Up-the-Middle Defense Projections

February 24, 2017

We are just getting started with Spring Training, but projection season is already in full swing, so let's take a peek at our Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) projections for 2017.

Below are the teams with the best and worst projected up-the-middle fielders (i.e. catcher, second baseman, shortstop, and center fielder). This is often a good proxy for overall defensive quality because non-catcher up-the-middle fielders see over one-third more opportunities per season than the corner positions do, and catchers can provide value on every single pitch.

We project the Blue Jays to be the best up-the-middle defensive team in 2017 with a total of 27 Runs Saved, and in fact they are the only team whose worst position among that group is still projected to be above average. It should not be too surprising to see them at the top of the heap given the defensive reputation of some of the players involved.

Toronto Blue Jays Primary Up-the-Middle Fielders
Pos Player 2017 Proj DRS* 2016 DRS*
C Russell Martin 6 7
2B Devon Travis 2 2
SS Troy Tulowitzki 5 10
CF Kevin Pillar 12 21
*At the position listed


Kevin Pillar fills up the highlight reel and has been a top-five defensive center fielder both of the last two years, and we project him to be second-best this year to another Kevin, Kiermaier of the Rays. While Troy Tulowitzki has not been an elite defensive shortstop in some time (he finished in the top five in DRS at his position in four of his first five full seasons), he still has not finished outside the top 10 in any of the last four seasons. One of the big reasons Russell Martin commanded an $82 million contract in 2014 is that he is one of the best pitch framers in the league, providing at least six Strike Zone Runs Saved every year that we have computed it (since 2010), which adds up to the second-best total in that time period. And the table above does not even include utility men Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins, who are two of the better defensive middle infielders in the league and will contribute to the overall team defensive quality.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Mets, whose ballyhooed starting rotation might end up underperforming again if our projection of -19 runs saved by their most important fielders is borne out.

New York Mets Primary Up-the-Middle Fielders
Pos Player 2017 Proj DRS* 2016 DRS*
C Travis d'Arnaud -5 -4
2B Neil Walker -1 0
SS Asdrubal Cabrera -9 -7
CF Curtis Granderson -4 1
*At the position listed


New York was in the market for a center fielder this offseason (although one target was Andrew McCutchen, who we noted a couple weeks ago has struggled in center), but now they will have to make do with 36-year-old Curtis Granderson. To begin the season, he projects to get most of the work in center field—ahead of a much better fielder in former Fielding Bible Award winner Juan Lagares—in his first substantial time at the position since 2012. On the other end of the field, Travis d’Arnaud is an above average pitch framer (he has the tenth most Strike Zone Runs Saved in the league since 2013 despite missing substantial time to injury), but his arm and pitcher-handling deficiencies have kept him from being an above average defender overall. Lastly, Asdrubal Cabrera’s range has been a liability for some time now (he has not had a Range and Positioning Runs Saved above -5 since 2011), and we project him to be the worst defensive shortstop in the league this season, tied with Xander Bogaerts.

Note: We only listed the players who project to get the majority of work at each position. The team totals account for all players who project to fill that position over the course of the year.


COMMENTS (5 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider

Just curious, why do you think defense in baseball is overrated?
11:49 AM Mar 3rd
At the risk of seeming greedy, might we perhaps be presented with a list of the top and bottom FIVE teams by this measure? It would taste even yummier than this #1 & #30 combo platter.
1:18 AM Feb 25th
Last year the Angels had very little offense outside of Mike Trout and the corpse of Albert Pujols. So one would think that there would be a push to add some bats to the lineup in the offseason. One would think wrong. The Angels have decided to go for improved defense rather than improved offense, adding Danny Espinosa at second base and Martin Maldonado behind the plate to go with Andrelton Simmons at short and Trout in center. Like Simmons, Espinosa and Maldonado have great defensive reps but pretty sour stats with the bat, with Maldonado posting an 82 OPS+ and Espinosa a 81 OPS+ to go with Simmons 92 OPS+ (Trout's 174 OPS+ is at least as good as any two of them combined). I am skeptical that this will work out. I think that defense in baseball tends to be overrated (pitching excluded), but the Angels are embarking on an experiment of putting defensive studs up the middle who, with one glaring exception, can't hit a lick. I think the Angels will be terrible, and more to the point, brutal to watch, with an offensive drought that spans the summer. But if defense is all that it's cracked up to be, the Angels could be contenders.
9:24 PM Feb 24th
Individually, I wouldn't find any of these numbers too surprising. But I do think D'Arnaud has the ability to be an above-average defender. Pillar is unbelievable. The 21 runs saved you credited him with last year seems conservative to me. I rated him ahead of Kiermaier. And I LOVE Kiermaier.
6:15 PM Feb 24th
I started reading this, and right away, I was like "Please don't mention the Mets, Please don't mention the Mets"....AHHH...knife in the heart.

Since we are in the Official Annual Travis Optimism season window, which roughly tracks Lent, we Mets fans hope for the emergence of the guy who Baseball America named d'Arnaud as the Best Defensive Catcher in the Eastern League for the 2011 season. I would have lost a bet, and did lose an argument, that his last two years he had a decent 25.6% CS%, just a red hair below league average. You can say it is the young pitching staff not holding runners on, but Rene Rivera, who had slightly more games last year, threw out 37%.

A betting man, given Travis's historical ability to stay on the field, and the preference for Rivera expressed by, notably, Syndergaard last year, might say that Rivera would again be getting a big chunk of the time behind the plate. In fact, Collins told D'Arnaud that they were only looking for 100 games for him behind the plate. Not sure what Rivera's DRS numbers are like.

At center....well, I'm hoping that in addition to Grandy we see more of 27-year-old former Gold Glove Lagares and less of Michael Conforto, who has been touted as slimming down and looking at time in center....but really looked very extremely corner outfieldy last year. Lagares was the fair-haired boy just a few years ago, cover of their media guide and got a long term deal, and if he could get the bat going again, he'll be somebody's centerfielder.

The development this week was that they had presented Jay Bruce with a first baseman's glove in the event of continuing back injury to Lucas Duda. That would open up right field for time with Grandy, and maybe more time in center for Lagares and maybe Nimmo as the fifth glove.

Cabrera...well, having watched the games, I'm a little surprised at him being ranked the worst SS in the league. He looked pretty slick...but I guess you can't "see" range too much. Maybe Reyes gets time there, I'd be curious how far he has slipped in the defensice projections.

Neil Walker at second...well, hope he hits 30 home runs.

1:18 PM Feb 24th
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