The Los Angeles Dodgers have the best lineup in the National League and maybe the best pitching staff, but their two biggest highlights of the season have been two tremendous throws. The first, from Mookie Betts deep in the right-field corner to cut down Ketel Marte trying to stretch a double into a triple, was a Roberto Clemente-esque laser that traveled 305 feet. The second was Chris Taylor‘s game-ending assist from left field to nail Trent Grisham at home plate and preserve Wednesday’s 7-6 victory over the Padres.
For all the accolades L.A.’s offense and rotation receive, the Dodgers’ defense often gets overlooked, but this is a tremendous defensive unit beyond the flexibility that allows manager Dave Roberts to move players all over the field. The Dodgers led the majors in defensive runs saved in 2019, then added one of the game’s elite defenders in Betts, a four-time Gold Glove winner.
The Dodgers might rank up there with the two best defensive teams I’ve seen in my lifetime: the 2001 Mariners and 2016 Cubs. Now, that’s an opinion open to argument, but here are some numbers to back it up. The Mariners pre-date the DRS era (since 2003), but they have the fifth-best total zone runs saved rating between 1950 and 2002:
1973 Orioles: plus-119
1969 Orioles: plus-114
1990 A’s: plus-107
1984 Twins: plus-106
2001 Mariners: plus-104
Those Orioles teams — with defenders such as Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Paul Blair and Bobby Grich — are certainly a legitimate contender for best defensive teams ever, but are before my time. The 1990 A’s were certainly very good with Walt Weiss and Mike Gallego up the middle, and underrated Rickey Henderson in left field, although their only Gold Glove winner was Mark McGwire. I’m skeptical about the Twins’ figure. They did have rookie Kirby Puckett in center field and Gary Gaetti at third base, but they finished 81-81 while the other four clubs won at least 97 games.
As for the 2016 Cubs, they rank seventh in DRS since 2003, but the five highest teams — including the 2019 Dodgers — have come in the past two years, which perhaps suggests a rejiggering of the DRS formula has led to higher numbers. The 2016 Cubs are plus-96 in total zone, so they are close to the 2001 Mariners, but a reason to consider those two clubs as the best of the 21st century is they rank 1-2 in lowest batting average allowed on balls in play since 2000 … by a large margin:
2016 Cubs: .255
2001 Mariners: .260
2011 Rays: .265
2002 Angels: .269
2003 Mariners: .269
So, let’s have some fun and go position by position: 2001 Mariners vs. 2016 Cubs vs. 2020 Dodgers. Who is the best defensive team — if not of all time, then at least of this century?
Olerud was your classic smooth-fielding first baseman who provided a big target with his 6-foot-5 frame. He didn’t look all that athletic because his movements in the field and at the plate were so quiet and unpronounced, but his defensive metrics were always good (plus-95 runs saved for his career, fourth among first basemen since 1953) and he won Gold Gloves in 2000, 2002 and 2003. It’s hard to find anybody better than Olerud at turning a 3-6-3 double play, maybe Keith Hernandez. Rizzo won the first of his three Gold Gloves in 2016, and like Olerud is more athletic than he appears. Muncy is interesting because he showed enough range in 2019 that the Dodgers started him 62 times at second base and 26 times at third base, and he had positive defensive metrics at all three positions (although some attributed that to the Dodgers’ astute positioning more than Muncy’s talent). Muncy doesn’t have the defensive reputation of Olerud or Rizzo and he certainly doesn’t look as graceful as those two, but he’s at least average at first base. But that only puts him third in this group.
Ranking: 1. Olerud; 2. Rizzo; 3. Muncy
Boone had good hands and a strong throwing arm, and I always thought he was excellent at turning a double play. He won Gold Gloves in 2002, ’03 and ’04 (after Roberto Alomar left for the NL), but the defensive metrics say 2001 was his best season (plus-12 runs saved). Zobrist was a defensive savant of sorts, a player who thrived at both second base and in the outfield in his career. He started 113 games at second base in 2016, but his metrics weren’t anything special — plus-2 total zone and minus-5 DRS. Maybe he’d lost a step by then. Rookie Gavin Lux was supposed to be the regular second baseman for the Dodgers, but instead he’s at the alternate training site and utility man Hernandez has drawn most of the starts at second. Hernandez’s versatility — he has started games at seven positions — has made him a key player for the Dodgers over the years, although his best metrics are in the outfield.
Ranking: 1. Boone; 2. Zobrist; 3. Hernandez
Bell wasn’t flashy but carved out a long career primarily because of his glove. The metrics love his defense, as he averaged plus-14 runs saved per season from 2001 to 2005, including plus-19 with the Mariners in 2001. Eric Chavez won the Gold Glove that year in the AL, but Bell was the leader in total zone (Chavez was plus-13). If you’re not buying Bell as an elite defender, consider the Mariners gave up the fewest runs in the AL — on their way to a record 116 wins — with a rotation that included Aaron Sele, Paul Abbott and John Halama. Somebody was helping those pitchers out. Bryant has never won a Gold Glove — not in a league with Nolan Arenado — but he did win MVP honors in 2016, and his defense was part of the reason. He’s credited with plus-8 total zone runs and plus-3 DRS in his 107 games at third base (but played only 75 full games there, as he also played some outfield). Injuries have perhaps bit into some of his effectiveness at the hot corner, but he was good in 2016. Turner is sure-handed at third base and hardly a liability, but he’s a clear third here. I’m giving the Mariners their third straight win.
Ranking: 1. Bell; 2. Bryant; 3. Turner
This was Guillen’s first full season in the majors, replacing the departed Alex Rodriguez as the starting shortstop. Guillen became a star later on with the Tigers, but that was because of his bat, not his glove. He was a little more lithe early in his career and had above-average arm strength but was a little short in the range department. Russell’s off-field issues and struggles at the plate eventually led to his departure from the Cubs, but his defense was never a problem and he rated well in both total zone (plus-13) and DRS (plus-15) in 2016. Big shortstops like Seager — think Cal Ripken — are often underrated as their strong arms make up for perhaps being a step slow in the field. Seager isn’t going to wow anyone with acrobatic plays, but he makes most of the plays and that’s what counts.
Ranking: 1. Russell; 2. Seager; 3. Guillen
This is interesting because none of the three teams really had or have a regular left fielder. Martin started just 71 games in left, which led the Mariners, and they started eight left fielders in all. Collectively, Baseball-Reference credits them with 19 runs saved, with Stan Javier — a legit good defender — the best at plus-8 (Martin was plus-5). The Cubs one-upped them with nine starters, who graded out at plus-4 DRS. Here’s a basic way to evaluate this. Mariners left fielders averaged 2.28 plays per nine innings compared to a league average of 2.14. Cubs left fielders averaged 1.62 per nine compared to the league average of 1.80. Pollock is a former Gold Glover in center field — although that was five years and several injuries ago. His metrics in 2019 were below average, although that was mostly as a center fielder. The Dodgers are making 1.44 plays per nine innings early on versus the league mark of 1.87. Evaluating defense is more complicated than that, of course, but the Mariners get the edge.
Ranking: 1. Mariners; 2. Cubs; 3. Dodgers
This might sound blasphemous to Mariners fans, but I’d put Cameron right up there alongside peak Ken Griffey Jr. for defensive prowess and range in center field (although Griffey had the better arm). Cameron was excellent going back on the ball — like Griffey, just gliding to the ball and making difficult plays look routine. He averaged 2.96 plays per game compared to the league average of 2.67 in 2001 and won the first of his three Gold Gloves. Proving defense is often about positioning, the Cubs moved Fowler’s average starting position back 17 feet in 2016 — and his defensive metrics improved from terrible to average (0 DRS). Bellinger won a Gold Glove in right field in 2019, could win one at first base and I wouldn’t be shocked if he wins one in center field. In his career, he’s plus-13 DRS in center in about half a season of action. He’s special no matter where you line him up and I’m putting him first. Wait, does that mean Bellinger is as good as Griffey was?
Ranking: 1. Bellinger; 2. Cameron; 3. Fowler
Right field: Ichiro Suzuki vs. Jason Heyward vs. Mookie Betts
You’re really going to make me do this? These are the three dominant defensive right fielders of the past 20 years: Ichiro won 10 Gold Gloves, Heyward has won five and Betts is at four and counting. All three combine excellent range and instincts with a plus throwing arm — I give Betts the edge as I always thought Ichiro’s arm was slightly overrated. All three could play center field for most teams (and did fill in there). Betts makes impossible plays in the corner when he gets to the ball and unleashes a quick, accurate throw, like the one to nail Marte or the big one in the 2018 ALCS when he got Tony Kemp trying to stretch a single into a double. Ichiro was cool and smooth and effortless. Heyward has been the rare big outfielder with outstanding range. Via DRS, Heyward peaked at plus-26 with the Cardinals in 2015 and was plus-15 for the Cubs in 2015. Betts was an off-the-charts plus-30 in 2016 and 2017, and is already at plus-5 through 12 games in 2020. We don’t have DRS for Ichiro in 2001, but he rates at plus-15 in total zone. He averaged plus-16 DRS from 2003 to 2006. For what it’s worth, here’s the career range factor per game for the three:
Ichiro: 2.23 vs. 2.11
Heyward 2.12 vs. league average of 2.02
Betts: 2.33 vs. 2.07
This is impossible. With apologies …
Ranking: 1. Betts; 2. Ichiro; 3. Heyward
(Which means I just ranked Bellinger and Betts above Cameron and Ichiro and I don’t believe I just did that.)
Catcher: Dan Wilson vs. Miguel Montero vs. Will Smith
Wilson was a fan favorite and known as a good handler of pitchers. His arm strength was average and the Mariners were near the top of the league in both fewest wild pitches and fewest passed balls. Catching was the one weak spot in 2016 for the Cubs — at least in the first half of the season, when Montero was the regular, before rookie Willson Contreras came up with David Ross as the backup. Base stealers were 59 of 66 against Montero and he gave up 41 wild pitches — the Cubs were next to last in both stolen bases allowed and wild pitches in 2016. Contreras and Ross handled most of the duties in the postseason, although Montero did start twice. Smith is early in his career so we don’t have a good read on him yet, although he comes with a good defensive reputation. He’s sharing time with Austin Barnes, a good pitch framer.
Ranking: 1. Wilson; 2. Smith; 3. Montero
(Even factoring in the backups, I’d still go Mariners, Dodgers, Cubs.)
Utility fielder: Mark McLemore vs. Javier Baez vs. Chris Taylor
McLemore had a tremendous 2001 season, starting at six positions (and posting a .384 OBP with 39 steals) with an overall defensive rating of plus-3 DRS. Baez was in his first full season in 2016, and while his bat hadn’t quite developed yet, Joe Maddon loved his glove so much that he was the regular at second base throughout the postseason. He started regularly at all three infield positions and was plus-12 DRS. Taylor has already started games at shortstop, second base and left field in 2020 (and has played a lot of center field in the past). He generally has been an average fielder wherever he plays, although he’s off to a strong start so far with plus-4 DRS. The value of players like these doesn’t show up in all the numbers either. While the Cubs and Dodgers tend to move multiple players around, McLemore’s versatility allowed Lou Piniella to rest his starters as McLemore started 101 games.
Ranking: 1. Baez; 2. Taylor; 3. McLemore
If we give three points for ranking first, two for second and one for third, the final tally of this admittedly non-scientific scoring system comes in at:
Mariners: 21 points
Cubs: 17 points
Dodgers: 16 points
My gut says this is correct — although, as longtime readers might remember — I’m also a Mariners fan. The Dodgers are certainly a special defensive team but also clearly benefit from some of the shifting and positioning advantages that were not part of the game in 2001 (or even in 2016). I’ll stick with the Mariners. The Dodgers? They’d rather finish like the Cubs did — as World Series champions.