This is the fourth in a series of articles that aim to compare the four teams that have been assembled to compete for the 2010 title of AL West champion. The first article revealed that the Mariners and Rangers have done the best work in preparing starting rotations for 2010. The second article predicted that the Athletics will have the top bullpen. The third suggests that the Rangers and Angels have significantly more potent offenses than the Mariners or Athletics. This installment will address the defenses and base-stealers of the AL West.
Using Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), the Mariners were the top-rated defense in baseball at 85.5 runs above league average in 2009. The other teams in the AL West also finished in the upper half of major league teams in 2009, with the Rangers ranking sixth (+32.5 runs), the Angels ranking 10th (+13.3 runs) and the Athletics ranking 12th (+5.2 runs).
During the off-season, the Mariners added a very good defensive first baseman (Casey Kotchman), the Athletics added a great defensive center fielder (Coco Crisp), and the Rangers shuffled their outfield to improve their defense in center field (Julio Borbon) and left field (Josh Hamilton). The Angels took a step back by losing Chone Figgins, whose defense was worth 16.3 runs in 2009.
To compare the defenses of the Al West, I used the same rosters that I used for the offensive projections and the associated defensive runs saved or lost relative to replacement projected by CHONE. Using both starters and backups for the various infield and outfield positions as well as two catchers, I calculated the overall defensive projections for each team in runs relative to replacement (see the table below). Positive values indicate that the team's defense is projected to be better than replacement level, and negative values indicate that the team's defense is projected to be below replacement level:
The Angels figure to get above-average defense in the middle infield with Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis. There's not much to speak of for the rest of the team, with aging outfielders and a young third baseman (Brandon Wood) expected to produce slightly below,average defense. The Athletics and Mariners should have two of the best outfield defenses in baseball, with Franklin Gutierrez, Ichiro Suzuki, Coco Crisp and Rajai Davis all expected to provide well above-average glovework. The Mariners also feature what is expected to be the best infield defense in the division, with Jack Wilson, Chone Figgins and Casey Kotchman all projected as well above-average for their positions.
The Rangers' outfield looks solid with Josh Hamilton, Julio Borbon, Nelson Cruz and David Murphy each projected to provide around five runs of defensive value. The infield projections are a bit surprising, with both Michael Young and Elvis Andrus expected to produce average defense at third base and shortstop, respectively. Last year, UZR rated Young well below average at third base (-8.4 runs) and Andrus well above-average at shortstop (+10.7 runs). CHONE also projects Chris Davis to be one of the least proficient defensive first basemen in baseball, at minus-three runs.
The Mariners and Athletics appear likely to join the Rays as the top defensive teams in the American League. That should help mitigate their anemic offenses. The Rangers' combination of above-average defense and above-average offense provides the team with what appears to be the best group of position players in the AL West. The transformation of the Angels from a pitching/defense group to one that tries to outscore its opponents is surprising. It will be interesting to see how that plays, especially in a division that has recently emphasized the acquisition of strong defensive players.
Most modern-day baseball teams eschew the stolen base. CHONE projects that just six players in the AL West will steal at least twenty bases in 2009 -- Borbon (35), Figgins (33), Davis (31), Andrus (30), Suzuki (23) and Ian Kinsler (23). A total of 18 players in the AL West are projected to steal at least 10 bases, which is equal to fewer than two stolen bases per month. Because these 18 players represent the only real "threats" on the basepaths, I chose to limit the comparisons of the teams in the AL West to these players.
The table below provides the combined number of projected stolen bases (SB), caught-stealing (CS), steal percentage (%) and runs resulting from attempted steals. All projections are from CHONE. The conversion rates for stolen bases (.184 runs/SB) and caught stealing (-.486/CS) are taken from a study done by Tom Tango assuming that a team scores an average of five runs per game:
The good news? The Rangers' big four (Borbon, Andrus, Kinsler and Cruz) are projected to be the most prolific group in the AL West. According to Tango, 100 steals should increase the Rangers' scoring by approximately 20 runs during the 2010 season. The bad news? The Rangers' big four are expected to tie the Angels' group for the most times caught stealing in 2010. According to Tango, having 34 baserunners erased from the basepaths will cost the team approximately 17 runs.
The surprising news? Though it's fun to watch the cat-and-mouse between a pitcher, catcher, and fast base runner, the overall effect of stolen base attempts on a team's season is almost negligible. The difference between the best and the worst basestealing teams in the division is less than five runs. That's less than a win.
If healthy, the players assembled by the Mariners and Athletics should produce two of the top five defenses in all of baseball in 2010. The Rangers, though not elite, have the talent to finish in the upper half among American League defenses, while the Angels will likely rank in the lower half. Steals appear unlikely to make much of a difference.
So how does the whole thing roll up? Well, if you use CHONE to measure the present-day values of players as I have done and you use the following assumptions:
(1) A replacement-level offense will produce 650 runs in the American League in 2010;
(2) CHONE's replacement levels for pitching and defense are accurate;
(3) The estimates for playing time that I've used for 2010 are accurate;
Then the table below presents the number of runs that each of the AL West rosters are worth above a replacement-level roster. Assuming 10 runs is equal to a win above replacement, then the Rangers' present-day talent is approximately six wins greater than the Mariners, seven wins greater than the Athletics and eight wins greater than the Angels.
Worth noting is that the Rangers' current roster appears to be much more balanced than the other teams in the division, with the team finishing among the top two in every category except for defense. Surprisingly, the Angels rank in the bottom two in every category except offense Don't be surprised if this is the year that the Angels finally take a tumble.
[Editor's note: Happy pitchers and catchers day, everyone.]