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Up-the-Middle Defense Projections

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We are just getting started with Spring Training, but projection season is already in full swing, so let's take a peek at our Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) projections for 2017.

Below are the teams with the best and worst projected up-the-middle fielders (i.e. catcher, second baseman, shortstop, and center fielder). This is often a good proxy for overall defensive quality because non-catcher up-the-middle fielders see over one-third more opportunities per season than the corner positions do, and catchers can provide value on every single pitch.

We project the Blue Jays to be the best up-the-middle defensive team in 2017 with a total of 27 Runs Saved, and in fact they are the only team whose worst position among that group is still projected to be above average. It should not be too surprising to see them at the top of the heap given the defensive reputation of some of the players involved.

Toronto Blue Jays Primary Up-the-Middle Fielders
Pos Player 2017 Proj DRS* 2016 DRS*
C Russell Martin 6 7
2B Devon Travis 2 2
SS Troy Tulowitzki 5 10
CF Kevin Pillar 12 21
*At the position listed

Kevin Pillar fills up the highlight reel and has been a top-five defensive center fielder both of the last two years, and we project him to be second-best this year to another Kevin, Kiermaier of the Rays. While Troy Tulowitzki has not been an elite defensive shortstop in some time (he finished in the top five in DRS at his position in four of his first five full seasons), he still has not finished outside the top 10 in any of the last four seasons. One of the big reasons Russell Martin commanded an $82 million contract in 2014 is that he is one of the best pitch framers in the league, providing at least six Strike Zone Runs Saved every year that we have computed it (since 2010), which adds up to the second-best total in that time period. And the table above does not even include utility men Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins, who are two of the better defensive middle infielders in the league and will contribute to the overall team defensive quality.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Mets, whose ballyhooed starting rotation might end up underperforming again if our projection of -19 runs saved by their most important fielders is borne out.

New York Mets Primary Up-the-Middle Fielders
Pos Player 2017 Proj DRS* 2016 DRS*
C Travis d'Arnaud -5 -4
2B Neil Walker -1 0
SS Asdrubal Cabrera -9 -7
CF Curtis Granderson -4 1
*At the position listed

New York was in the market for a center fielder this offseason (although one target was Andrew McCutchen, who we noted a couple weeks ago has struggled in center), but now they will have to make do with 36-year-old Curtis Granderson. To begin the season, he projects to get most of the work in center field—ahead of a much better fielder in former Fielding Bible Award winner Juan Lagares—in his first substantial time at the position since 2012. On the other end of the field, Travis d’Arnaud is an above average pitch framer (he has the tenth most Strike Zone Runs Saved in the league since 2013 despite missing substantial time to injury), but his arm and pitcher-handling deficiencies have kept him from being an above average defender overall. Lastly, Asdrubal Cabrera’s range has been a liability for some time now (he has not had a Range and Positioning Runs Saved above -5 since 2011), and we project him to be the worst defensive shortstop in the league this season, tied with Xander Bogaerts.

Note: We only listed the players who project to get the majority of work at each position. The team totals account for all players who project to fill that position over the course of the year.

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