Of course defense is important
Junior's exit first step toward upgrade
By John Erardi • email@example.com • August 3, 2008
A lot has been written and said about Ken Griffey Jr. since he was traded to the Chicago White Sox this week.
But not enough has been written or said about how lackluster his defense was, and how much it contributed to the overall decline of a terrific defense in 1999 to a chronically anemic one through the 2000s.
Granted, he was hurt a lot of that time and he was only a part of the problem, but he turned gaps into Grand Canyons.
If the Reds can't improve their defense - and unloading Griffey was a start - they will not make the postseason.
Introducing the Deficiency Efficiency Ratio (DER). It is one of the most accurate barometers of a team's success.
It measures a very simple thing: how well your team turns into outs the batted balls that stay in the park.
A great defensive team turns 72 percent of batted balls into outs (Tampa Bay and Oakland currently lead Major League Baseball with a .720 DER). On the other end of the spectrum, a bad defensive team will turn only 68 percent of batted balls into outs. Guess on which end of the spectrum your Reds rank?
Poor defense has been a huge problem for the Reds since Griffey's second year here (2001).
Here is the Reds' DER and the rank among MLB teams defensively for the last decade:
Year DER MLB rank
2008 .681 29th
2007 .682 26th
2006 .691 21st
2005 .683 28th
2004 .696 20th
2003 .698 21st
2002 .700 19th
2001 .695 23rd
2000 .710 3rd
1999 .731 1st
The 2000 Reds were the last Cincinnati team with an above-average defense (and the last with a winning record). The 1999 Reds were the second-best defensive team of the last decade, exceeded only by the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games.
Based on several advanced defensive stats, the Reds have only two good defensive players: Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto.
If the Reds are going to contend in 2009, they are going to need several more.
Edwin Encarnacion is having a fine season at the plate but is the worst defensive third baseman in the majors.
Good hands and quickness with an erratic arm sounds like a potential first baseman or left fielder. (We favor left field for him; both because it's an easier position than first, and because of the history of third basemen making that transition.) But if the Reds re-sign Adam Dunn, where do they put EdE?
At shortstop, Jeff Keppinger doesn't have the range necessary to anchor a great defense, but he can play third if Encarnacion gets traded. Part-time shortstop Jerry Hairston Jr. is good in center field but can't stay healthy. Ditto Alex Gonzalez, whose reputation as a great shortstop isn't supported by the numbers.
Dunn has the opposite problem of Griffey - the Big Donkey looks worse than he is. This year he rates only slightly below average defensively among NL left fielders, a considerable improvement over his bottom-five ranking last year.
The priorities for the Reds are acquiring 1.) a go-get-'em center fielder, 2.) a better shortstop and 3.) a catcher.
The Reds can get creative. They have a very good shortstop playing second base. There's no reason why Brandon Phillips wouldn't be a very good shortstop. A good second baseman, Oakland's Mark Ellis, is available via free agency.
Can improving the defense work? Check out the Tampa Bay Rays this year, a team with an even more futile record this decade than the Reds. Last year, the Rays were 66-96 and had one of the worst DERs ever. What did they do?
They turned a terrible second baseman (B.J. Upton) into a better center fielder. They traded their good-hit, no-field shortstop (Brendan Harris) and replaced him with an excellent glove (Jason Bartlett).
They moved their third baseman to second base and made room for a rookie with an excellent glove (Evan Longoria).
They picked up a fourth outfielder from Milwaukee (Gabe Gross), who is posting excellent defensive stats.
And while it isn't Volquez-for-Hamilton, they traded a fine young hitter (the defensively challenged Delmon Young) for a fine young pitcher (Matt Garza).
Last year, the Rays had a DER of .662 and allowed 782 runs (one fewer than the Reds). This year, they have a DER of .720 and are on pace to allow 664 runs, a 118-run improvement. That's 12 wins.
And consider Milwaukee. Last year, it had a DER of .680. This year? .697. Not as awesome as the Rays, but still above the NL average this year (.693).
How'd the Brewers do it? They moved Ryan Braun from third base to left field, signed Mike Cameron and moved center fielder Bill Hall to an easier position (third base). With those moves alone, they already have improved their team by 32 runs this season.
The Reds have several promising arms. Seeing what they could do with a defense behind them would be a treat.
Sabermetrician Greg Gajus provided most of the information. Also contributing were sabermetricians Justin Inaz and Joel Luckhaupt.