- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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De-FENSE! (Clap-clap) De-FENSE! (Clap-clap)
It's that seven-letter word that we in the realm of fantasy baseball think matters not, but it does, in fact, have an underlying impact on our game. And following the events of this offseason, as well as the advent of advanced defensive statistics, more than ever fantasy owners' eyes should be fixated upon defense.
Remember all that chatter about the Detroit Tigers' decision to shift Miguel Cabrera to third base following their signing of free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $224 million contract? That might have represented a turning point in defensive focus in fantasy, as few other defensively minded decisions in recent memory have inspired the kind of debate as that one.
Considering the potential ramifications for Tigers pitchers -- pitching is a facet of the game directly impacted by defense -- it's an understandable debate.
The Tigers, more than any other team, adversely impacted their defense as a result of offseason moves. With Fielder at first, Cabrera at third and Delmon Young in left field, the Tigers have a chance at finishing dead last in every defensive category at three positions in 2012. Considering that two of their projected five starters, Rick Porcello (76.3 percent) and Doug Fister (75.0 percent), ranked among 15 pitchers most likely to have a plate appearance end in a ball within the field of play (i.e., not a walk, strikeout or home run), that's a problem.
While there's no one-size-fits-all measure of defensive prowess, over the years we've learned several things: Fielding percentage is overrated, errors aren't everything and a player's range is critical. It's for that reason that in this space, you won't hear much about errors or fielding percentage. Instead, you'll hear about more advanced metrics: Defensive Runs Saved -- a Baseball Info Solutions metric that indicates how many runs a player saved or hurt his team in the field compared to an average player at his position -- and Ultimate Zone Rating -- a FanGraphs metric that measures a player's value in terms of range and errors comparative to an average player at his position.
The following chart shows each team's performance in each of these defensive categories, as well as their ranking among all 30 teams:
Returning to the Tigers, those numbers demonstrate that they weren't a strong defensive team to begin with, not to mention they had positive Defensive Runs Saved at only two positions (left and center field) and a positive Ultimate Zone Rating at only two positions (shortstop, center field) in 2011.
With Cabrera at the hot corner, the Tigers might go from above average there to the majors' worst. In 2006 and 2007, his last two seasons as a regular third baseman, he had minus-25 Defensive Runs Saved and a minus-7.7 Ultimate Zone Rating; those ranked him third- and 11th-worst, respectively, at the position. And while Brandon Inge might have had minus-2 and 1.8 numbers in those categories at third base in 2011, playing 730 2/3 of the team's 1,440 innings, he has 56 Defensive Runs Saved and a 48.5 Ultimate Zone Rating since 2005, his first season as a regular third baseman.
At first base, Cabrera was no standout, but consider this: With him as their first baseman, the Tigers had minus-8 Defensive Runs Saved and a minus-0.1 Ultimate Zone Rating at the position from 2009-11. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers, Fielder's former team, had minus-12 and minus-9.6, both of which ranked eighth-worst among 30 teams, during that three-year span. There is little question that the Tigers are worse defensively at both corner-infield spots following the Fielder signing.
Now let's shift to left field: Young played 351 2/3 innings there for the Tigers, or 24.4 percent of the team's total, yet during that time he had minus-8 Defensive Runs Saved and a minus-5.5 Ultimate Zone Rating at the position. All other Tigers left fielders, meanwhile, totaled 11 Defensive Runs Saved and a 5.4 Ultimate Zone Rating. There's no question they're better off with Young at designated hitter but then the same could be said with either Cabrera or Fielder.
Here's why all that matters: The Tigers have two of the top 25 qualified pitchers in terms of batting average on balls in play in 2011 -- Justin Verlander, whose .236 was second, and Doug Fister, whose .272 was 22nd. Even the slightest regression in the category, influenced by those defensive downgrades, could deflate their value a tad.
Minnesota Twins: Young's former team looked destined to improve defensively, simply by purging him at last year's trade deadline but then they had to go and sign Josh Willingham, didn't they? Willingham might have better range than Young; he still has 1.0 Defensive Runs Saved and a minus-20.1 Ultimate Zone Rating as an outfielder in his career. Couple that with what the Twins did at catcher, signing the weak-armed Ryan Doumit (24.6 percent career caught-stealing percentage), and shortstop, where they added Jamey Carroll and his minus-5 Defensive Runs Saved and minus-1.9 Ultimate Zone Rating of a year ago. And this team at best spun its wheels.
Why that matters: Carl Pavano allowed the second-highest balls-in-play percentage (80.2 percent) of any pitcher last season, while Nick Blackburn (75.4 percent) ranked 12th and Jason Marquis (74.4 percent) ranked 22nd.
And now, the upgrades
Chicago Cubs: Simply letting Aramis Ramirez walk as a free agent improves their defense; he has never had a good defensive reputation and, in fact, ranked fourth-worst in Defensive Runs Saved (minus-22) and fifth-worst in Ultimate Zone Rating (minus-15.9) among third basemen from 2010-11, not to mention he totaled 30 errors, sixth-most at the position. That's not to say that Ian Stewart, Ramirez's projected replacement, is the next Ron Santo defensively; Stewart's Defensive Runs Saved (14) and Ultimate Zone Rating (4.6) in his career at the hot corner -- numbers that project to 8.0 and 2.6 in a 1,450-inning season -- nevertheless represent an improvement. Adding David DeJesus, whose 10.1 Ultimate Zone Rating led all right fielders and 13 Defensive Runs Saved ranked third at that position, also helped upgrade an outfield defense that was already fairly sound with Marlon Byrd (9.0 Defensive Runs Saved, 3.9 Ultimate Zone Rating from 2009-11) in center field.
Don't underestimate the importance of defense to Cubs pitchers; Paul Maholm (73.2 percent) and Randy Wells (72.0 percent) rank among the top 50 in terms of percentage of plate appearances that resulted with a ball within the field of play (meaning not walks, strikeouts or home runs). Chris Volstad (70.5 percent) also had a rate higher than the major league average of 68.4 percent.
New York Mets: The 2011 Mets had a host of problems, not the least of which was their defense. They ranked dead-last in Ultimate Zone Rating (minus-59.7) and third-worst in Defensive Runs Saved (minus-36) as a team, but they stand to improve even if simply because they rid themselves of Jose Reyes, who since initially hurting his calf in 2009 has been at best a mediocre defensive shortstop. He had minus-12 Defensive Runs Saved and a minus-9.0 Ultimate Zone Rating the past three seasons combined, while one of his potential replacements, Ronny Cedeno, had 8.0 Defensive Runs Saved and a 5.9 Ultimate Zone Rating at the position in 2011. Andres Torres, too, represents a defensive upgrade in center field: Torres had 3.0 Defensive Runs Saved and an 8.7 Ultimate Zone Rating, compared to Pagan's minus-1 and minus-14.3 in 2011.
Don't underestimate the importance of those defensive upgrades. After all, with the Mets bringing in the outfield fences at Citi Field, pitchers' margins for error decrease accordingly, so they're going to need better D to counteract that.
Better here, worse there
Arizona Diamondbacks: This is a team with a history of sound defense, which is why the addition of Jason Kubel was so perplexing. Left fielder Gerardo Parra had 28 Defensive Runs Saved and a 20.1 Ultimate Zone Rating during his first three big league seasons, while Kubel has minus-17 Defensive Runs Saved and a minus-41.8 Ultimate Zone Rating during his career as an outfielder. In that career, Kubel has averaged 556 1/3 innings in the outfield, only twice playing more than 500 frames, so the Diamondbacks are taking a huge risk, something troublesome to an extreme fly ball pitcher such as Josh Collmenter (47.5 percent rate).
The Diamondbacks' infield, meanwhile, should experience improvement with Aaron Hill replacing Kelly Johnson for a full season and Stephen Drew perhaps ready to handle shortstop on a regular basis once again. Hill has 79 Defensive Runs Saved and a 21.7 Ultimate Zone Rating in his career as a second baseman, while Drew has 6.0 and 15.9 career numbers in those categories at shortstop. That's a boon for an extreme ground ball pitcher such as Trevor Cahill (56.2 percent rate).
Milwaukee Brewers: They're included in this set because of the aforementioned note about Aramis Ramirez, who drags down the Brewers' infield defense considerably. However, at the same time Ramirez arrives, Yuniesky Betancourt, one of the game's worst defensive shortstops, departs, with the arrival of Alex Gonzalez helping balance the team's left-side defense somewhat. From 2009-11, Gonzalez's 26 Defensive Runs Saved represent a 60-point improvement upon Betancourt's minus-46; among third basemen Ramirez's minus-26 is a mere eight-point drop from Casey McGehee's minus-18. The net result is a defense that might not look much different from the 2011 model.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com, a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league, and a 2011 FSWA award winner for Best Baseball Article on the Web. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.