It feel like just yesterday (actually it was Monday) that we were all roused up about how bad the Diamondbacks’ outfield defense is. Let’s face it: Yasmany Tomas is really just Mark Trumbo again. Well, in fairness to Mr. Trumbo, Tomas’ career UZR/150 in the outfield is far worse, but there are some sample size issues there. Chris Owings is still finding his way in center but has been surprisingly good. David Peralta is basically league average in right, maybe touch below since no one runs on him anymore and he can’t recoup value with his arm. Brandon Drury has been, as expected, a little below average as he learns his third position in as many seasons. Chris Herrmann got a start in the outfield the other night but he’s not about to save the team’s reputation out there. In an era where team have maximized defense, the D-backs have run counter to the mainstream in the outfield — partly by design (trading Ender Inciarte) and partly by circumstance (injury to A.J. Pollock).
And just as you’re about to turn away in disgust, recall that there are some pretty awesome defenders in the infield. The best in baseball, collectively, it turns out. So don’t panic just yet, there’s good news on the way.
That good news starts with Nick Ahmed, as you should have and likely predicted. It’s not your eyes playing tricks on you — he’s just that good. Let’s observe just because we can.
We all know Ender Inciarte can run and so did Ahmed here. On the run, quick release, a speedy runner is retired with ease.
This is partly Welington Castillo being creative with his throw, but Ahmed does a hell of a job to snare the throw, as unconventional as it was, and control his body to get the tag down.
Ahmed snags this ball on the run like it was a piece of alloy and his glove is a magnet, then makes the rest look routine. Bob Brenley’s only comment is “Whoooooo…”
It’s not a secret that Nick Ahmed can pick it and truly do it all at short. He’s got range, he’s got an arm, he’s got a lightening-quick release and he can turn double plays like nobody’s business. Basically, just pick whatever superlatives you want and they apply. By defensive runs saved (DRS), Ahmed leads leads Andrelton Simmons (who was just injured and may miss the rest of the year) by a run and Brandon Crawford by two. His defense to date has been worth half a win and it won’t be a shock to see that total pile up to three wins by season’s end. At the plate, he’s leaving a ton to be desired, but defensively, he’s making up for things as well as anyone in the game. How patient Chip Hale is with his bat will be the key here as Ahmed’s offense has been incredibly poor to date.
Jean Segura has played all of his 29 career games at second base in 2016, as we predicted this offseason once the trade for him was announced. While Ahmed’s offensive woes could eventually push Segura back to short on something more than a spot-start basis at some point, he’s taken well to the keystone. As Inside Edge has it, he’s made 60% of the “unlikely” plays and 100% of those that rate as “even” or 50/50 balls. By DRS, he’s saved two runs this year, adding to his value given the nature of his offensive production. While Segura’s bat will slow down at some point (his BABIP is nearly 60-points higher than his career average), the defense looks sustainable as long as he’s healthy. The arm is plus for a second baseman and the range average-to-plus, making Segura a nice little defensive value after a couple of mediocre campaigns at short over the last few seasons.
On the corners, it’s a tale of two stories. Paul Goldschmidt is a gold glove winner for a reason and seems to be happy defending his title. To date, he leads all first baseman in DRS and has the overall lead since 2014 with 23 total defensive runs saved (Adrian Gonzalez has 22). This season, Goldy has saved four runs, leading Mark Texiera (3) and a trio of others, including Anthony Rizzo, with two each. First base defense is hard to evaluate, but watching Goldschmidt every night can leave you spoiled. He can extend when needed and scoop it, too, but his throwing can’t go overlooked as he’s usually at or near the top of the list in double plays started by a first baseman. Despite his struggles at the plate, Goldy is adding value through his defense, something few first baseman can say.
At third, it’s a mixed bag. As you’ll recall, Jake Lamb has not being receiving consistent playing time against left-handed starters (although he did start against Chris Rusin last night). Brandon Drury has been soaking up the other starts, and considering how Drury has hit the ball, one can see why. Unfortunately, hitting isn’t the only thing that matters and while Lamb has been neutral by DRS and positive by UZR, Drury lags significantly in both categories. In about a third as much playing time, Drury has been worth -2 DRS while Lamb is even at 0. Drury has rated better in his short time at second base but also rates negatively in the outfield to date (though he’s surely still adjusting). As a prospect, scouts felt that Drury could be an average third baseman, and maybe this is just as sample size thing, but so far the numbers aren’t as high on Drury at the hot corner as they are on Lamb, a guy who’s a pretty darn good defender over there.
We certainly can’t talk about infield defense without acknowledging shifts. The Diamondbacks finally got on board with shifting under Chip Hale last season, primarily under the supervision of Andy Green, who’s now managing the Padres. The D-backs increased their use of the shift drastically from 2014 to 2015, and even with Matt Williams coaching the infield these days, Hale has made clear that that shift is here to stay. Last season, the D-backs shifted nearly five batters per game. In 2016, they’ve shifted nearly eight batters per game thus far. As you likely know, putting your defense in the best position to succeed the vast majority of the time is not just smart — it’s common sense. The Diamondbacks still trail teams like the Astros, Mariners in Rays in shifts, but the gap is much smaller than in the past. This positioning has led to real gains: against the shift batters are hitting .296, but with no shift on batters are hitting .310 against Arizona.
Despite the struggles defensively in the outfield corners and the some of the disasters we’ve seen on the mound, defense plays night in and night out. Putting a good crop of defenders on the infield has helped the Diamondbacks’ pitching staff save nearly a half run per game. That might not sound like a lot, but those things add up in big ways over the course of a season. With a a few pitchers starting to find a groove and the team just a game out of first place in the NL West despite some miserable performances, we can heap a lot of the credit on the infield defense.
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