MLB Managerial Tendencies: Defense Wins Championships
Brett Talley takes a look at the managers that prefer to play the players with better defensive abilities than their more offensive minded counterparts.
“Defense wins championships” is more of a mantra you hear associated with football, but it has some applicability to baseball as well. Managers around the league make a lot of playing time decisions based on the defensive ability of their players. As fantasy owners, we wish the best bats would always get in the lineup, but managers lean heavily on the glove in their decision making, especially at the premium defensive positions.
Take catcher as an example. A catcher’s ability behind the plate is far more determinative of his playing time than his ability in the batter’s box. Fangraphs has a metric called DEF that measures the number of runs above or below average a player is worth is worth with their glove.
The DEF metric has a positional adjustment, so catchers get a large positive bump since it’s one of the more difficult positions to play. As a result, only six catchers this season (min. 100 PA) have been a full run worse than average, but all six of those catchers have failed to crack 250 PA so far. There are 31 catchers who have cracked the 250 PA mark, so you can tell that those bottom six in DEF are not the “starters” on their team thanks to their defensive deficiencies.
The most fantasy relevant player in that bottom six is John Hicks of the Tigers. Hicks has a healthy 126 wRC+ in 139 PA this season. Fantasy owners would like for that PA number to be at least double what it is. But because James McCann is better defensively, he gets the bulk of the work behind the plate for Detroit. Alex Avila was also in Detroit taking up some playing time earlier in the season, but even in the second half McCann has double the amount of PA that Hicks does.
Fantasy is about some combination of talent and volume, and at the catcher position it’s probably best to focus on the volume side of the spectrum. When drafting a catcher next season, make sure to draft one that’s good defensively that you know will stay in the lineup all season long because of his glove. Of course, his offensive ability should be considered as well, but it’s smart to take a slightly less offensive catcher who will play almost every day than a more powerful bat who plays more sparingly.
A good example from this season would be J.T. Realmuto compared to Welington Castillo. Castillo has a 124 wRC+ compared to Realmuto’s 103 wRC+, but Realmuto has 164 more PA and ranks fourth among catchers in ESPN’s player rater while Castillo ranks seventh. To be fair to Castillo, it makes little sense that Buck Showalter is using Caleb Joseph about 40 percent of the time given that Castillo has been much better than Joseph defensively as well, as offensively, but it’s a good example of why volume matters so much at the catcher position.
Another spot where managers generally favor defense over offense is in center field. You can find plenty of examples of center fielders with a high DEF rating but poor OFF ratings (OFF is just the offensive version of DEF). Byron Buxton, Michael Taylor, Jarrod Dyson, Kevin Pillar and Billy Hamilton are all center fielders with top 25 DEF ratings (min. 250 PA), and four of them rank in the bottom half in OFF rating.
Hamilton and Pillar in particular rate extremely poorly at the plate. Hamilton has a lowly 65 wRC+ this season, but he’s racked up 589 PA thanks to his defensive abilities. Jesse Winker and Scott Schebler certainly have better bats, and Schebler has some experience in center, but BHam’s defense is far too valuable to Cincy for them to go that route. Thankfully, Hamilton has speed which keeps the Cincy outfield situation fantasy friendly.
The same cannot exactly be said about the Toronto outfield situation. The fact that Pillar is so good defensively is really putting a cramp on Ezequiel Carrera’s fantasy value, which is something that has come up in the Managerial Tendencies series before. Pillar has saved nine runs more than average with his glove this season, and Carrera has cost the team nine runs defensively, so it’s understandable that John Gibbons has gone with Pillar far more often in center.
The problem for fantasy owners is that Carrera would have provided more fantasy value than Pillar has with all that playing time. It’s not as if Pillar is worthless in fantasy. He has 14 home runs and 14 steals and is a borderline top 60 fantasy outfielder according to ESPN’s player rater. But if the PA for Pillar and Carrera were switched, Carrera would have 16 home runs and 17 steals if he maintained his current pace, and his OBP is over 60 points higher.
Volume is less important in the outfield than it is at catcher because there are so many more offensively-inclined players at the position. If your league happens to have a center field-specific roster slot as opposed to the more common general outfield spots, then it would be a good idea to draft talented defensive center fielders who are sure to rack up volume thanks to their glove. But when drafting for general outfielder slots, talent is more important than volume. With three outfield spots to work with, two of which are less important defensively, managers are almost always going to find a way to get good bats in the lineup regularly.