Flashing the Leather



Let’s talk defense.

Over the weekend, the Reds dropped yet another series. No, that’s not exactly breaking news: the Redlegs have won just three of the 15 series they have played since the All-Star break.

But you already know that the Reds have been in a downward spiral for some time now. What interested me is precisely how the Reds lost the last game of the series. From ESPN’s recap:

The opportunistic New York Mets pounced when the Cincinnati Reds made a couple of costly mistakes.

Anthony Recker and Curtis Granderson homered, and New York scored four unearned runs in a 4-3 victory over the Reds on Sunday.

The four unearned runs were the most allowed by Cincinnati since June 27, 2012, according to the Reds.

Same old Reds, right? Well, not exactly. This may surprise you, but did you know that, before Sunday’s game, the Reds had committed only 62 errors, the fewest in the majors? It’s true, and it’s one of the most interesting stories about the 2014 Redlegs. (Perhaps the only interesting story, if we’re being honest.) These Reds have actually been very good defensively.

Let’s look at the raw numbers. Even after the rough weekend, the Reds have still allowed fewer errors than any club in baseball. No team in the National League is particularly close. Cincinnati has committed 64 errors; Philadelphia is second in the NL with 74. If we wanted to look at fielding percentage, we’d see that the Reds are tops in baseball (.988).

Those are old-school numbers, admittedly. Students of The School of Sabermetrics (TM) would shake their heads in disappointment over the fact that I quoted errors and fielding percentage to make the case that the Reds have been a good fielding club. I may have just lost my SABR card, in fact. Whatever. It may not tell the whole story, but it does show you that the Reds have been good on defense at the same time that they have lost a lot of games.

Let’s dig into the numbers a little more. FanGraphs rates the Reds as the best defensive team in the National League (#4 in the majors); the Cardinals are a distant second in the NL. Cincinnati is first in the NL in Ultimate Zone Rating, UZR/150, and almost every other pertinent defensive statistic. Perhaps you don’t believe that defensive stats are very meaningful, but they all say that the Reds have been superb with their collective gloves in 2014.

Hurrah! The old-school stats agree with the newfangled metrics!

To whom do we attribute Cincinnati’s defensive magnificence? After all, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips—each former Gold Glove winners—have missed significant time to injury this year, and Jay Bruce (generally regarded as among the best defensive right fielders in baseball) has missed some time as well. There are two primary answers: Zack Cozart and Billy Hamilton. In all of baseball, there are 11 players who have saved 17+ runs (according to defensive runs saved). Cozart and Hamilton are among those 11.

Cozart has 18.9 DRS at the most demanding position in baseball. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, we’ve already had this conversation; Cozart has an elite glove. Sure, defensive metrics are to be taken with a grain of salt, and even 140 games is kind of a small sample size in the big scheme of things, but the fact that Cozart rates above Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons and Baltimore’s JJ Hardy at this point in the season should make you re-consider Zack’s contribution to this team. If Cozart isn’t the best defensive shortstop in baseball, he’s on the short list.

Rookie Billy Hamilton might be an even more surprising inclusion on the list of top defensive players in the game. Sure, we all expected Hamilton to be a huge improvement defensively over last year’s center fielder, Shin-Soo Choo. But did anyone expect him to be this good? Just looking at defensive runs saved, Hamilton rates as the fourth-best center fielder in baseball with 17.1 DRS. He’s ninth in all of baseball in UZR. And the reason why this is true has nothing to do with errors or fielding percentage (yes, this is me trying to win back my SABR card). As the advanced metrics show, Hamilton gets great jumps, and his spectacular speed permits him to get to more balls than almost any outfielder in the game. Even better: he just turned 24 TODAY (happy birthday, Billy!), and he’s only been playing center field since last year.

Yep, that’s right. He figures to improve as he learns the position. That’s almost scary.

Again, these guys have been among the very best defensive players in baseball, but we can’t give all the credit to Cozart and Hamilton. With the exception of Ryan Ludwick in left field (who has been brutal) and the Frazier/Bruce/Pena/Hannahan disaster at first base, every other Cincinnati regular has been pretty good defensively. He hasn’t played as much as he would have liked, but Brandon Phillips reached 100 consecutive errorless games on Monday night, and he’s third on the club in DRS. Catcher Devin Mesoraco, known primarily for his bat, is fourth on the team.

How do we reconcile the great defensive numbers with the fact that the Reds have been pretty awful overall? Surprisingly, it’s not that uncommon. Just last season, the Cubs were among the top five defensive teams in baseball while finishing 30 games below .500. In 2012, the Cubs also ranked in the top five, and they finished forty games below .500 that season.

On the other hand, the Reds have been pretty good since 2010, and the defensive metrics show that they have been one of the top five teams in baseball during that time. It has been a key to their success, and if you are looking for reasons for optimism as we look to the future, perhaps this is one. The pitching has been uniformly good in 2014, and as we’ve seen, the defense has been spectacular. What does that leave us? (If you haven’t jumped to this particular conclusion, dear reader, the answer is the offense.)

I don’t want to drink the Walt Jocketty Kool-Aid, but if MVP Joey Votto returns next year along with the pre-2014 Jay Bruce and a healthy BP, the Reds could actually be alright in 2015. The pitching and defense are certainly there. They just need to score some more runs.

Then again, the Reds have had good pitching and good defense this season, yet 2014 has been an abject disaster in Redleg Nation. Is it possible that pitching + defense isn’t 80% of the game, as some “analysts” would have had you believe over the last fifty years? Heresy!

No, it’s not 80%, but it’s part of the mix. Just like you have to score lots of runs to be successful, you also have to prevent a few of your opponents’ runs from scoring. The Reds are very good at the latter part of that equation. How Jocketty chooses to address the other— the club’s offensive deficiencies—will be the single most important storyline of the off-season.

Keep those fingers crossed, Reds fans.

Chad Dotson is a contributing writer to our Reds Blog. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog.

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