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Zen and the art of infield defense

There's been an ongoing discussion about the Rangers' team defense -- and particularly their infield defense -- this season.  Most recently, Evan Grant has had a couple of blog posts touching on the issue, earlier in the week saying that improving the range of the shortstop will have no tangible effect on the pitching, and yesterday saying that the Rangers should focus on fixing the pitching before fixing anything else.

Now, towards the end of the season, I had a lengthy post about the problems with the defense and how best to solve it.  As I mentioned there, the left side of the infield defense cost the Rangers 30 runs compared to an average infield, based on Dewan's +/-, despite Young having one of his best defensive seasons ever at shortstop.  When you combine that with the bad defense you got from Ian Kinsler this year (something that appears to have been primarily referable to errors, rather than balls going for hits) and the first base defense, you're looking at 45-50 runs more than average being allowed by bad infield defense. 

Keith Law addressed this same question in a chat session this week:

Too (Legit): How many runs allowed do you think Texas would improve by if they moved Michael Young to 3B and got a good defensive shortstop -- someone like Adam Everett -- to hold down the fort for a year or two until Elvis Andrus is ready?

SportsNation Keith Law: 20.

If Law is correct, and replacing Young with someone like Everett saves you 20 runs defensively, that's the equivalent of about two wins.  It drops the team ERA from 5.37 to 5.24. 

And if you assume that Young is average defensively at third base, you are probably saving another 20 runs there, meaning that, by moving Young to third base and putting a good defensive shortstop in place, you are looking at shaving .25 of a run off of your team ERA...and that's going to have a pretty big impact.  Now, you can argue that there's an offensive dropoff when you replace your third baseman with this generic defensive shortstop, but given that we are talking about Travis Metcalf as the starting third baseman next year anyway, I don't think the offensive difference is significant.

I've talked about the Rays before, but there is an article up that looks a little more closely at the decision both the Rays and the Boston Red Sox made recently to significantly upgrade their defense.  Two teams that have historically had poor DERs decided they had to take steps to convert more balls in play into outs.  And the results -- particularly for the Rays -- have been dramatic.  While their pitching has been a little better this year, the main reason that their team ERA has dropped is that they've had outstanding defense behind their pitchers.

Now, I realize that defensive statistics are a lot less reliable than offensive statistics are.  I realize that there's a bigger margin of error.  But just about every play-by-play based stat -- PMR, UZR, +/- -- shows Young as having been a bad defensive shortstop since he moved there in 2004.  And during that time, the Rangers have consistently been near the bottom in converting balls in play to outs.  The Hardball Times shows that the Ranger defense was 61 runs below average this year...I find it hard to believe that at least some of that isn't because of the bad shortstop defense.

And given what a huge hole the defense is in right now, if you can get it just to average -- something I think you'd achieve by sliding Young to third base, getting a good defensive shortstop, and leaving Chris Davis alone at first base -- you are looking at adding 6 wins.  That's huge.

Now, if you do that, the Rangers still have to pitch better.  That's a given.  But I don't think we can separate the two things, and say there's no point in improving the defense until the pitching gets better.  Better defense would mean more balls in play turning into outs, which would lead to a lower team ERA, which is going to at least give the appearance of better pitching.