Defense in Major League Baseball


While searching one of my favorite websites on the internet last night, FanGraphs, I decided to do a little bit of research. I wanted to see if there was any direct correlation between defensive statistics and a team’s place in the standings. The defensive statistic I used was UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating). UZR is a much better indicator of how good a player/team is on defense than something like fielding percentage. It takes account of a player’s range, arm strength, etc. and determines “how many runs better or worse that player has been relative to the average player at his position.” Pretty nice statistic to use I’d say. Here are just some fun tidbits I complied:

Best Defensive Teams in MLB (By UZR)

1. Kansas City Royals (35.0)

2. Tampa Bay Rays (20.2)

3. Baltimore Orioles (15.6)

4. St. Louis Cardinals (14.5)

5. Detroit Tigers (14.0)

Hm, I believe I just rattled off some of the best teams in baseball – without mentioning the team’s record. But if we do look at records, these five teams are a combined 185-140 (.569) and rank 1st, 1st, 3rd, 1st, and 3rd respectively in their divisions. So far, it seems like good defense leads to winning. Now, let’s look at the worst defensive teams in baseball:

Worst Defensive Teams in MLB (By UZR)

26. Philadelphia Phillies (-9.7)

27. Cleveland Indians (-14.8)

28. Chicago White Sox (-22.0)

29. San Diego Padres (-26.6)

30. Oakland Athletics (-28.7)

And there you go. The worst defensive teams are also some of the worst overall teams in baseball. They rank last, 4th, last, 4th, and last respectively and have a combined 141-190 (.426) record.

Teams that can play defense save runs, their pitcher’s arm, and get out of jams. Being a White Sox fan, I can’t tell you how many times the Sox had two outs in the inning and couldn’t make a simple play or just didn’t have enough range to get out of an inning. But I did get to enjoy the Royals destroy the White Sox last season (13-6 record) and make a magical run to the World Series with an incredible defense. Even this season, I remember Lorenzo Cain with multiple web gems against the Sox. It’s frustrating to an opposing team.

Lastly, I will look at the last two postseasons and where each team ranked amongst UZR:

2014 MLB Postseason

1. Kansas City Royals

2. Baltimore Orioles

5. St. Louis Cardinals

7. Los Angeles Angels

8. Oakland Athletics

11. Washington Nationals

16. San Francisco Giants

20. Los Angeles Dodgers

25. Pittsburgh Pirates

26. Detroit Tigers


2013 MLB Postseason

4. Tampa Bay Rays

8. Cincinnati Reds

9. Los Angeles Dodgers

10. Boston Red Sox

11. Atlanta Braves

12. Oakland Athletics

15. Pittsburgh Pirates

20. Detroit Tigers

25. Cleveland Indians

27. St. Louis Cardinals

Now there is a little more discrepancy as to the correlation between defense and placement in the playoffs, but a lot of these playoff teams are in the top-half in UZR. I guess this just leads to a more interesting debate. Sure, scoring runs gets you to the postseason and pitching wins championships, but defense should definitely have a place in the conversation. While defense has typically been tough to analyze statistically, the baseball world has taken major strides in determining defensive performance through numbers.

About the author: Jack Conness

Graduate of UW-Milwaukee. Baseball nerd. Follow him on Twitter! @JackConness