Getting defensive: Gloves could be key in October

Getting defensive: Gloves could be key in October

Getting defensive: Gloves could be key in October
John Dewan is the founder of "The Fielding Bible" and the principal owner of Baseball Info Solutions, a leading statistics service. He has been a pioneer in the evolution of stats that quantify the importance of defense in baseball and the acumen of the players who enact it.

So when the Detroit Tigers, already one of the most defensively challenged teams in the game, signed marginal first-base defender Prince Fielder in the offseason and moved less-than-marginal former third-base experiment Miguel Cabrera back to the hot corner, Dewan could only shake his head.

"I couldn't understand why they wouldn't just have one of those guys DH," Dewan said. "Then again, part of me liked the move. I did grow up on the South Side of Chicago, you know."

The statistical findings of Dewan and others in the baseball world have proven that defense does make a difference, and defense might make the key difference in the upcoming postseason.

Detroit, according to Dewan's Defensive Runs Saved stat, has a DRS total of minus-41, making it the worst defensive team in the American League. Chicago is middle of the road, at plus-9, but when you factor in Dewan's assertion that 10 runs saved equals one win -- well, you do the math: if Detroit caught the ball more often, it might have already clinched the AL Central by now.

But before we go on and on about the Tigers, let's take a look at the other teams in the postseason conversation. Where do they rank defensively? A look at Dewan's numbers -- Baseball Prospectus' PADE (Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency) and the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) rankings at FanGraphs.com -- show some agreement and some difference.

Of the division leaders, the best defensive team so far, according to Baseball Prospectus, is the Washington Nationals. Baseball Prospectus has them at 1.98 in PADE -- which takes into account the amount of balls in play that a club converted into outs while taking into account how easy or difficult the home stadium plays defensively -- and ranked fifth in baseball (the fringe-contending Angels are ranked No. 1, at 2.46, and the Rays are next, at 2.39).

Dewan doesn't love the Nationals, though. His numbers have them at minus-10 runs saved. FanGraphs' UZR grades Washington a bit better, grading Davey Johnson's club out at 19.8, which ranks seventh in baseball.

"Left field is the problem spot there, at negative 16," Dewan said, pointing out that center fielder Bryce Harper has a plus-13, making him the fifth best at his position in baseball ... at the age of 19.

Dewan has the Angels at No. 1 in DRS with 65 runs saved (25 of them by 21-year-old center fielder Mike Trout alone), but he has the Atlanta Braves second with 61, largely because of the excellent work of the Atlanta outfield.

According to Dewan's numbers, Michael Bourn (24), Jason Heyward (17) and Martin Prado (11) have combined for 52 of those runs, or five games won.

"That's a phenomenal outfield performance and gives you one solid indication of why the Braves have been able to do what they've done this year, despite some issues with the pitching," Dewan said.

The next-best contender with solid defensive numbers, according to DRS, is the Reds (28). Baseball Prospectus has the Wild Card-steady Oakland A's fourth in PADE, at 1.80, with Baltimore ranking 10th (0.93) and the White Sox 13th (0.61).

UZR is derived from use of Dewan's data, according to FanGraphs, to "estimate each fielder's defensive contribution in theoretical runs above or below an average fielder at his position in that player's league and year."

Oddly, Dewan's numbers have the Orioles as a relatively poor defensive team (minus-19 runs saved), largely because of center fielder Adam Jones, whom Dewan calls "the worst defensive center fielder in baseball."

Jones, according to DRS, is minus-19 all by himself, and the inner numbers, Dewan said, show that it's because of how he positions himself.

"He has saved seven singles playing shallow at the cost of about 20-30 doubles in medium and deep center," Dewan said.

Dewan doesn't hesitate to point out Jones' tremendous offensive value to the Orioles. He makes the same statement about Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who is minus-16 in DRS this year (the Yanks are minus-14 as a team), but, according to Dewan, is "great because he gives you everything else."

On the down side of team defense, there's some argument between PADE and DRS when it comes to the Giants, who ran away with the National League West. PADE has them in the middle of the road with a 0.72 score, while DRS has them at minus-20. UZR has them at, well, exactly average and, for "Animal House" fans, the equivalent of future Senator John "Bluto" Blutarsky's grade-point average.

Zero point zero.

Which brings us to the fact there's 0.0 argument about the Tigers. When it comes to defense, they're bad, and if they do make the postseason, it wouldn't surprise anybody if it stung them at the wrong time.

"I think in some regards, I'd like to see them miss out on the playoffs so it will show people that these numbers are important, that they can explain that teams fare a much better chance at succeeding with good defense," Dewan said.

"And there's the White Sox thing, too."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.