So just how much impact can a baseball team make by upgrading its defense — particularly if that comes at the expense of the lineup?
That is the question that is swirling around the 2010 Red Sox after the team reached agreement on a one-year, $9 million deal with two-time Gold Glove third baseman Adrian Beltre that includes a $5 million player option for 2011.
The Sox offseason is now nearly done, and the overhaul has been dramatic. Jason Bay is gone, and Mike Lowell will soon no doubt follow suit, as the acquisition of Beltre makes clear. Their departures will deprive the Sox of a couple of their top run producers. But in their place, the team has made a concerted effort to sign players who are among the best in the game at preventing runs.
Beltre is a two-time Gold Glover whom the Sox once considered signing (after the 2004 season) to play shortstop. His talents in the field are considered ridiculous.
“[Beltre is] clearly the best [third baseman] I’ve ever seen in person,” Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon told WEEI.com earlier this offseason. “I think [Evan Longoria] is good, I used to think Scott Brosius was really good. … [Eric] Chavez was good, but Beltre was stupid good. I think Beltre is the best who I’ve ever seen with my two eyes — defender, not just third baseman, but defense.”
Mike Cameron is a three-time Gold Glover. His presence in center field will give the Sox an outfield that will cover up a lot of holes on balls hit in the air. Marco Scutaro, meanwhile, received extremely high marks for his defensive work as an everyday shortstop over the last two years.
With these acquisitions, the Sox will now feature an infield with three Gold Glovers (Beltre, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia) and an above-average fourth defender (Scutaro). The outfield of Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew should likewise benefit the pitching staff — which itself received an upgrade thanks to the signing of John Lackey.
That said, the Sox offense is almost certain to take a step back.
One can suggest that a full season of Victor Martinez and the signing of Scutaro will help to mitigate the dropoff. Perhaps Beltre — removed from the misery of Safeco Field and once again healthy after suffering bone spurs in his left shoulder and a testicle contusion in 2009 — could improve on his poor offensive numbers (.265 average, .304 OBP, .379 slugging, .683 OPS) of last season.
Still, the greater likelihood is that the team’s offense will be diminished, perhaps slightly, perhaps significantly.
If that happens, can the Sox still be a playoff team simply by virtue of a vastly improved defense? The Sox believe the answer is yes.
General manager Theo Epstein has noted on many an occasion that there’s more than one way to skin a cat (pity the feline) in building a playoff team. The Sox have no problems testing that proposition this year.
“There were times last year when we were inconsistent offensively. We were still third in the league in runs. We may not lead the league in runs. If we’re inconsistent again, that’s probably going to give us some trouble,” acknowledged Sox manager Terry Francona. “We’re trying to be one run better than the other team every night. There are a lot of ways to do that.
“Hitting a three-run homer is very welcome,” he added. “[But] any time you have good pitching and you catch the ball, you have a chance to be a pretty good team.”
Recent history backs that claim.
A few examples from this decade:
-- The 2009 Rangers experienced a massive offensive decline, scoring 119 fewer runs than they had the previous year. Yet they improved in the standings by eight full games.
-- The 2009 Mariners scored 31 runs fewer than the 2008 edition. Yet the M’s improved by a staggering 24 games in the standings.
-- In 2008, the Rays offense scored eight fewer runs than their predecessors of the previous season. Yet that team enjoyed one of the greatest single-season improvements in major-league history, improving by 31 games and becoming a playoff team.
-- The 2005 Indians scored 68 fewer runs than the 2004 Clevelanders. Yet they went from an 80-win club to a 93-win team.
Those four teams all shared a common source of improvement. All made defensive leaps forward — as measured by their defensive efficiency — that more than offset their diminished offenses.
Before proceeding any further, a note of explanation: defensive efficiency is a commonly used measure of a team’s ability to convert balls in play into outs. It represents the percent of times a batted ball in play (not including homers, on which a defense is assumed to have no chance) results in an out. Baseball Prospectus is one of several sites that charts the statistic.
The teams listed in this chart represent four of the 18 teams that enjoyed an improvement of at least 20 points in defensive efficiency between one year and the next over the past decade. The 2008-09 Rangers went from a dreadful .670 defensive efficiency to a .699 mark; the 2008-09 Mariners went from .682 to .712; the 2007-08 Rays went from a historically poor .656 mark to .710; and the 2004-05 Indians went from a poor .684 mark to a strong .710 defensive efficiency.
Obviously, there are other factors in play as well. It would be a mistake to suggest that the Rays’ 31-game improvement was solely the result of defense — their pitching staff, after all, also walked fewer batters and gave up fewer homers.
Yet the significance of glove work should not be underestimated, either — executives of two different front offices that believe in these sorts of numbers to assess defense suggested that Tampa Bay might have added as many as 12 or 15 wins in a single season through changes to their defensive alignment.
The 18 teams that improved their defensive efficiency by at least 20 points from 2000-09 averaged an increase of 10.5 wins in a single season. That overall improvement came despite an average decrease of 14 runs from one season to the next.
One can see the significance of defense and run prevention from the opposite perspective as well. The 2009 Blue Jays, for instance, boosted their scoring by 80 runs, yet they won 11 fewer games than they had the previous season (when their defensive efficiency was 22 points higher). The 2006 Indians pushed 80 more runs across the plate than the 2005 edition of the franchise, yet fell 15 games in the standings — in a season when Cleveland’s defensive efficiency fell by 35 points.
There were 12 teams in the period from 2000-2009 that suffered a decline in defensive efficiency of at least 20 points. On average, that group’s offense was slightly worse in the year of defensive decline (scoring 8.5 fewer runs per game). Yet the tumble in the standings was sizable, as the group of teams averaged a drop in the standings of 9.5 games.
These trends make clear that significant changes to the quality of a team’s defense can have a major impact on the club’s overall performance. Clearly, the Sox are banking on that notion in an offseason when they have made an effort to transform their defense from one of the worst in the majors to one of the best.
In 2009, an average team had a defensive efficiency of roughly .690. The Sox, however, finished 28th among the 30 major league teams with a .679 defensive efficiency rating, thus becoming one of the 12 teams in the past decade to suffer a drop in defensive deficiency of 20 or more points (the Sox went from a .699 rate in 2008 to .679 last year).
The 2009 team featured a lineup deep with power hitters and run producers but a glaring weakness in the field. Both by the eyeball test and as measured by statistics, the team’s defense was horrific — especially during the early part of the year when Julio Lugo (a bad defender who was further impaired by his recovery from knee surgery) and Lowell (an excellent defender whose range was ravaged by his recovery from right hip surgery) manned the left side of the infield.
One particularly brutal example of the team’s poor defense occurred in a May 9 game between the Sox and Rays. In one six-run inning, Tampa Bay grounded five weak ground balls through the hole between third and short. A good defensive club might have been able to get out of the inning without allowing a single run. The Sox permitted six.
Personnel on both teams saw that game as an example of a glaring deficiency on the Sox. Now, Boston has moved to address that in the form of Beltre — a third baseman with incredible range — and Scutaro, who graded as a well above-average shortstop over the past two years.
The Sox have upgraded the left side of their infield with those two players (at least if one compares Scutaro to the complete body of work by Sox shortstops in 2009). The right side of the infield, meanwhile, remains a formidable obstacle to grounders with Youkilis and Pedroia.
In the outfield, Ellsbury will represent a significant upgrade over Bay in left. Cameron should be an upgrade over the 2009 version of Ellsbury in center. And while Drew may find it difficult to replicate the best defensive year of his career, he should still be above average in right.
That group gives the Sox a fighting chance of returning to at least their 2008 levels of defensive performance. If they can do that, the team believes it can account for any offensive deficiencies.
“Every time we go through a good streak, I don’t think it’s luck that we’re playing good defense,” Francona said. “We always seem to be catching the ball and throwing it where we’re supposed to. If we can do that on a consistent basis, it’s going to make a good pitching staff that much better.”
Of the 18 teams to improve their defensive efficiency by at least 20 points last decade, 15 enjoyed improvements in the standings. As such, leather may give the Sox a solid shot at sustaining their run of six 95-win seasons in seven years, even if the offense takes a step backward.
“Our goal isn’t to lead the league in runs,” Francona said. “If we do that, I’d be thrilled. Our goal is to win as many games as we can. I’m comfortable with the way we’re going about this.”