April 12, 2014

Defense Winning Games for the Blue Jays

In a sport that has a number, a statistic, and a value to almost everything, defense in baseball remains a mystery. It is, indeed, the most difficult facet of the game to judge objectively. Decades of pondering have gone into answering one question: Just how important is team defense? It’s a question that has defied every one of the brightest minds in baseball.

But in the mind of the armchair analyst who watched the Toronto Blue Jays from his couch last summer, there is no doubt. A team can only kick the ball around so much until it becomes clear that improvement is necessary.

In 2014, there has been a distinct turnaround. Through 11 games of the new campaign, Toronto is the only team in the A.L. without an error. At this point last year, the Jays had already racked up eight errors. The improvement is dramatic.

And the better defense is actually winning ballgames. The Blue Jays are early leaders of the A.L. East with a 6-5 record, despite ranking 7th in league E.R.A. and 11th in nun production. Average pitching, sub-par hitting, above average record? What is the difference maker?

You guessed it. The perfect defense of course has not conceded an unearned run. This alone has boosted Toronto into 4th place in terms of total runs allowed. The Blue Jays are treading water, and their defense is the reason why.

Contrast this to last year, when the defense was horrendous during the anticipated 2013 season. The 12th ranked defense out of 15 American League teams in terms of fielding percentage offered no help to a struggling pitching staff. If the pitching was good, the defense was not. They would take turns letting each other down. And if it wasn't one or the other, it was both who were terrible. It was a dilemma that knocked the hyped-up wind out of their sails by the time April was out.

So the Blue Jays brass had no choice. Improved defense was one of the focuses of G.M. Alex Anthopoulos’ offseason, perhaps the only one that came to fruition. Already cast off at the trade deadline was Emilio Bonifacio, who was a letdown, both at the plate and with the glove at second base. Joining him at season’s end was J.P. Arencibia. Up to that point Arencibia had been kept around for his impressive home run totals among catchers, and not much else.

After three years as backstopper, the front office had finally had enough of his poor defense behind the plate. His 20 dingers every year no longer justified his inability to block pitches and throw out runners, and his .264 on-base percentage over his tenure made matters worse.

So out were Arencibia and Bonifacio, and in are Dioner Navarro and Ryan Goins. The former is the one and only major acquisition of the winter. A veteran who most notably caught the potent Tampa Bay staff during their glory years from 2006 through 2010, Navarro is the opposite of Arencibia in every way.

He has long been a solid defensive catcher. Despite his lack of arm, he distinguishes himself from J.P. by his game-calling ability. Confident in his pitch selection, he is equally comfortable with the glove. He has never allowed more that six passed balls in one year, while Arencibia has never allowed fewer than six in a full season. His tallies stand at 12 PB in 2011, 9 in 2012, and a league-leading 13 passed balls in 2013.

His prowess behind the plate are complemented by his talent beside it. As a hitter he does not have as much pop as J.P., but he more than makes up for that by getting on base. Navarro’s career on-base percentage in currently .312, compared to Arencibia’s .257 mark.

Better at hitting and better and catching, Dioner Navarro is a clear upgrade over Arencibia. When it comes to Ryan Goins, however, it is not as clear-cut. Anyone who watched Goins play last September knows how good he looks at second base. He is a natural shortstop, and he looks it when he fields a grounder. His range, arm, and sure-handedness was refreshing to see after watching Emilio Bonifacio boot grounder after grounder for four painful months.

But as young and exciting a prospect as Goins is, he is a definite liability in the lineup. He held his own and hit .252 during his call-up in 2013, but nobody could realistically expect him to post remotely impressive numbers in his first full season. In fact, there is little surprise that he is hitting a paltry .045 so far, which illustrates how low expectations were of him as a hitter.

Anthopoulos knew what he was getting from Goins better than anyone. He was willing to trade hitting for defense, especially at a middle infield position. 2013 could not repeat itself. So Ryan Goins was named an Opening Day starter.

For the Toronto front office, these changes represent learning from their own mistakes. Anthopoulos has claimed to be a numbers guy since his hiring. Maybe the lack of reliable statistics regarding defense factored into his decision to neglect defense altogether last winter.

In his perfect world, good gloves in the field will result in the playoff contender everyone thought he built last year. In reality, a weak starting rotation will likely keep the Blue Jays out of the post-season no matter what. But if nothing else, Alex Anthopoulos will not make the same mistake twice.

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