Team Defense and the AL West
August Fagerstrom has a great article at Fangraphs today on projections of team defense for 2016. As you might imagine, a few of the AL West clubs look pretty different heading into 2016 than they did in 2015, with the Angels acquiring perhaps the best defensive player on the planet, and the M’s remaking their outfield by adding Leonys Martin and subtracting the bizarre experiment of Brad Miller/Mark Trumbo/Logan Morrison. Meanwhile, knowing more about some of the players in Houston and Oakland mean we can hopefully make better predictions than last year. To be clear: projecting team defense is really, really hard. This makes some sense at a really high level, but the numbers themselves – the magnitude of a team’s advantage/deficit – are going to be wrong for a variety of reasons. The point of this post is to look at where the AL West defenses stand here on the precipice of the all-important Cactus League “season,” to examine the impact of some of the big off-season trades on defense, and to see how well last year’s predictions did.
1: Let’s start with last year’s forecasts, as if this tool has limited predictive power, your interest in the rest of the post may wane. Last year, the top projected defense in the AL West was Oakland, at…wait! Where are you all going? Houston was projected to bring up the rear, with the M’s and Rangers around average, and the Angels a few runs worse than that. What actually happened is, well, since we’re talking about defense, “what actually happened” is actually a debatable issue. By UZR, the A’s were absolutely abysmal, coming in somewhere around 50 runs – 5 whole wins – below their projected total of 14 runs above average. But by DRS (defensive runs saved), they essentially hit that projection on the head, grading out at +16. The projections saw big contributions from Craig Gentry, Billy Burns and Brett Lawrie, who’d combine to more than make up for weakness at the shortstop position. By UZR, Burns and Lawrie were butchers, and Gentry’s defense very quickly became irrelevant when he couldn’t hit. Lawrie ranked poorly by both systems, but that shortstop position is a big one. By UZR (and errors), Marcus Semien awful – a second-half rebound kept him from late-period-Jeter ignominy, but it was still clearly a poor season. But by DRS, Semien was 4 runs above average. Selectively applying the straight-face test to defensive statistics is both poor analysis and the lifeblood of anti-defensive-stats comments, but I don’t care: Semien wasn’t 4 runs above average at SS.
So, the projections whiffed on Oakland. How about Houston? Er, this one may have been worse, though the reasons are somewhat understandable. A huge component of these defensive projections is estimating each player’s playing time. A year ago, people guessed Jed Lowrie would be Houston’s SS for most of the year. Instead, this fellow named Correa came up and played a solid half of the year, and Jose Altuve – picked as one of the worst defenders before 2015 – turned in a solid year by both UZR and DRS. But here again, the two systems differ markedly in what kind of club Houston was. By DRS, Houston was the class of the division, saving 30 runs, or nearly 5 whole wins better than their projection. By UZR, they were essentially average. Even that mark blows the projection out of the water, but it gives Houston’s pitchers a bit more credit for their suprising 2015 than does DRS.
The other estimates weren’t a whole lot better, with the M’s actual defense grading out far worse than projected, and the Rangers coming a bit better. The M’s numbers were dragged down in the 2nd half when the club punted outfield defense entirely in a bid to score more runs, and both UZR and DRS penalize them for it. The M’s OF was 45 runs below average by DRS, or about 23 runs below according to UZR. In fairness to the projection, nobody saw Mark Trumbo, everyday RF, coming. The Rangers actual results are close enough that it doesn’t much matter, and you can point to a good season from Adrian Beltre as a big reason why. Again, the projections may have assumed less from Beltre given his injuries and age. The Angels came in around 3 wins better than their projection, thanks to better than expected years from 3B David Freese (and back-up Taylor Featherston) and RF Kole Calhoun, who’s projection looks much different going into 2016.
So far, the projections don’t look so hot, but something about the AL West may have proven tricky; overall, they did a bit better. They predicted San Diego as baseball’s worst defensive group, and they were in fact awful. They identified Chicago as one of the worst teams in the AL, and they clearly were. The projections correctly tabbed Kansas City as an elite club, and saw the Rays as a plus team (employing Kevin Kiermaier helps, of course). There were other odd misses, as New York and Baltimore were both projected as great teams, and turned in below-average years, while Minnesota was nowhere near as bad as the projections thought. That’s a bit better than they did in the AL West, but it’s not a great track record overall. What have we proven? Projecting team defense is hard, and it helps to have one or two transcendent (or ghastly) defenders to essentially carry the team projection.
2: So, the M’s re-made their defense, adding perennial gold glove candidate Leonys Martin while subtracting a declining Austin Jackson+Brad Miller+Dustin Ackley. How much will that do for the club? A lot, hopefully! The M’s ranked 17th in outfield putouts last year, 140 behind the Angels, thanks to a pitching staff that yielded a lot of ground balls. Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma are clearly elite GB% guys, and James Paxton’s above average himself. For 2016, they’re bringing in Wade Miley – another GB guy – and Nate Karns, who’s more of a fly ball pitcher. It’s possible that the starting rotation could see four GB pitchers around Tai Walker. The OFs will still get plenty of opportunities to make plays, but it’s interesting, and I wonder if it gives Karns a slight advantage over Paxton as spring training looms (Paxton will start the first Cactus League game, so maybe not). The M’s bullpen figures to be much more fly-ball oriented, so the M’s team GB% will undoubtedly go down, but their rotation figures to keep the ball down more than most.
The opposite’s true at SS. Last year, M’s shortstops racked up 505 assists, 5th most in the league, and over 100 more than the Rays/Angels SS. The Rays and Angels posted the lowest GB% in the league, and that played to their defensive strengths. Trout/Calhoun or Kiermaier/literally anyone are formidable defenders, and their pitchers acted accordingly. But what do the Angels do now that they’ve acquired the Kiermaier of the infield, Andrelton Simmons? Their rotation figures to be much the same as it was last year, with fly-ballers like Jered Weaver, Andrew Heaney and especially Hector Santiago penciled in, with Matt Shoemaker (another FB guy) adding depth. Ace Garrett Richards is another elite GB% pitcher, so Simmons won’t get bored out there, but I wonder if his UZR/DRS numbers will take a hit when his chances drop, because his chances are going to be slashed. A healthy second half from Tyler Skaggs might mitigate this somewhat.
3: So where does that leave the division? Well, the Angels rank #1 defensively, thanks to Simmons and a very good OF, while the M’s are slightly above average thanks to improvements in OF canceling out a drop at catcher*. The A’s are now forecasted as one of the worst clubs in baseball, with Semien the worst offender, and 3B (Danny Valencie) a problem as well. Houston’s above average this year thanks to a whole year of Carlos Correa, a much more neutral forecast for Altuve, and very good OF play. The Rangers have fallen a bit, as their OF’s dropped off significantly as Martin’s replacement, Delino DeShields, rated below average last year.
The M’s at around average feels about right, though I think we’d all say there’s a lot of volatility there, as the starting SS has a big league track record of 60 games or so. They were *good* games, but he played a lot of 2B in the minors and the Rainiers started him in CF a few times as well, thinking that as long as they were going to yank around their big league SS, they could do the same in AAA. Marte looks the part of a good defensive SS, though his arm isn’t quite up to big league average standards. They have depth at the position, but are apparently looking for more, so if Marte faceplants defensively, they can swap someone else in. The M’s rank below average everywhere on the IF but 3B (thanks, Kyle!), but again, I don’t know anyone who’d put money on that. Adam Lind has been around average at 1B, and a few runs better than that last year. Robbie Cano’s defense has been sliding, but he’s not a serious problem, and could easily grade out at average. There’s downside risk here too, of course, with aging players at 1B/2B/C and an untested SS. There’s more depth this year, but Clevenger is clearly on the team for his bat, and Luis Sardinas/Chris Taylor need to show they can hit enough to get meaningful time. It feels like a cop-out, but I think the projected figure of about 2 runs above average seems right. This not dissimilar from a coin flip or just discarding the defensive projection altogether, but it’s not: the M’s changed so much between March of 2015 and the end of the year, and then once again between the end of the season and February of 2016. The fact that they’re a bit better than they were last year obscures the fact that they’re a hell of a lot better than they were the last time we saw them, and that average-ish is a hell of an improvement in a short amount of time.
* These rankings don’t include catcher framing – this is about blocking pitches, throwing out runners and fielding the position.