By: Chris Larson
As the old adage goes, a successful baseball team is a team that wins through pitching and defense. Typically, those are the ingredients that help a team to play their way into a postseason berth and continue playing deep into October. While it's not guaranteed, usually teams are able to find success and sustain that success for long periods of time, which is exactly what these three teams have done so far this season.
1. Milwaukee Brewers (1st in the NL Central)
Defensive Runs Saved: 54 (1st in baseball)
Ultimate Zone Rating: 18 (1st in baseball)
Defensive Value: 20.0 (3rd in baseball)
The Milwaukee Brewers started off this season with the most errors of any team in baseball, but quickly corrected that stat and have become one of the top three defensive teams in the entire league since. When you look at the Brewers, they don't have the strongest roster in the NL Central and continue to have question marks regarding their starting rotation. However, to overcome those question marks in the starting rotation, David Sterns and Company have put a phenomenal group of defenders behind their pitchers who have helped them to make outs when they matter the most. Sometimes for small market teams, such as the Milwaukee Brewers, the front office has to look at every single option when it comes to building their team and the Brewers have obviously elected to put a lot of emphasis on their bullpen and defense rather than solely on their starting rotation.
Among the Brewers everyday position players, the one that ranks the highest among the group is Lorenzo Cain, who the team signed to a five-year deal this past offseason. Cain has always been one of the more elite defenders in baseball and it appears as though he took his superb defensive abilities from Kansas City over to the Brew Crew. Based on data from FanGraphs, Cain leads the team in Defensive Runs Saved (11), Utility Zone Rating (7.1), and has the highest Defensive Value (8.2). Compared to the rest of baseball and qualified centerfielders, Cain comes in behind Delino DeShields of the Texas Rangers for second place in Defensive Runs Saved, has the highest Utility Zone Rating, as well as the highest Defensive Value. It's no wonder why the Brewers preferred to upgrade their outfield with Lorenzo Cain and it's looking like he's been worth every penny of his contract so far.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks (1st in the NL West)
Defensive Runs Saved: 52 (2nd in baseball)
Ultimate Zone Rating: 16.2 (5th in baseball)
Defensive Value: 20.2 (2nd in baseball)
Arizona currently leads the NL West by a game and a half and came out of the gates this season ready to play and created quite a lead ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Since that time, Arizona has seen their lead dwindle as the team lost a few impact players to injury and as the Dodgers went on the incredible run that they've had over the past month. With that being said, Arizona's front office, led by General Manager Mike Hazen, has placed a huge emphasis on pitching and defense and both departments have been very successful for the Dbacks to date. Arizona continues to have the best bullpen in all of baseball and their pitching staff as a whole ranks 5th in baseball with a 3.49 ERA over 703.1 innings of work. The Dbacks might not have the biggest names in all of baseball, but there is still plenty of talent on their 25-man roster, which has helped to create the level of success that the team has experienced so far.
For the Diamondbacks, the biggest contributor defensively this season, has been Jarrod Dyson, an offseason acquisition from this past winter. Dyson ranks second in Defensive Runs Saved (7), first in Utility Zone Rating (4.2), and has the highest Defensive Value (4.7) of any of the Diamondbacks position players. As was the case with Lorenzo Cain, the Diamondbacks saw the defensive value of Jarrod Dyson and that was one of the biggest reasons why the team pursued him this past offseason after losing out in the JD Martinez sweepstakes. Besides his defensive value, Dyson has tremendous speed on the base paths and possesses the ability to play all three outfield positions, which is something that the Diamondbacks need for depth purposes and due to the injury of their star centerfielder, AJ Pollock.
3. Chicago Cubs (2nd in the NL Central)
Defensive Runs Saved: 40 (Tied for 3rd in baseball with the San Diego Padres)
Utility Zone Rating: 17.9 (2nd in baseball)
Defensive Value: 21.9 (1st in baseball)
Over the past few seasons, it seems as though the Chicago Cubs are always in the conversation about the best defensive teams in baseball and it's no wonder why. Defense is a big reason why the Cubs were able to win a World Series Championship back in 2016 and is a big part of why the team finished in first place that season as well as last year. When Theo Epstein started running the Cubs organization along with the help of Jed Hoyer, both placed a high emphasis on building up depth at every level of the minor league system and remained focused on developing players that had all of the instincts needed to be successful, everyday big league players which included defense first-type players. It appears as though that mission has been fulfilled and the Cubs defense continues to impress the entire baseball world day in and day out, just look at a highlight reel of Javier Baez for further proof!
While Baez has certainly been impressive, so far this season, the best defensive player for the Cubs has been shortstop, Addison Russell, which might make you scratch your head about why the team would want to trade for Manny Machado when they have Russell at shortstop and All-Star, Kris Bryant, at third. Regardless, it appears as though the Cubs don't need to make any defensive upgrades at shortstop because Russell leads the team in Defensive Runs Saved (11), ranks behind Kyle Schwarber in Utility Zone Rating (4.0), and has the second best Defensive Value (6.7) behind, Wilson Contrearas, who has a Defensive value of (8.7). Russell was mentioned as potential trade candidate this past winter, but it's a good thing that the Cubs didn't trade him because he acts like a brick wall at shortstop and that is terrific news for the Cubs pitching staff. On a national level, Addison Russell certainly deserves a lot more attention than he gets as he is one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball.
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