COMMENTARY | The importance of defense in baseball might be illustrated by considering, in simple terms, the requirements for scoring a run: The batting team must cover four bases, in sequence, before making three outs.
When the defensive team makes an error, or fails to make a play it could have or should have made, that equation is flipped, because the defensive team now has given away an out and a base. In effect, the batting team now must earn three bases before it makes four outs. Changes everything.
Thus, the importance of playing tight defense can't be overstated. Unfortunately, the execution of tight defense can't be comprehensively measured, either. The statisticians are working on it, but the prospects are bleak. Defensive events just aren't so discrete or isolable as batting and pitching events. Quantities of defensive plays often rest on assessments of quality, many of those assessments are in the eye of the beholder, and some people behold better than others. Judging a team's defense is more of an aesthetic matter than an exercise in measurement.
In the case of the Los Angeles Angels, visual impressions agree with the stat sheet. This is a poor defensive team, however we look at it. By the measurements, relative to the American League, the Angels are worse at defense than at the other aspects of the game. Offensively, the Angels are eighth with 4.46 runs per game. At pitching, the Angels are 12th with a 4.34 ERA. Defensively, the Angels are tied with Houston in last with a .980 fielding percentage, and they are 13th in defensive efficiency at .683.
Anyone who watches the Angels can see that their interior defense is trouble. It seems there is little to stop ground balls to the left side of the infield from reaching the left side of the outfield. It's almost cause for celebration when the Angels turn a 6-4-3 double play. Day after day, we see the Angels botch infield outs. And no AL team is worse at controlling the running game.
That's the eyeballs talking. The metrics concur. Just to pick one such metric, try defensive runs saved above average (Rdrs is the abbreviation in baseball-reference.com, the source for all these statistics), which purports to show the number of runs above or below average a player is worth based on the number of plays made. The average is set at zero.
At third base, the Angels are minus-five, which puts them in a three-way tie for 12th. At shortstop, they are minus-11, last in the AL. At second base, they are minus-one, putting them in a two-way tie for 12th. At first base, their best ranking on by this metric, they are minus-three, a two-way tie for eighth. At catcher, they are minus-four, putting them in another three-way tie for 11th.
Same story in the outfield. In left, they are minus-seven, which is 12th. In center, they are minus-nine, which is 13th. In right field, they are minus-six, which is 11th. At no position are the Angels even a league average team by Rdrs. As a team, the Angels are minus-50, last in the AL.
Admittedly, double plays are situational. It remains that the Angels are tied for 13th in double plays with 52. They are in a four-way tie for ninth with seven 5-4-3 double plays, and they are in a two-way tie for 12th with 10 6-4-3 double plays. Then again, the double play isn't all that often in order when the Angels are on the field, and one explanation is that the Angels are helpless against the running game. Opponents are 60-for-71 attempting steals against the Angels, which is the most opposition steals and the highest opposition success rate (.85 percent) in the AL.
Last season, even when the Angels lost, they were alert and reliable defensively. They were first in defensive efficiency (.708), second in Rdrs (57) and tied for fourth in fielding percentage (.984). This year, with many of the same guys, they're not getting many of the same results.
The Angels lost 6-5 on June 16 to the New York Yankees, their 15th one-run loss, tied for worst in the AL. Many episodes can be cited. Two stand out defensively, both from the Yankees' five-run third inning. A two-out flyball by the Yankees' Lyle Overbay fell from the glove of Peter Bourjos on the warning track in center field to drive in a run from first. Overbay then scored on a single to left by Jayson Nix. Mike Trout's throw home was timely, but catcher Chris Iannetta didn't hold it.
No errors. Neither play was easy. But there are numerous plays in a season that fall between the tough side of routine and all but impossible. Championship teams make those plays. The Angels aren't making them.
Bill Peterson has covered and written about Major League Baseball for more than 30 years in Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Texas and Los Angeles, where he now lives and writes a baseball blog, Big Leagues in Los Angeles. He is a lifetime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
- Sports & Recreation