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John Dewan's Stat of the Week

Stat of the Week: The Tournament of Defensive Excellence

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By Mark Simon

We know you’re probably missing March Madness (we are too), so to fill the void, we’ve come up with a tournament of our own–the Sports Info Solutions Tournament of Defensive Excellence. The goal of the competition is to determine the best defensive player of the 21st century.

Our bracket (linked here) started with 32 players. They were the 26 who totaled at least 100 Runs Saved since 2003 (the first season for which Defensive Runs Saved was computed) and six at-large selections.

Those at-large bids went to a mix of current stars (Matt Chapman, Javier Baez, Paul Goldschmidt), players who just missed the 100-Runs Saved cutoff (Dustin Pedroia), players who excelled at a position at which 100 isn’t reachable (Mark Buehrle), and players whose excellence pre-dated Defensive Runs Saved (Andruw Jones).

By the time you’re reading this, we’re likely tallying votes on Twitter for the Sweet 16 or Elite 8. But we can still consider the question of who should win this competition.

The four No. 1 seeds were selected because they are the top four players in career Defensive Runs Saved–Adrian Beltre, Andrelton Simmons, Yadier Molina, and Jason Heyward. They are certainly legitimate candidates to be the champion. Each has had a period of prolonged excellence at some point in their careers.

Beltre dominated the hot corner, particularly from 2003 to 2010, when he saved 20 runs five times for three different teams.

Simmons won the Fielding Bible Award six straight seasons from 2013 to 2018 before an ankle injury shortened his 2019 campaign. He’ll have his eyes on passing Beltre on the all-time DRS list once baseball resumes.

Molina likewise has won six Fielding Bible Awards. He’s excelled at pitch framing, pitch blocking, and deterring basestealers throughout his career.

Heyward’s struggles the last couple of years at the plate have overshadowed his defensive excellence from earlier in his career. He has the most career Defensive Runs Saved of any outfielder.

Most Defensive Runs Saved – Since 2003

Name DRS
Adrian Beltre 202
Andrelton Simmons 193
Yadier Molina 169
Jason Heyward 143
Albert Pujols 140
Brett Gardner 138
Russell Martin 133
Mark Ellis 129
Chase Utley 129
Lorenzo Cain 125
Kevin Kiermaier 125

If we shift our analysis to look at Runs Saved per 1,000 innings, four current players stand atop the list – Matt Chapman (23.7), Kevin Kiermaier (22.7), Simmons (21.7), and Roberto Perez (21.7) using a minimum of 3,000 innings played.

However, that list is a bit biased. None of those players has hit the decline phase of their careers yet. Those averages are likely to come down a bit as each of those four age.

The retired player who saved the most runs per 1,000 innings is shortstop Adam Everett (17.9), whose standout defense was recognized in The Fielding Bible in an essay by Bill James. Everett had the misfortune of being paired against Jones in the first round of the tournament and was handily knocked out.

Everett’s defense will remain somewhat underappreciated (though not by us). However, we’re looking forward to seeing how the rest of the field plays out. Hope you’ll follow along.

To listen to a comprehensive breakdown of the bracket with analysis and stories on the players in the tournament, check out the SIS Baseball Podcast episode featuring special guests: former major leaguer Eduardo Perez and New York Times national baseball writer Tyler Kepner.

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