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The Best Defensive Team of the 21st Century

April 16, 2020
We covered the best defensive players of the 21st century in a series of articles (and Twitter polls) the last two weeks. But what about trying to figure out which was the best defensive team?
The first season for tracking Defensive Runs Saved was 2003, so we'll use numbers from that year forward to try to figure it out and we'll look at other measures to evaluate if any team from 2000 to 2002 belongs on the list. Keep in mind that from 2003 to 2012, we are using the older version of Defensive Runs Saved. From 2013 forward, we're using the updated version of the stat, which we introduced last year.



Most Team Defensive Runs Saved
Since 2003

Team DRS
2018 Diamondbacks 148
2019 Dodgers 126
2019 Diamondbacks 112
2018 Brewers 107
2016 Cubs 107
2005 Phillies 97


The 2018 Diamondbacks are the standard setters for defensive excellence with 148 Runs Saved. Shortstop Nick Ahmed led all players at that position with 30 Runs Saved. Catcher Jeff Mathis won a Fielding Bible Award, impressive considering that he played only 63 games behind the plate. But he saved 20 runs, which made his greatness hard to deny. The Diamondbacks' other catchers, John Ryan Murphy and Alex Avila, combined to save 11 more runs in their time share.

Ahmed was part of a very strong infield, along with second baseman Ketel Marte (12 Runs Saved) and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (11).

The 2019 Dodgers had the second-highest total with 126 Runs Saved. The strength of the Dodgers was their positional versatility. Cody Bellinger became the first player to win two Fielding Bible Awards in a season, taking the honor for right field and winning our Multi-Positional award for also being strong in center field and at first base.

Max Muncy filled in ably at three positions, including a stellar stint at third base when Justin Turner got injured. Kiké Hernández played a Gold Glove-caliber second base (13 Runs Saved) but also got time across the outfield and infield. Joc Pederson saved six runs at each corner outfield spot. Alex Verdugo saved eight between right field and center field.

In the case of both the Dodgers and Diamondbacks, defensive shifting played a key role in their numbers being as high as they were. As we've noted in The Fielding Bible—Volume V, teams are saving more runs due to shifting. The Dodgers tied for the MLB lead in Runs Saved from their shift positioning last season. The 2018 Diamondbacks ranked seventh.

More broadly, from 2018 to 2019, teams saved more than 800 runs from their shift positioning. Compare that to 15 years ago when there were almost no runs being saved with the shift because there were barely any shifts.

Among the other teams in the top six, the 2016 Cubs merit mention given that their defense helped the team win the World Series for the first time since 1908. Anthony Rizzo (first base) and Javier Báez (multi-position) won Fielding Bible Awards. Jason Heyward (third in right field), Kris Bryant (third at multi-position) and Addison Russell (fourth at shortstop) also placed high in Fielding Bible voting. The Cubs were the best team in the majors when it came to turning ground balls into outs. And it was a ground ball on which Bryant made the play that ended their championship drought.

Also, the 2005 Phillies were the only team prior to 2016 to make the top six. They got a combined 85 of those Runs Saved from their infielders. Second baseman Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins led the way with 20 and 18 Runs Saved, respectively. David Bell (17 Runs Saved) and Ryan Howard (11) were strong at the corners (Howard wasn't typically this good). What kept this team from a higher spot was a couple of weak spots: Bobby Abreu in right field (-9) and Mike Lieberthal (-12) behind the plate.

As for pre-2003, if you consider another defensive metric, Total Zone Runs, which is available on Baseball-Reference (explanation here) two teams that might have made our list are the 2001 Mariners and 2002 Angels.

The Mariners won 116 games that season with an outfield that featured two star defenders, Ichiro Suzuki and Mike Cameron, along with corner infield standouts John Olerud and David Bell. The Angels won the World Series in 2002, led by Darin Erstad, who won a Gold Glove in the outfield that season and two years later won one at first base.



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