3 teams that just made big defensive upgrades
With all the 2023 rule changes we’re about to see, there’s been a common theme: More action. More balls in play, more quickly. If that comes to pass – and even if it doesn’t, given the presence of the shift restrictions – it’s going to put more pressure on a team’s fielders, since they now can’t position themselves as freely and don’t have the time to get into those unorthodox positions between pitches anymore anyway.
With that in mind, a few teams have made real, clear improvements to their defenses headed into 2023. We’d like to say that’s evidence of a sport-wide trend, though we can’t quite go that far, since it’s fair to look at the Dodgers, Marlins, Padres and Royals and wonder if their winter changes have made the fielding weaker, not better.
But for this trio of teams, all of whom harbor some hopes of being in the playoff mix this year, the defense looks like it's taking a big step forward, in ways that are going to be pretty easily noticeable.
Start with the simple fact that the 2022 Cubs defense was, on the whole, not very good. By Statcast’s Outs Above Average, they were 27th. Defensive Runs Saved liked them better, but not by a whole lot (21st). To that end, Chicago prioritized adding defense this winter, and it did, though interestingly the name people might think of first – four-time Gold Glove first baseman Eric Hosmer – isn’t really among the top of the defensive improvements listed here.
"Taking away the shift, the more athletic, more dynamic players you can get, the better that's going to help,” Cubs manager David Ross said at the Winter Meetings. “I think it helps your pitching staff."
The staff could use the help, because last year, they had the fourth-weakest expected outcomes on contact – this basically means they allowed a lot of dangerously loud hard-hit contact – tied with poor pitching staffs in Colorado and Kansas City. And so, their biggest move of the winter was ... to give Dansby Swanson $177 million to displace incumbent shortstop Nico Hoerner, who was the team’s only real plus defender last year.
We joke, a little, but only because the Braves (Swanson’s former club) and Cubs were each outstanding, defensively, at shortstop last year. Of course, that wasn’t true at second base, where eight different Cubs (led by Nick Madrigal and Christopher Morel) were a below-average unit, and Swanson’s arrival now pushes Hoerner over to second. Hoerner didn’t play there at all in 2022, though he had in previous years -- except that in a pre-shift-limitation world, he actually did play on the right side quite a bit.
Here, for example, he is "playing shortstop" last season. Looks pretty good, doesn't it?
Last year, Hoerner was fantastic on the right side, actually better than at short, as he posted +5 OAA on the right side and +6 at shortstop, except he got the +5 in a mere one-quarter of the opportunities. In fact, if you go back to the start of his career in 2019, and look only at "spot on the field," ignoring "position in the box score," he's performed better on the right side both on a rate basis and a total basis, despite less playing time there. He's going to be fine. He's going to be good.
The emphasis on the infield somewhat overshadows the upgrade in center, where the Cubs were weakest by both major systems. Enter Cody Bellinger, who hasn’t hit at all and isn’t terribly likely to have a massive rebound this year, but who has consistently rated as one of the best defensive center fielders around. (He was +7 OAA in center last year, while Cubs center fielders were -7.)
It overshadows the likely upgrade behind the plate, where Tucker Barnhardt’s bat can’t compare to Willson Contreras’s, yet his defense is far more well-regarded.
And first base? Hosmer, 33, is a long way away from the most recent of those Gold Gloves, back in 2017, and defensive metrics have never liked his work. Maybe he’ll be an upgrade over Alfonso Rivas, Frank Schwindel, P.J. Higgins and the rest, and maybe he won’t, just serving as a short-term placeholder for Matt Mervis. But if adding Hosmer barely ripples in a story about improving your defense, you know you've done something really special in one winter.
Split the two 2022 Twins units into two, and they were something like the opposite of twins. The outfield was excellent, rating at +18 OAA, fourth-best in baseball. The infield was dreadful, at -34 OAA, second-weakest in baseball. So, naturally, the Twins improved the outfield. It’s more complicated than that, so let’s split this apart.
The outfield … could, without hyperbole, be not only the best defensive outfield in 2023, but one of the best we’ve seen in decades. It was already good, of course, in no small part due to Byron Buxton, who is (on a rate basis) tied for being the most effective defender in the game dating back to 2016, and because Max Kepler is an excellent corner outfielder.
The problem, though, is that Buxton can regularly be expected to miss two months or so out of every year to injury, and they’ve never really had a great backup option – Gilberto Celestino and Nick Gordon were OK, defensively, but generally there was a lot more Jake Cave and Kyle Garlick types than you’d like.
Enter Michael A. Taylor, traded from Kansas City, who has been for years one of the game’s elite defenders himself. (Buxton, Kepler and Taylor all appear on the top 11 of that since-2017 outfield list.) Enter Joey Gallo, who, like Bellinger, has had massive offensive struggles but has for years been a strong right fielder and a capable center fielder. The Twins allowed the fourth-most high liners and flies last year, and they’ve added Pablo López, who has regularly allowed more balls in the air each year. Minnesota’s outfield is going to be fun.
The infield … may benefit by subtraction, to some extent. While the lineup might miss Luis Arraez’s bat, his glove has regularly been one of baseball’s weakest on the infield. Gio Urshela, traded to the Angels, is somewhat Hosmer-esque in that he passes the eye test well yet the metrics don’t agree at all. Jermaine Palacios is gone. Miguel Sanó is gone. Behind the plate, Gary Sánchez is gone, replaced by the much-better-regarded Christian Vázquez.
It’s not without questions, primarily about whether Jose Miranda can handle third base on a full-time basis, and whether Carlos Correa’s seeming step back in 2022 was a fluke or something to worry about. (Quoting ourselves from a deep dive in November: “Our take: Mildly concerned by the range/speed decline, but the strong arm, great track record and relative youth should make him a no-brainer shortstop for the next several years.”)
The outfield should be spectacular. The infield has moved on from some of the obvious trouble spots. While the Twins pitching staff is more "deep" than "high octane," the improved defense, especially in the outfield, should really help cover up some of the trouble spots.
Toronto’s defense wasn’t bad last year, for what it’s worth, rating 11th (Outs Above Average) and eighth (Defensive Runs Saved), and the biggest concern area won’t change, since Bo Bichette isn’t going anywhere at shortstop. (He just signed a three-year extension.) The infield as a whole was middle-of-the-pack last year, and since the infield group returns largely unchanged, it’ll probably be middle-of-the-pack again this year.
The outfield, though, has a chance to be Twins-level good. Look at last year’s Toronto outfielders, and note that the three weakest defenders (Raimel Tapia, -5 OAA; Teoscar Hernández, -4 OAA; Lourdes Gurriel Jr., -2 OAA) have all moved on. While it’s true that defensively-capable backups like Bradley Zimmer and Jackie Bradley Jr. are also gone, realize what the Blue Jays' offseason changes have meant:
In: CF Kevin Kiermaier, one of – without hyperbole – the greatest defensive outfielders who ever lived. Dating back to 2016, he is the No. 1 defensive outfielder as tracked by Statcast, even though he’s missed considerable time due to injury.
In: OF/C Daulton Varsho, who, in 2022, rated as Statcast’s No. 1 defensive outfielder, in part because his reactions are so elite that he makes everything look easy.
Moved: CF George Springer to right field, not because he couldn’t handle center, but because his increasing age and health concerns made it wise to do so – and because Kiermaier is better. Having a center-field-quality defender in a corner, as your third-best glove, is a nice way to set up your outfield.
Throw in the fact that utilityman Whit Merrifield can play competent defense at multiple outfield spots, and Toronto has suddenly made for a massive upgrade in outfield defense. If that's what's behind an adequate-if-not-spectacular infield group, then the Jays pitchers are going to have plenty to be happy about.