If there were any lingering doubt that defense wins championships, it died in the gloves of the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants this October.

Much was made of the two teams’ defensive prowess—particularly Kansas City’s—entering the Fall Classic, and they didn’t disappoint. From the speedy, sliding heroics of the Royals outfield to Giants second baseman Joe Panik’s incredible Game 7 double play, the 2014 World Series featured a glittering array of web gems. 

Heck, it’s gotten to the point where TIME magazine has declared the Royals “the future of baseball.” Where home run hitters have long taunted the opposition with fist pumps and bat flips, baseball’s new defensive wizards are now getting their swag on. As KC outfielder Jarrod Dyson told ESPN.com‘s Jerry Crasnick:

Teams know they’re going to have to square something up to get a hit on us. Think about it: If you felt like you had a triple into the gap off the bat and somebody ran it down and caught it, how would you feel going back to the dugout? You’re going to be pissed. You’re going to be like, ‘Man, what do I have to do to get a hit?’

Yet with that much national attention being heaped on speed and defense, it’s still possible they’re underrated attributes, much like on-base percentage during Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics’ “moneyball” heyday. 

This isn’t a new idea. In 2010, Dan Basco and Jeff Zimmerman wrote a piece on the emerging importance of defense for The Baseball Research Journal (via SABR.org) in which they noted:

In the past year many baseball writers have remarked that “defense is the new on-base percentage,” meaning that it’s an undervalued asset—as the ability merely to get on base was about a decade ago, when driving in runs was thought to be the ticket or so said Michael Lewis in Moneyball.

You would think that, if here and there online and now in the pages of The Baseball Research Journal you’re reading that defense is undervalued in the market, surely it no longer is. Wouldn’t the market have already corrected itself?

Not necessarily. Certainly teams recognize the importance of defense, and certainly everyone saw how far it carried the Royals and Giants. But it remains an elusive metric.

Oh, sure, there are loads of defensive statistics and more have come along in recent years. But unlike on the offensive side, where advanced analytics have augmented and clarified long-accepted measures such as batting average, there’s no such thing as a definitive defensive stat.

Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) might be the closest thing. It’s complicated and easily skewed by sample size, but its goal is worthy: To, as FanGraphs puts it, “quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess (or lack thereof).”

A UZR of zero is average, anything above plus-10 is excellent and anything below minus-five is bad. In the case of the Royals, the stats confirm what the eye suspects: Kansas City’s fleet-footed outfielders led all of baseball in UZR, per FanGraphs

Still, will a gaudy UZR help a guy get a bigger contract the same way flashy offensive stats will? Or is a run-saving glove still an under-the-radar asset?

We’ll get at least the beginning of an answer this offseason, when general managers go shopping with the success of the Royals and this year’s defense-heavy World Series fresh in their minds. 


Case Study: Hanley vs. Headley

Let’s take a look at two players, both free agents, and guess what kind of contracts they’ll get…

Player A: .243/.328/.372 slash line, 13 HR, 49 RBI, 20.9 UZR

Player B: .283/.369/.448, 13 HR, 71 RBI, -10.3 UZR

Player A is a third baseman, and Player B is a shortstop; both are 30 years old. Based solely on that information, it sure seems like Player A should net a heftier payday this winter. But he almost surely won’t.

Player A is Chase Headley, and Player B is Hanley Ramirez. Headley—who split last season between the San Diego Padres and New York Yankees—will generate plenty of interest, though not the kind he would have gotten a couple of years ago when he smashed 31 home runs and drove in 115 for the Padres.

In fact, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reports, the Yankees have “already begun…negotiations” with Headley. Partly, Heyman notes, that’s because New York isn’t interested in a contract north of $100 million.

Which is exactly what Ramirez is expected to demand. More from Heyman: “There’s no question [Ramirez] is looking for a big multiyear deal, and going into the season at least it looked like he might be in line to have Shin-Soo Choo ($130 million) and Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million) as comps.” 

Maybe a so-so, injury-plagued season will diminish Ramirez’s value, and maybe Headley will be rewarded for his slick glove work. But if Ramirez gets a substantially larger deal, it’ll be strong evidence that defense remains undervalued—even if it does win championships. 


All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com except where noted.

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