MLB: How Important is Defense?
Above is a question that I’m sure has been pondered in the heads of fans, players, managers, and even general managers over the course of the season. Recently, I have found myself pondering this question while watching my beloved Baltimore Orioles, who seem intent on testing my sanity by continually giving Mark Reynolds the opportunity to put on a glove. Obviously there is a reason that Reynolds receives playing time despite his stone hands and feet that might as well be rooted to the ground. His name is scribbled on the lineup card because he can hit (well not this year, but you get the point). So the question is not really how important defense is, but how important it is relative to offense.
If you were to look at the leaderboard for team UZR, you would find the Seattle Mariners sitting atop that leaderboard. The Mariners also happen to be ranked dead last among Major League Baseball teams in wOBA with a .285 mark. To put that into perspective, Astros outfielder Jordan Schaefer has a career wOBA of .286. So in theory, a lineup made up of nine Jordan Schaefers would hit better than the Seattle Mariners. The fact that the Mariners lead the league in UZR, and are dead last in wOBA seems to indicate a philosophy within the organization that favors defense. Unfortunately for Seattle, their strategy has failed them thus far, as they currently sit in last place in the AL West.
The Tigers took a completely different approach into the season. They famously sacrificed defense for offense when they signed Prince Fielder and moved Miguel Cabrera to third. As expected, the Tigers have been terrible in the field this year, ranking last in UZR; however, they are currently tied for 6th in the majors with a wRC+ of 103. That’s good, but not exactly the offensive output they were hoping for. The Tigers do own a .357 wOBA so far in July, leading many to believe that their bats will come alive in the second half. The Tigers and their offense-first strategy are currently three games over .500 and half a game back in the AL Central. If they continue hitting like they have hit so far in July, they will likely end the season atop their division.
While viewing each of these team’s strategies, as well as their respected positions in the standings, it might be tempting to draw the conclusion that putting the best hitters in the lineup at the expense of defense is the way to go. This conclusion however, is flawed. The Tigers have a much better pitching staff (3.72 FIP) than the Mariners (4.10 FIP). They also own a significant edge in payroll: $132 million to $82 million. The Tigers spent significantly more money on their position players than did the Mariners, and I think it’s fair to say that the market favors offense. Perhaps the Mariners are attempting to solve the omnipresent problem facing small market teams, namely how to compete without money, by investing in defense.
Just how successful the Mariners are in the future with this strategy will be interesting to see. A scenario could be imagined a couple years down the road where Seattle bolsters their defense with a strong pitching staff, and perhaps Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley begin to hit like many scouts believe they can. In this scenario it would not be difficult to imagine the Mariners contending, especially with the second wild card team in play. How well they perform in the future could lead us closer to answering the question posed in the title of this article.