The Most Improved Defensive Teams

June 6, 2014

The Cardinals were an exceptional team last season. They finished tied with their eventual World Series opponent Red Sox for the most wins in baseball (97). They were fifth in baseball with a 3.42 team ERA and third with a .332 on-base percentage. However, that excellence did not extend to their defense. Baseball Info Solutions estimates their fielders combined to cost the team 39 runs, which was second worst in the NL, ahead of only the Phillies.

If their start to the 2014 is any indication, the Cardinals have dramatically overcome that weakness. So far, Cardinals defenders have saved their team 40 runs. That’s a 79-run improvement over last year already and 10 runs more than the second best team, the Brewers. Using the 10 runs per win rule of thumb, that theoretically translates to a seven or eight win defensive improvement. If you prorate their Defensive Runs Saved total over a full season, the Cardinals are on pace to become the team with the biggest defensive turnaround from last season by a wide margin:

Most Improved Defensive Teams
(based on Defensive Runs Saved)
Team 2013 DRS 2014 DRS Projected Improvement
Cardinals -39 106 145
Athletics -45 51 96
Mariners -97 -8 89
Angels -57 30 87
Rockies -4 65 69


Several of the Cardinals' offseason moves have fueled their turnaround. Last season, David Freese cost them 14 runs at third base. They traded him to the Angels for noted gloveman Peter Bourjos, who has saved them four runs so far in center field. In addition, free agent signing Jhonny Peralta has saved nine runs defensively, and free agent signing Mark Ellis and call-up Kolten Wong have combined to save 11 runs at second base.

Of course, it is a lot to ask for the Cardinals to keep up this defensive pace. Should they falter, the Athletics, Mariners, Angels, and Rockies are the best candidates to potentially surpass them as the most improved defensive team.

Josh Donaldson (14 Defensive Runs Saved) and Josh Reddick (7 DRS) have been responsible for most of the Athletics’ defensive success. Meanwhile, the Mariners’ rebound is more about the "loss" of defensive liabilities like Raul Ibanez (-19 DRS) and Michael Morse (-16 DRS) than it is about excellent defense now.

Mike Trout’s own turnaround from a minus-9 DRS center fielder in 2013 to a plus-4 DRS center fielder this season has helped turn the Angels into the second best defensive team in the AL. J.B. Shuck and Collin Cowgill have also helped, the former saving six runs in left field and the latter saving five runs in right field. The Rockies have the best defensive infield in baseball. Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado have combined to save the team 21 runs on that left side alone. A commitment to defense has helped all five teams enter the thick of their respective division races.


COMMENTS (3 Comments, most recent shown first)

I've bought and read all three Fielding Bibles and continue to be skeptical as to whether 'runs saved' are real runs in the same way that 'runs created' are. We spend no little time in the Reader area discussing the relative importance to defense of pitching and fielding, so this is a real issue, just as it is for the reliability of combined metrics like WAR or Total Runs.
3:30 PM Jun 9th
I doubt that this article's author intended for it to dispel anyone's doubts about whether DRS accurately measures runs saved. I suggest you buy Fielding Bible III if you want that.
6:23 PM Jun 7th
Peter Bourjos is a superior center fielder, but because of his feeble bat his playing time has been limited. I am skeptical of the claim that he has saved a full four runs.

I've had my doubts about the 'runs' that DRS is attempting to measure, and nothing in this article does anything to dispel them.
3:51 PM Jun 7th
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