Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 2, 2011
BASEBALL: A History of Team Defense (Part II of II)
Baseball started moving west with the Braves' move to Milwaukee in 1953, and the resulting shakeup ended the stranglehold of old, mostly smaller ballparks in the East. High walk rates, more power hitters and a few more strikeouts meant that balls in play rates were dropping, while defenses got stingier - the 71.6% of balls in play turned into outs in the NL in 1956 remains the league record.
I've written before about the advantage Casey Stengel's Yankees got from their defense and how it played into the superior performance of pitchers in pinstripes. But it was the Indians who were the true defensive juggernaut of that era, leading the AL seven times in the decade between 1947-56. The AL was truly defensively stratified in those years, with the upper tier of the Yankees, Indians and White Sox at the top and weak sisters like the Browns, Senators, A's and Tigers at the bottom. Park effects were part of that picture for the Yankees - for example, in 1955 the Yankees and their opponents had a BABIP of .265 at home, .278 on the road, compared to .272 at home, .269 on the road for the 1954 Indians.
The 111-win Indians were the best defensive team of the decade (the 1909 Pirates, who finished one point behind the Cubs, are the only team to win 110 games in a season without leading the league in DER), Durocher's 1950 Giants the best NL team, the 1955 Pirates and 1950 Browns the worst; the Pirates were perennially hapless. Four pennant-winning teams in each league led the league in DER, although as I've noted the Yankees often finished second or third in DER while winning the pennant, and the 1953 Dodgers and 1957 Braves just narrrowly missed the league lead.
I'd expected the Ashburn-era Phillies to lead the league more than once; the strangest league leaders were the 1952 Cubs, an also-ran team that featured one of the more plodding sluggers (Hank Sauer) ever to win the MVP.
Rising strikeout rates, with the onset of expansion, new pitchers' parks in LA and Houston, and the expansion of the strike zone in 1963, are a major part of the story of pitching dominance in the Sixties; the AL in 1961, the year of Maris and Mantle, became the first league to see balls in play drop below 75% of plate appearances, and by 1964 it was down to 72.9%, the lowest it would be until 1987. Unsurprisingly, that started to loosen the relationship between defense and success - only three NL pennant winners led the league in DER, four in the AL, and the 1967 Twins came within a game of becoming the first team to finish first while being last in the league in DER.
Meanwhile, the story on balls in play showed a real split between the leagues: DERs actually declined in the NL, while reaching historic highs in the AL. The 724 DER in the AL in 1968 is the highest in Major League history, and the 743 figure by the 1969 Orioles is the highest ever recorded by a team. That Brooks Robinson-Mark Belanger-Davey Johnson infield and Paul Blair-led outfield really was impenetrable, and even adjusted for the league was the best of the decade, powering the O's to 109 wins. (Home/road split: .275 at home, .278 on the road).
The Dodgers of the Sixties did well on balls in play, even as they dominated the pitcher-controlled aspects of defense (if I recall correctly, the 1966 Dodgers still hold the team K/BB ratio record).
The 1962 Mets, surprisingly, did not have the league's worst DER (unlike the 1969 Seattle Pilots), finishing a point above the Astros; the 1969 Mets did lead the league (in fact, they led three years in a row from 1968-70), but other surprise teams of the decade did not - the 1967 Red Sox were just below the league average at 715, and the 1960 Pirates were also below average. Probably no team in this sample surprised me more with their poor defensive stats than the Pirates of the 1960s, finishing last in DER in 1961 and 1964 despite a lineup stocked with legendary defensive players like Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente and Bill Virdon as well as other respected glove men like Dick Schofield Sr. The other surprise, more on which later, was the persistent poor performance of the Astros.
The Yankee dynasty's collapse was reflected defensively, as the Yankees were second in DER in 1964 (at 726), but ninth in 1965 at 707.
In the 1970s, even after the arrival of the DH, AL teams with top defenses tended to finish first in their divisions - 8 times in 11 years from 1969-79. In the NL, it was a different story, as teams like the Big Red Machine and the late-70s Pirates seemed often to lead the league in years other than the years those same teams finished first. The Dodgers led the league in DER four times between 1972 and 1978, and won the division the three years they didn't.
You've met two of the five teams since 1900 to better the league average in DER by 5% or more, the 1906 Cubs and 1939 Yankees, both great teams that left the rest of their league in the dust. But the third team was one left in the dust by another juggernaut: the 1975 Dodgers, who led the league in DER by 20 points over the 108-win Reds, while finishing 20 games behind them (it didn't help that the Dodgers underperformed their Pythagorean record by 7 games). Oddly, the very best Dodger defense came in a season when Bill Russell missed a good deal of time, but the then-youthful infield of Garvey, Lopes and Cey was otherwise tremendously durable, while 33-year-old Jimmie Wynn anchored the outfield defense (Wynn had also played on those late-60s Astros teams that perennially finished last in DER; go figure). Park effect? The Dodgers and their opponents combined for a .268 BABIP at home, .276 on the road, so the park seems to have had something to do with it. What about a pitching staff effect? Knuckleballer Charlie Hough had the team's lowest BABIP (.219), but Hough threw only 61 innings. 321 innings were thrown by curveballer Andy Messersmith, and there may be something to that - pitcher BABIP are available since 1950, and Messersmith has the lowest career BABIP of any pitcher with 2000 or more career innings at .243 (rounding out the top 10, he's followed by Catfish Hunter at .246, Hoyt Wilhelm at .250, Jim Palmer at .251, Hough at .253, Mudcat Grant at .258, Koufax at .259, Early Wynn at .260, and Tom Seaver and Warren Spahn at .262). The fact that that persisted across three teams (Angels, Dodgers and Braves) before he broke down in 1977 and that only Hunter's even close to him suggests that Messersmith may have had some ability in that area. On the other hand, you have knuckle-curve specialist Burt Hooton, making the case for it being the team: Hooton's BABIPs with the Cubs from 1972-94 were .278, .303 and .322, and .400 in the early going in 1975; after arriving with the Dodgers it dropped to .236, and was .253 over the next three seasons. Whether that's the defense or the park, it's evident that Hooton's sudden improvement was due to the environment he pitched in.
The best AL defense of the decade was the Orioles again in 1973 (featuring much of the same cast, but this time with Bobby Grich at second); Earl Weaver's defenses remained outstanding for years, as did Billy Martin's when he arrived in New York (and brought in Paul Blair, among others). The worst were the 1974 Cubs and 1970 White Sox. Those Cubs featured Bill Madlock at third, 31 year old Don Kessinger at short, and an outfield of three guys who later became professional pinch hitters (Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal and Jerry Morales) and a DH at first (Andre Thornton). That said, BABIPs were higher at home - .312 at home, .296 on the road - so even aside from the home run ball, the park likely exaggerated the Cubs's defensive failings in that era. Not for nothing did Rick Reuschel retire with a career BABIP of .294.
DERs in the AL finally dropped back in line with the NL by the late 70s, and the two leagues have mostly remained even since then. Balls in play percentages dropped in 1986, perhaps reflecting the rise in strikeouts occasioned by, among other things, the popularity of the split finger fastball and the increasing specialization of bullpens.
Best defensive team of the 80s: the Billyball A's of 1980. In the NL: the far less remembered 1982 Padres. Worst: the 1981 Indians and 1984 Giants. The Whitaker-Trammell-Chet Lemon Tigers also stand out, although they are not as remembered as a defensive unit (but see the career of Walt Terrell). Their DER was also 713 when they had their big year in 1984, 705 in 1987.
The 1980s might be the decade that defense mattered least. Only two teams, the 1985 Blue Jays and 1989 A's, finished first while leading the league in DER; the 1982 Giants came within two games of being the first team to finish first while being last in the league in DER, and a year later the "Wheeze Kids" Phillies turned the trick, remaining to this day the only team to be first in the standings and last in DER (the league hit .286 on BABIP against Cy Young winner John Denny, .329 against Steve Carlton). Those two teams had two things in common - an aging lineup (which for the Giants included Darrell Evans and Reggie Smith, the Phillies Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Gary Maddox, Mike Schmidt and Gary Matthews) and specifically, Joe Morgan at second base. I have to wonder about Morgan - it's not a surprise that he would be found on poor defensive teams as his bat kept a decaying glove in the lineup in his late 30s (don't forget, these were still good teams), but the Reds' only league lead in DER in the 70s was in 1971, the year before Morgan's arrival, and the Astros had routinely finished last during his years as their second baseman in the 60s. Could all be a coincidence, as Morgan's defensive stats seem to suggest he was a fine glove man in his prime, but it bears closer examination.
The 1989 Yankees became the first Yankees team to finish last in the league in DER since 1933. The Mets finished second in the NL in DER in 1985, third in 1986. The Red Sox at 686 were below average in 1986, but at least not in the cellar as they were in 1985 and 1987.
DERs dropped sharply in 1993, inaugurating the era of...well, the Steroids Era, if you prefer. Or in the NL, perhaps the Mile High/Coors era. There were also ever fewer balls in play, with more and more homers, strikeouts and walks. Four NL teams finished first in DER and first in their division, three AL teams including the 1998 Yankees (the only Jeter-era Yankees team to finish either first or last in DER).
The worst defensive teams of the decade were the 1999 Rockies and 1997 A's (the start of the "Moneyball" era - the A's often fielded Jason Giambi and Matt Stairs in the outfield corners - although the winning A's teams of a few years later would be above-average defensively, leading the AL in 2005). The Rockies' home/road splits were so vast - .374 at home, .306 on the road in 1999 - that it's almost impossible to evaluate their defense as such.
The 1990s also brought us the fourth of the five great defensive teams, the 1999 Reds, who led the league by a margin of 17 points over the Mets on the way to losing a one-game playoff for the wild card when their bats were stifled by Al Leiter. That Reds team is not recalled as widely as a great defense - it was the Mets that year who got the Sports Illustrated cover asking if they had the best infield ever - but with Barry Larkin, Mike Cameron and Pokey Reese, they had an outstanding defensive unit. Their home/road splits - .306 at home, .312 on the road - suggest that they did it without a huge amount of help from their home park.
Is defense the new market inefficiency? Maybe in the National League, as eight first-place teams led the league in DER between 2000 and 2010 compared to three in the AL (plus the 2002 Angels, who didn't finish first but did win 99 games and the World Series). Even with BIP percentages dropping, marginal advantages in defense can still help make a division winner.
Worst DERs of the decade: the 2007 Rays and Marlins, both scraping just above 650. Best in the NL: the 2009 Dodgers. And the fifth and final team to beat the league by 5% or more - indeed, second only to the 1939 Yankees at 105.52% - the 2001 Mariners, who tied the 1906 Cubs' record of 116 regular season wins. The Mariners featured Ichiro, John Olerud, Bret Boone, Carlos Guillen, and yes, Mike Cameron in center again. They got some help from Safeco (home/road split of .300/.322), where they led the AL again in 2003 (Cameron's last year there) and 2004.
Then there's the 2007-08 Rays. As I noted before the 2008 season, Baseball Prospectus' optimistic PECOTA projection for the Rays required them to massively improve on their MLB-worst team defense; as I noted that October, they did just that, to the point where nearly the entire turnaround to a pennant-winning team was a function of becoming the MLB's best defensive team in one year. This made them just the ninth team ever to go worst-to-first in their league in DER in one year (other unsurprising names on that list include the Billyball A's and the 1991 Braves), and aside from a team from 1878, Tampa's defensive improvement was the largest leap of any of those teams, a 56-point or 8.6% improvement, which made their pitching staff much better without changing its personnel. The Rays did this returning five regulars - Carl Crawford, BJ Upton, Akinori Iwamura, Carlos Pena and Dioner Navarro - although Upton in 2007 was still learning center field as a new position, and Iwamura moved from third to second in 2008. Adding Evan Longoria and Jason Bartlett, plus clearing out some less mobile players and letting the incumbents settle in, led to a historic turnaround:
History continues to march on: the NL in 2010 became the first league in baseball history to have less than 70% of all plate appearances result in a ball put in play.
2011 stats are through May 31, 2011. DERs can be volatile in-season; I noted a few weeks ago that the Astros were at 648, 633 around the beginning of May, which would have set them on pace as the first defensive team since the 1930 Phillies to finish below 650, but since replacing Angel Sanchez with Clint Barmes they've been on an upward trajectory, and are no longer even last in their division. As you can see, the Cubs are having a terrible defensive year, while the Braves and those Rays again (even sans Carl Crawford and Jason Bartlett) are flying high. The AL (unlike the NL) is above 700 this season, the first time either league has cracked 700 since 1992.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:00 PM | Baseball 2011 | Baseball Studies | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)