Run prevention is a hugely important team skill in baseball. Baseball highlights will often be composed of those who can hit the longest home runs, but having a top defensive team can do wonders for a team’s record. For example, take the Giants. Collectively as a team the Giants can’t hit their way out of wet paper bag. Despite Sandoval having a season that’s blown away all of our expectations, the team ranks last or 2nd to last for most of the important offensive statistics (wRAA, wOBA, runs scored, take your pick). Yet, somehow, the Giants have played winning baseball this season.
How has it happened? We don’t hit HR’s. We don’t walk. We’re as hacky as a team can get.
The answer lies in run prevention. Or, to put it another way, the Giants have been very good about not giving up runs to their opponents. As a team, the Giants have only given up 425 runs on the season. That’s the best in the majors. On offense, they’ve only scored 455 runs. That’s 2nd worst in the majors behind the Padres. If you want to park adjust things, the Giants should be the worst team in the majors at scoring runs. And while the Giants have played over their heads some — our Pythagorean record pegs us closer to a 60 win team than a 62 win team — the power of run prevention has made the Giants a poster team for why these things matter. And can matter a lot.
Let’s move on towards the graph. I’ve plotted each team in baseball by their UZR and FIP. This should let us see which teams are the best at run prevention (those who pitch well, and play good defense) and those who are the worst at run prevention (those who pitch and play defense poorly) and the teams that are in-between.
The bold lines indicate league averages. For UZR, this would be ’0′ runs. For team FIP, it worked out around 4.34 runs. Remember that the league average FIP will be higher in the AL because of the DH and slightly lower in the NL.
(Update: I’ve added a new version with team icons for each data marker)
Reading the Graph:
Upper-right Quadrant = Teams with above average defense and pitching. This is the most desirable quadrant to be in.
Upper-left Quadrant = Teams with above average defense, but below average pitching.
Lower-right Quadrant = Teams with below average defense, but above average pitching.
Lower-left Quadrant = Teams with below average defense and pitching. This is the least desirable quadrant to be in.
I’ve marked a few of the teams in each quadrant so that you can get a feel for how certain teams were placed.
Amazingly this season the Giants have posted the best defense of any team in baseball. That’s quite a boost from their ranking last year. In 2008, the Giants ranked as the 9th best defensive team in baseball. That’s above average, but they’ve climbed to the very top this year. Not only has the defense been great, our pitching has been very good, too. Only the Braves have posted a better team FIP (3.63 to our 3.73) this season. Defensively, the Giants have been on par with an excellent M’s squad. The Giants OF defense has been superb this year. Aaron Rowand has had a bounce-back season. Randy Winn, despite his struggles at the plate, is still a top OF defender in all of baseball. And the rest of the OF has been played by plus-defenders like Fred Lewis, Nate Schierholtz, and Andres Torres. OF defense is a major, major strength for our current team. This is why any attempt to play Ryan Garko in LF is a foolish idea.
Looking at other teams, the Braves have posted the best FIP in baseball but their defense has played below average. The Cubs are right in the middle as an average team when it comes to defense and pitching. The poor Royals rank as the worst defensive team in baseball by UZR. Their team FIP is better than the league average. The Royals would see some nice gains if they could boot players like Betancourt, Guillen, and Alberto Callapso. None of these players are good hitters, so there’s not much of a reason, on any level of debate, to keep them in the lineup — and in the field. The Orioles have defended and pitched poorly this season. They are one of the unfortunate teams stuck in the lower-left quadrant.
The Giants do need to improve their offense, because it’s hard to bank on Lincecum and Cain being this good every year, but if the team’s defensive abilities remain above average, the offensive improvement might be smaller than most would think.