D-backs’ defense could be considered best in baseball despite injuries
PHOENIX — As the Arizona Diamondbacks offense experiences a roller coaster 2018 season of hot streaks and cold spells, the team’s collective work with the leather makes them among the best in Major League Baseball.
Through games played on June 20, Arizona leads the league in defensive runs saved with 53. Defensive runs saved or DRS, an analytic developed by Baseball Info Solutions, better quantifies a team’s defensive abilities compared to errors or fielding percentage by accounting for other important factors in the field.
“Defensive runs saved is telling you a combination of how often a team turns batted balls into outs, adjusted for how often that ball is an out typically,” said Mark Simon, a senior research and development analyst at Baseball Info Solutions. “Meaning, a ball, let’s say a 50/50 play, if you’re making it 75 percent of the time, you’re getting a good rating attached to that.”
Simon said that other factors in DRS include position-specific variables, such as a catcher blocking balls in the dirt or framing pitches, an infielder’s ability to turn double plays and an outfielder’s arm — either throwing out baserunners or deterring them from taking an extra base.
“If you smoosh all of that together, that’s where you would get the Diamondbacks’ success,” Simon said.
The D-backs have three Gold Glove winners on the roster. However, that trio outside of Paul Goldschmidt at first base is rounded out by Zack Greinke (who only plays once every five games as a pitcher) and A.J. Pollock (who’s been sidelined with a broken thumb since the middle of May).
They’ve been able to overcome Pollock’s injury in the outfield thanks to stellar defensive play from Jarrod Dyson and Chris Owings. Dyson uses his lightning speed to chase down virtually everything in center field — including a stunning grab to rob a would-be grand slam from former D-backs outfielder Justin Upton against the Los Angeles Angels.
— Arizona Diamondbacks (@Dbacks) June 19, 2018
Though the catch was the highlight, it’s important to note how quickly Dyson spun around and threw the ball back to the cutoff man. In 2017 with the Seattle Mariners, Dyson’s arm graded out as one of the best in baseball, according to Simon.
Owings, meanwhile, has been a revelation for Arizona in right field and center field this season — positions he didn’t play at all throughout his first two years at the major league level.
— Arizona Diamondbacks (@Dbacks) June 17, 2018
Despite limited reps in the outfield throughout his career, Owings has displayed great range, the ability to lay out for diving grabs and even a playable throwing arm. Those skills have proved invaluable for Arizona in the absence of Pollock.
“You definitely get used to it,” Owings said of playing in multiple spots on the diamond. “This is my third year doing it, so I definitely feel comfortable moving around.”
Neither Owings nor Dyson have enjoyed much success in the batter’s box this season. They’re both hitting below .200. But they’re among the team leaders in DRS and defensive wins above replacement (another statistic to measure a player’s defensive impact), bringing value that goes beyond batting average.
Another player who maybe doesn’t get the recognition he deserves as a fielder is Nick Ahmed.
“Ahmed is extremely reliable at shortstop,” Simon said. “He’s not necessarily the flashiest guy on the field, but he plays a very effective shortstop.”
Simon said that Ahmed’s throwing accuracy is the best in MLB among qualified shortstops this year, according to Baseball Info Solutions’ data. He has yet to make an error on a throw, and consistently makes it easy on whoever is suiting up at first base.
“I like to make good throws that hit him in the chest,” Ahmed said. “I wasn’t aware of that specific statistic, I guess. I didn’t even know that existed.”
The stat Simon referenced isn’t available to the public.
“It’s a good thing, you know. I’m trying to hit him in the chest every time,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed credited the team’s elite defense this season to having a lot of great athletes.
“I mean, to get a guy like (Ketel) Marte who’s playing a lot of second base for us this year. He’s obviously a really talented athlete who’s good enough to play shortstop in the big leagues,” Ahmed said.
Marte has played nearly 80 percent of his career games in the majors at shortstop. In effect, that essentially makes the 24-year-old Dominican overqualified to play second base — a position that, generally speaking, requires lesser range and arm strength when compared to shortstop.
“We just go out there and have fun,” Marte said.
Teammate Daniel Descalso, who’s played at least five games at four different positions this season, complimented the defensive impact those two infielders have had in the middle of the diamond.
“If you look at our defense up the middle, Nicky and Ketel, those are two shortstops,” Descalso said. “They give you a good chance to make a lot of plays, turn a lot of double plays.”
Of course, having athletes and capable defenders isn’t enough on its own to become the top team in the league by a metric like defensive runs saved. Scouting and positioning implemented by the coaching staff ultimately puts players in the best positions to be successful.
Manager Torey Lovullo even credited the team’s pitching staff for keeping the defense focused.
“Pitching and defense go hand-in-hand,” he said. “The infielders are engaged and ready because the pitchers are attacking the zone.”
Members of the bullpen agreed, saying that they’ve been given more confidence and leeway with regard to attacking the strike zone because the defense has been so good behind them (and behind the plate).
“I think we’ve got the best defense in the league,” reliever Andrew Chafin said. “You go out there and just let the hitters get themselves out. More times than not they hit it to one of our guys.”
Lovullo also credited third base coach Tony Perezchica for the work he’s done throughout the season to make sure the infielders have the proper preparation. The work they put in taking ground balls before games keeps the team ready for in-game situations.
“I feel like every single day that we go out there, we’re ready to play baseball the right way,” Lovullo said.
Defensively speaking, it’s hard to argue with the results midway through the season.