The 5 most surprising infield standouts of 2019

February 4th, 2020

The release of any new metric involves an eye test: Do the stars we recognize for that skill in real life show up at the top of the leaderboard?

When Statcast released its new infield Outs Above Average (OAA) metric earlier this month, the answer was a decisive "Yes." The dazzling Javier Báez ranked as last year’s best infielder. Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman were atop the third-base list. Rising star Matt Olson was the best first baseman.

But you also want a metric to share insights and reveal something new. Infield OAA was set up to do just that, because it differs from the two most widely-recognized defensive metrics -- defensive runs saved (DRS) and ultimate zone rating (UZR) -- in the way it uses Statcast technology to incorporate the complexities of the infield: the fielder’s precise starting point (be it his standard spot or in a shift), how fast the ball comes at him and how fast the baserunners are traveling down the line.

Those elements produced a handful of surprising names on the OAA leaderboard, backing up the public turnarounds of some breakout players while sending us down rabbit holes to try and see how others improved. Below are five of the most surprising leaders from last season, listed with their 2019 DRS and UZR totals as found on FanGraphs.

, Red Sox (+7 OAA)
-6 DRS; 3 UZR

The Red Sox have spoken in prodigious terms about Devers’ bat for years, and that certainly bore out in 2019, when the 22-year-old paced the Majors in both total bases and hard-hit balls in play. But they were also more optimistic on his glove than just about everyone else, even though Devers looked overmatched at third in the ’17 and ’18 seasons.

“I had faith in his ability to stick at third, based on the way his feet worked,” assistant general manager Eddie Romero told the Boston Globe back in 2017. “He’s always been a strong, stocky kid, but his feet always moved lighter than they would appear.

“He had good footwork. He had good fundamentals in terms of squaring up to the ball and his hands. He had good hands. And he’s always had an above-average arm.”

Devers looked determined to bring those tools to the fore last season, and the difference was visible. He improved his throwing mechanics as the season progressed, lowering his error count with the arm from 12 in 2018 to 8 last year. And Devers’ 70 out-of-zone plays (via FanGraphs) paced all third basemen alongside Josh Donaldson, giving him a positive UZR for the first time. That hinted at his big OAA reveal from Statcast this month, fueled by a sizeable improvement on bang-bang plays to his left. If he can maintain this level on defense, the Sox have the superstar they envisioned for half a decade.

, Nationals (+7 OAA)
-4 DRS; 3 UZR

“Veteran infielder Asdrúbal Cabrera is being asked to become a full-time third baseman for the first time in his career, and the player he is replacing was one of the best ever at the position.”

That was how’s T.R. Sullivan described the challenge Cabrera faced last year at this time, when the Rangers moved him to the hot corner to replace Adrián Beltré. He had only played 67 Major League games there, but Cabrera knew he needed to morph back into a utility man/”play wherever they put me” player to remain a viable contributor.

By Statcast’s measurements, Cabrera rose to the task. He was an above-average fielder when stationed at third (+2 OAA) and an even better one when standing in the second-base zone (+4). He also logged some valuable innings at first base for the world champion Nationals. Those totals certainly weren’t expected by Mets and Phillies fans, who saw Cabrera combine for -17 DRS at second base and another -5 DRS at shortstop in 2018. His turnaround with the glove, coupled with his late-summer resurgence at the plate (.969 OPS and 40 RBIs in 38 regular-season games with the Nationals) convinced Washington to bring him back for another go-around in ’20.

, Dodgers (+4 OAA)
-7 DRS; -7 UZR

The Dodgers didn’t land Anthony Rendon, and there’s almost no chance they acquire Nolan Arenado. But they might be just fine with Turner at the hot corner again.

DRS (+7 in 2016 to -7 in ’19) and UZR (+9 in ’16, -7 in ’19) say Turner is declining as a third baseman, but Statcast disagrees: he actually improved from -3 OAA in ’18 to +4 last year. In fact, the 11-point difference between Turner’s UZR and OAA was tied for the fourth-largest of any infielder.

That discrepancy could lie in Statcast’s ability to track Turner’s starting position -- including on shifts, which the Dodgers used more than anyone, and aren’t currently included in Turner’s DRS and UZR totals on FanGraphs. That tracking gives us a more precise understanding of which plays should be assigned to him, and which ones go to Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. Turner has crept closer to second base in each of the past four years, and seems to be taking more plays to his left and in front of Seager (who, like Turner, is stronger going to his left instead of his right). Other defensive metrics might be assigning some of those plays to Seager's "zone" instead of to Turner.

One visible area of Turner’s improvement was how he fared on the hardest chances -- aka the batted balls his way that ultimately turned into hits. Look how he compared on those plays to some of baseball’s premier third basemen:

3B performance on balls that turned into hits, 2019
Nolan Arenado (COL): -17 OAA | 47% estimated success rate
Matt Chapman (OAK): -14 OAA | 41% estimated success rate
Josh Donaldson (ATL): -16 OAA | 44% estimated success rate
Justin Turner (LAD): -9 OAA | 44% estimated success rate

Turner had slightly fewer opportunities, but his chances shared a similar degree of difficulty as those other three stars. And Turner performed worse in 2018 against those batted-balls-turned-hits, which were actually easier chances overall. In short: Turner took away more hits, and he got better on the tough plays third basemen are asked to make.

Health may have played a factor in that, since Turner stayed off the injured list completely for the first time in three years, and he played nearly the same number of games last year as he did in 2017, when he was an excellent third baseman at +6 OAA. Who knows if that will continue in Turner’s age-35 season, but perhaps the Dodgers’ front office also evaluated Turner favorably, and factored that into their offseason planning.

, Cardinals (+6 OAA)
0 DRS; -2 UZR

The Cardinals obviously added a huge positive when they traded for Paul Goldschmidt last winter, but that also involved asking Carpenter to move back to third base. That evoked some questions in St. Louis, since he had struggled (-10 DRS) the last time he played a full season there in 2015. But Carpenter was drafted as a third baseman, and he saw himself as one. He viewed the position change as a challenge he was eager to accept.

“I kind of have a chip on my shoulder for that position," Carpenter told’s Jenifer Langosch. "I feel like I have something to prove over there. I want to show not only our team, but the rest of baseball, that I can do a good job over there. I'm looking forward to that."

Carpenter had accrued 6 DRS across 76 games at third in 2018 (Statcast had him at a serviceable -2 OAA), so the metrics already painted a more optimistic picture than the Spring Training skepticism. Carpenter had moved around the diamond so much -- from third to first to second depending on where the Cardinals needed him -- that even he began to joke that he didn’t know which position he played. The Goldschmidt trade gave Carpenter a permanent home on the diamond for the first time in years.

With a full winter to focus exclusively at the hot corner, Carpenter went to work. Cardinals coaches Oliver Marmol and Jose Oquendo moved Carpenter off the bag to “take away the hits” instead of “take away the lines,” and the approach worked in 2019: Carpenter racked up 5 OAA on plays to his left.

“I’m never going to whiz it over there with my arm,” Carpenter told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “but if it’s in my glove, I’ll make the play.”

Carpenter will have to hit better this year to hold off Tommy Edman at third (assuming St. Louis doesn’t pull off a trade for Nolan Arenado), but the Cardinals can seemingly feel good about Carpenter’s glove if he starts the year at third again.

, Nationals (+10 OAA)
-2 DRS; 0 UZR

Starlin Castro: Top-15 MLB infielder? Castro has never won a Gold Glove and was decidedly average last year by other metrics, but his +10 OAA definitely caught our attention. The most interesting aspect of Castro’s success was how his glove carried around the diamond: He accumulated 7 OAA at his familiar second base spot, 2 OAA in just 25 attempts in the shortstop hole and another 2 OAA when positioned at third base -- a place he had never occupied before 2019. In fact, Castro began learning the position in the middle of the season.

The Marlins shifted at the fifth-highest rate of any club last year, and that seemed to benefit Castro, who was generally money on plays in shallow right field. Maybe the Nationals saw the same improvements in their internal metrics as Statcast did for both Castro and Cabrera, now that the pair will team up as Washington’s Plan B for missing out on Donaldson. They’ve already shown how much they can get out of a cast of older players.