Defensive improvement pays off -- especially for the Dodgers
Six teams have benefited greatly from an upgraded defense this season
Those teams are the Mariners, Rangers, Tigers, Giants, Rockies and Dodgers
The Dodgers have a powerful offense and strong pitching as well
A number of writers, at SI and elsewhere, have recently discussed how a quick and cheap way for a major league team to improve its fortunes from one season to the next in this (presumably) Post-Steroid Era is to revamp its defense. In April, Tim Marchman persuasively argued on SI.com that the Mariners' upgraded defense had turned them from AL West laughingstock into legitimate contender, and I detailed how the Rangers are following a similar path to success in a June Inside Baseball column in SI.
Albert Chen wrote a must-read feature for SI's Baseball Preview issue about the statistical revolution that has resulted in the invention of metrics that allow us to isolate what was previously all but unknowable: the ability -- or lack thereof -- of a team's defense, and its defense alone, to prevent runs. Among the most useful (and publicly available, at the Web site fangraphs.com) of the new defensive metrics is Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which was created by the statistician Mitchel Lichtman and measures how many runs a player's defense costs or saves his team, as compared to an average player at his position.
Now that the 2009 season is well into its second half, it has become clear that improving defensively is not only a relatively easy way for a team to rapidly jump into contention: it might now be the most popular way. Six MLB teams -- the Mariners, Rangers, Tigers, Giants, Rockies and Dodgers -- are currently on pace to win at least 10 more games than they did in 2008, and every one of those teams has benefited from an upgraded defense, as measured by UZR. For five of those teams -- all except the Rockies, whose overall defense projects to save 10.1 more runs than it did in '08 -- the upgrade has been significant (see chart below). By contrast, only three of the six are on track to score more runs than they did last year.
The Mariners, Rangers, Tigers, Giants and Rockies all finished below .500 last season, and while their newfound defensive efficiency has allowed each of them to remain firmly in their respective divisional and wild-card races, they all appear to possess flaws that will preclude them from sustaining runs deep into October. The Dodgers, though, are different.
The Dodgers were already a very good team last season, when they won the NL West and advanced to the NLCS despite an exceptionally bad defense: Their overall '08 UZR of -48.0 was the National League's worst. This season the Dodgers' UZR stands at 0.2 -- essentially average, yes, but an improvement that constitutes a major reason why a club that lost one of its top two starting pitchers (Derek Lowe) via free agency and had its best hitter (Manny Ramirez) suspended for 50 games for PED use currently boasts the best record in the majors (59-34), and is on pace to win 19 more games than it did in '08, and might represent the NL's best chance to win the '09 World Series.
Manager Joe Torre requires only one word to summarize the impact that improved defensive play has made on his Dodgers: "Huge." Said Larry Bowa, Torre's third-base coach and a two-time Gold Glove shortstop with the Phillies, "We don't give away outs anymore. When you give teams four or five outs an inning, a lot of pitchers pitch away from contact because they don't want the ball hit on the ground because [the defenders] don't catch the ball, and it's tough to win that way. You can take all the offensive numbers you want -- I think defense is so underrated, it's unbelievable."
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