tremendous progress in improving their team defense. Long gone are the days of lead footed sluggers roaming Fenway Park. Boston finished 4th in the American League in defensive efficiency last season, turning 70.1% of balls in play into outs. Utlimate Zone Rating, the often controversial system of defensive evaluation used at Fangraphs loved the defensive contributions of Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, who ranked 2nd and 3rd in runs saved by that system last season. Pedroia also won the Fielding Bible Award for best second basemen last season.

Ben Cherington and his team did not sit on their defensive laurels, however. They added a slick fielding outfield capable of playing all three outfield positions in Ryan Sweeney and brought in Nick Punto to back up Youkilis, Pedroia and Aviles in the infield. With the team becoming more ground ball centric this season and taking a chance on some low strike out pitchers for the back end of the rotation, the 2012 team will emphasis defense as much as any Red Sox team in recent memory.

So who is the team’s Best Defender?

2009-2011 Fielding Data

Name

Pos

Inn

DRS

BIZ

Plays

RZR

OOZ

TZL

UZR

UZR/150

Carl Crawford

LF

3641.1

34

688

622

0.904

247

24

33.5

12.8

Dustin Pedroia

2B

3406.1

31

917

779

0.85

97

14.9

31.1

13.2

Adrian Gonzalez

1B

4109.2

18

654

526

0.804

103

21.3

18.1

5.5

Ryan Sweeney

RF

1412.2

12

274

255

0.931

92

14.3

10.9

10.2

Jacoby Ellsbury

CF

2765.2

-3

663

612

0.923

166

-3.8

7.2

3.6

Did you even really need that data set? For this one, the answer is obvious, even if the stats disagree. Dustin Pedroia is a fielding god. The self proclaimed "Muddy Chicken" gets down and dirty, launching his small frame across the entire expanse of the diamond’s right side to cover a phenomenally large area from his post at second base. He has a arm that could play on the other side of the diamond and he rarely ever misfires. Most importantly though, he has an almost Jedi-like ability to position himself perfectly for each opposing hitter, making the need for highlight reel plays unusual (though he makes those plays too).

My (slightly embarrassing) pick from last year, Carl Crawford still gets the advantage in runs saved by every system shown above, but after a poor showing in his first season in front of the monster, I have come to believe that UZR might systematically inflate the value of good defensive left fielders. Over the past two seasons Brett Gardener has led all fielders in UZR. Before that, Carl Crawford was that system’s golden boy. Both are excellent fielders, probably capable of playing center, but do they really save more runs than any other fielders in the game? My feeling is that UZR and other related systems overvalue a few very good left fielders because at the opposite extreme, left field features some dreadful glove men. There is zombie Johnny Damon, Delmon Young, Vernon Wells, and undead Bobby Abreu at that position. The average is not purely representative of the group because those players are getting time there because of the relatively limited impact that their gloves have at the position. Were teams to use the Endy Chavez’s of the world consistently instead a higher threshold might more accurately account for these plus defenders contributions.

Conversely, second base in the American League features some eye popping defensive play. Texas has Ian Kinsler, Tampa Bay often employs Ben Zobrist there, the Angels have Howie Kendrick, and even one of the weaker players fielding-wise, the Yankees Robinson Cano, gets a lot of praise for his glove (deserved or not). Regardless, Dustin Pedroia is a level above all of those players. He was more than three runs per 150 games better than the second place Ian Kinsler last season and over the past three years. He has been worth nearly triple the value of another excellent defender, Howie Kendrick by UZR. Total Zone with Location data and DRS both slightly prefer Kinsler, but even by those systems, Pedey is as good as they come.

Adrian Gonzalez is among the best fielding first basemen in the game, leading in UZR and DRS, and third by TZL. He ranks third here by UZR and DRS, and TZL actually puts him ahead of Pedey, in what must certainly be a cosmic joke. Gonzo is a great defender but I am hard pressed to consider him the best on the team while he is playing a position that Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder can both "play."

Jacoby Ellsbury has gone from a guy who ‘takes poor routes’ to a great defender in the premium outfield position. His speed always made him seem destined for defensive greatness and in 2011 even the advanced stats had to agree. I don’t want to brag, but I jumped on that bandwagon early. Last season, Ellsbury not only covered a ton of ground in center, but he positioned himself well and played the wall with more skill than ever before. He might make a run at Pedroia’s crown.

New comer Ryan Sweeney can go get the ball as well, especially when playing right field, where he has been the best defensively. Fenway demands good range in a right fielder and Sweeney should be a great fit in that respect. With Ellsbury, Crawford and Sweeney, Boston could have the best defensive outfield baseball next season. At the very least they will make it very tough for the limited number of batted balls that make it to the outfield to fall in for extra base this.

The OTM writers were more than unanimous, they were harmonious in their support for Pedroia in this category (Matt Kory even hit a high E with his impressive falsetto). Not another name was even mentioned in the... well, whatever the opposite of a debate is. Still, there is a part of me that wants to pick Carl Crawford, if just to see what Pedroia will do to make that seem idiotic. Maybe if I go with CC, Pedroia will play six feet in front of home plate, immediately catching every batted the instant it leaves the barrel of the bat. Maybe he gets all Bugs Bunny about things. I don't know what he will do, but it will be awesome and I want to see it.

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