As runs per game have dropped precipitously, the analysis of and attention on defensive efficiency has reached new heights in Major League Baseball. Teams are deploying strategic shifts like never before, and one-dimensional players whose only asset is their bat have been marginalized in many cases (as Kendrys Morales can attest).
In short, there's a lot of love for the gloves these days. So as we continue with the top 10 series this week, having covered the top 10 rotations on Monday and the top 10 lineups on Tuesday, let's take a look at the 10 clubs whose gloves have the most polish.
You're not going to find the Cubs on many top 10 lists these days, so why not give them a little love for their "D"?
After all, last year it rated ninth in defensive runs saved, per Baseball Info Solutions, and fourth in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, per Baseball Prospectus. Catcher Welington Castillo and first baseman Anthony Rizzo finished first in defensive WAR at their positions, while second baseman Darwin Barney finished second. Shortstop Starlin Castro is always a riddle, but he was much-improved defensively in the second half.
The Brew Crew went from being one of the worst-rated defensive teams in 2012 to one of the best in 2013, ranking fourth in defensive runs saved.
It's impossible to know if that's sustainable this season, but the Brewers get the nod here simply because they're so solid up the middle with Carlos Gomez, who finished second only to Andrelton Simmons in defensive WAR, in center, Jean Segura at short and Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate. Scooter Gennett is a notable upgrade over Rickie Weeks at second, now that Gennett is getting more playing time.
I knocked Texas down a couple pegs this year because of questions at first base, where Prince Fielder is a big defensive downgrade from Mitch Moreland; second base, where Jurickson Profar will have to get settled; and left field, where Shin-Soo Choo will be making his second defensive transition in as many years.
But Choo's arm will nonetheless be an asset in left, and the Rangers, on the whole, will still be really good, because they've got one of the best defensive third basemen in the game in Adrian Beltre, an excellent shortstop in Elvis Andrus and a solid outfield with Leonys Martin in center and Alex Rios in right.
Andrelton Simmons, Andrelton Simmons, Andrelton Simmons. I could talk about that athletic "Up Up Hey" outfield or how polished Freddie Freeman is at first base, but the reason the Braves are on this list (and why they finished sixth in defensive runs saved last season) is Simmons.
Some analysts insist that Simmons had the best defensive season in history last year. If nothing else, he had more than three times as many defensive runs saved than any other shortstop in the Majors. And if defensive numbers aren't your thing, then just sit back and watch this sensational double play he turned in the 14th inning of a game against the Nationals.
What really separates the Pirates from the pack is the scouting and analysis they do before they take the field. The Pirates established a well-earned reputation as one of the shrewdest shifters in the game last season, more than quadrupling their number of shifts from 2012 and ranking third in defensive runs saved to augment their pitching staff.
Gerardo Parra's season in the outfield was in line with Simmons' season at short, in terms of defensive runs saved, and Parra has a better surrounding cast. The D-backs should again have one of the better infields in baseball with Paul Goldschmidt at first, Aaron Hill at second, either Didi Gregorius or Chris Owings at short and Martin Prado at third.
Of course, the one defensive knock on the D-backs is that they'll be slotting Mark Trumbo in left field, so their outfield probably won't rate quite as well as it did in 2013.
It will be interesting to see if there's any impact to losing Ryan Hanigan, one of the better catchers in baseball, but the Reds retain an elite infield with Zack Cozart at short, Brandon Phillips at second and Joey Votto at first, and Jay Bruce is among the best in the game in right field. While there are questions about Billy Hamilton's ability to replace Shin-Soo Choo in the leadoff spot, he's a sure upgrade in center field. The Reds also have a pitching staff that fields well.
Overall, there's a lot to like about a team that finished second last season on the park-adjusted defensive efficiency scale.
After a strange 2012 in which they committed more than 100 errors, the Rays looked much like their old selves last season, ranking fourth on Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency scale.
That was due in no small part to the improved health of Evan Longoria, who is simply one of the best all-around players in baseball. With James Loney at first, Ben Zobrist at second (or wherever he happens to play) and Yunel Escobar at short, the Rays rate well in the infield, and they've got a strong outfield alignment with David DeJesus in left, Desmond Jennings in center and Wil Myers in right. Hanigan will pair well with Jose Molina behind the plate, as both are excellent pitch-framers and game-callers.
Baltimore's defense improved dramatically in the second half of the 2012 season, particularly with the arrival of Manny Machado at third base, and the turnaround helped push them into the playoffs. The Orioles' defensive mindset carried into the 2013 season, when Machado, shorstop J.J. Hardy and center fielder Adam Jones earned (not just won, but earned) Gold Gloves and the O's set a Major League record for fewest errors (54), resulting in just 31 unearned runs allowed.
The addition of David Lough, who had one of the highest UZR/150 ratings among outfielders last season, will add to the reputation, though the O's are obviously counting on a seamless return by Machado following knee surgery.
The turnaround of the Royals' pitching staff in general, and Ervin Santana in particular, was a great story last season, but it wouldn't have been possible without the backing of one of the best defenses in the game.
The Royals led the Majors in defensive runs saved, and the reason why is pretty simple, really: They don't have a defensive weakness at any position. That's why they're No. 1 here. Shortstop Alcides Escobar and catcher Salvador Perez are among the best at their premier positions, and Alex Gordon is unmatched in left field. Omar Infante was a nice pickup for second base. The Royals just need this group to hit as well as it fields and they'll be ready to take that next step into October.
Honorable mention: The Angels were No. 1 on this list a year ago, and they had what was, for them, a miserable year defensively. We'll see if they rebound in 2014. … As I wrote here, the Tigers and Cardinals figure to be among the most-improved defensive teams in 2014. Perhaps enough to justify spots on a list such as this by year's end. … The Nationals took a step backward defensively in 2013, but there is reason to believe they'll recover, especially with an improved bench. … The Dodgers rated in the top 10 in both defensive runs saved and defensive efficiency last season, but you really have to wonder about their middle infield with Hanley Ramirez at short and the untested Alexander Guerrero at second. … The variance of different defensive metrics is such that the A's rated first in park-adjusted defensive efficiency but 26th in defensive runs saved last season. Whatever the case, Craig Gentry was a good get for the outfield, where he can sometimes allow Yoenis Cespedes to start at designated hitter. … The left side of the Rockies' infield is as good as it gets with Nolan Arenado at third and Troy Tulowitzki at short, but Tulo has to stay healthy.