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Defense -- the MSM is getting it, but not getting it

One of the more contentious discussions this past offseason, in regards to the Rangers, centered around what improvement (if any) there would be vis-a-vis run prevention in 2009.  There was some discussion of regression to the mean and outlier LOB%s and the rotation not being capable of being any worse and that sort of thing, but for the most part, those of us who expected a significant improvement in run prevention primarily pointed to a defense that we figured would be better in 2009, and that would lead to fewer runs allowed.

And yes, it is still early, and yes, things can certainly change and the pitching and defense can wilt in the summer and this whole thing can turn to crap, but so far, the returns are positive. 

Let's compare:

2008 2009
ERA 5.37 5.09
ERA+ 82 94
FIP 4.83 5.24
RA 967 872*
K/9 6.0 5.4
BB/9 3.9 3.9
HR/9 1.1 1.3
DER .670 .702


The asterisk by 872 denotes "on pace to allow," and a couple of gascan games would, of course, jack that all up.  But it is worthwhile to note that the Rangers are on pace to allow almost 100 runs fewer than last season.

And they are doing it despite their pitchers being no better than last season.  Look at the FIP -- the Ranger pitching has gotten worse than last year, because, although they are walking batters at the same rate as last year, they are allowing more homers and striking out fewer batters.

But the team ERA has dropped by .28, because the Rangers are playing very good defense.  Not very good defense in the "they never make an error" sense -- they are a fraction of a percentage point below the major league average in fielding percentage right now.  But very good defense in the sense that balls that are being put into play are being converted into outs at a very good rate.

The offense has been solid, as expected, and the pitching hasn't been good...but the Rangers are in first place right now because their team defense has improved, and is converting balls that would have gone for hits last year into outs.

And I feel like that is getting missed.  I started thinking about this after reading this story by T.R. Sullivan on the Rangers website, that correctly credits the defense with a big role in the Rangers' winning record this year, but focuses almost entirely on the reduction in errors.  The word "error" appears 10 times in Sullivan's story -- the word "range," not at all.  And Sullivan's main point is expressed thusly:

The bottom line on defense is unearned runs. This season, the Rangers have allowed 10 unearned runs to this point, seventh fewest in the AL West and the fewest in the Western Division. Last year they committed 107, 24 more than any other team in baseball.

Look, I'm not minimizing the impact errors had on the team last year.  The Rangers made too many errors last year, and it led to too many unearned runs...but part of the reason so many unearned runs were allowed was that pitchers did a poor job recovering from errors.  The huge unearned run total last year was an aberration that owed to a lot of factors, including pitchers melting down and plays not being made to end an inning after an error was made, not simply a defense that was booting balls.  Any reasonable person would have expected the unearned run total to drop, even if the defense didn't significantly improved.

But the big story isn't that the Rangers have gone from 30th to 13th in fielding percentage, it is that they've got from 30th to 8th in DER.  They are converted balls in play into outs at a higher rate.  And that results in fewer earned runs, lower ERAs, shorter innings, less pitches being thrown, and all around happierness for the Rangers and their fans.