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Stat of the Week: Which MLB Teams Have Had The Best Defensive Units This Century?

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The last few weeks we’ve done pieces on Andrelton Simmons and the 2018 Diamondbacks as the best defensive player and team of the 21st century, respectively. We used Twitter polling to pick Simmons and our defensive metrics to choose the Diamondbacks.

But what if we broke teams up into component parts, specifically infield and outfield? Who would come out on top? Again, let’s use our metrics to find out.

Most of the teams with high Runs Saved totals for their infields have come from the last two seasons, due to the increased value that infield shifts are providing. However, the 2005 Phillies infield leads the way, as it saved 85 runs, the most of any team since 2003 (the first season for which Runs Saved were tracked).

The Phillies beat out the previously-mentioned 2018 Diamondbacks (79 Runs Saved) for the top spot. Chase Utley led the way with 20 Runs Saved at second base and his double play partner, Jimmy Rollins, saved 18 runs at shortstop. At the infield corners, Ryan Howard saved 11 runs in about a half-season at first base. Jim Thome (4), Tomas Perez (4) and Utley (3) combined for 11 more there. And David Bell saved 17 runs at third base.

The 2001 Mariners, who you’ll see here a couple of times, are the best defensive infield in the pre-Runs Saved part of the century (2000 to 2002) when we use a stat like Total Zone runs (a predecessor to Runs Saved available on Baseball-Reference). Their infield of John Olerud, Bret Boone, Carlos Guillen and Bell was solid at each position.

When you narrow it down to middle-infield combos, the 2017 Angels come out on top with 54 Runs Saved. Simmons saved 40 runs at shortstop that season, the most recorded by a player. His top middle-infield mate was Danny Espinosa, who saved nine runs in 71 games at second base.

Prior to 2003, there are a few standouts in Total Zone that likely would have rated well in Runs Saved as well given their histories in Total Zone and their future performance in Runs Saved: The 2000 Cardinals (Fernando Vina and Placido Polanco), the 2002 Braves (Keith Lockhart and Rafael Furcal) and the 2002 Angels (Adam Kennedy and David Eckstein).

The 2003 Rangers got the most value out of their corner infielders in this time span. Their 60 Runs Saved at first and third came almost entirely from three sources. Mark Teixeira saved 19 runs in his debut season at first base. Rafael Palmeiro, who also played there, saved 11 runs in 55 games. At third base, Hank Blalock didn’t win a Gold Glove, but he had a case for one given that he finished with a league-leading 28 Runs Saved there.

If we were just looking at two-player corner combinations, Fielding Bible Award winners Matt Olson and Matt Chapman combined for 52 Runs Saved for the 2019 Athletics, the most of any first-third pairing in this span. The pre-2003 candidates would include Todd Helton and Jeff Cirillo from the 2001 Rockies, and the Olerud/Bell pairing from the 2001 Mariners.

The 2005 Braves outfield saved the most runs of any outfield group (62), just ahead of the 2007 Braves (59). The common bonds between the teams were center fielder Andruw Jones, an all-time great fly ball chaser, and right fielder Jeff Francoeur, whose throwing arm is considered one of the best this century.

What separated the 2005 team was that it had four outfielders record at least 10 Runs Saved, with Ryan Langerhans (14 Runs Saved overall) and Kelly Johnson (11 in left field) joining Jones (15) and Francoeur (17). That put them just ahead of their 2007 counterparts. In the pre-Runs Saved class, the 2001 Mariners with Mike Cameron and Ichiro Suzuki, and the 2002 Angels, headed by Darin Erstad, also belong among the best-of-the-best.

If you want to read more about these topics, check out our in-depth look at the best middle infields, best corner infields, and best outfields on the Sports Info Solutions blog.

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