Do you remember the Great Fielding Revolution of Aught Nine? When advanced defensive statistics—Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Efficiency and Plus/Minus, to name a few—passed from the most esoteric of baseball circles and into the mainstream lexicon? Superior fielding became accepted as the undervalued asset du jour. Two springs ago, the Mariners were considered a threat in the AL West due largely to a defense that in 2009 had been one of the best ever.
But in 2010 the Mariners won an AL-low 61 games. "It was the cool thing to do, as clubs looked at [defense] as the new market inefficiency," says one high-ranking NL executive of the run on glove men. "Maybe it got overbought, because now it's swinging back in the other direction." Several contenders fielded Opening Day lineups with players who, as defenders, are, well, very good hitters. Miguel Cabrera, who in spring training attempted to catch a one-hopper with his face, was at third for the Tigers, to make room at first for Prince Fielder. The Angels, who a few years ago refused to give catcher Mike Napoli regular playing time because they felt his defensive shortcomings overwhelmed his offensive excellence, started slugger Mark Trumbo (29 homers as a rookie in '11) at third, where he had never played a regular-season inning.
One explanation for the trend is that the value of a home run is significantly greater than it has been in recent decades. In 2010 players hit 4,613 home runs, the fewest since 1995 and more than 1,000 fewer than they slugged in 2000. Last season they hit 4,552. "If you can hit 30 home runs, they might stick you out there and live with below average defense," says the NL executive.
Another factor is that although the new defensive metrics are certainly better barometers than fielding percentage, they remain inexact. Even the proprietary statistics kept by most clubs often rely on judgments made by observers watching video and are therefore subject to human error. Radar technology that will allow clubs to precisely analyze the movements of every fielder on every batted ball is still years away. Until then, it will remain far easier to assess the values of hitters. A three-run home run is definitive. Whether an outfielder failed to reach a fly ball because of his positioning or his range is not.
A third reason is simpler, and it can be measured in rings. Last year the Cardinals ranked 27th in UZR, and their title run was buoyed by their willingness to tolerate the essential immobility in the outfield of Lance Berkman. Widely viewed two winters ago as an aging DH, Berkman was fortunate to land a one-year, $8 million free-agent deal with St. Louis. As expected, he proved a terrible rightfielder, ranking second-to-last among regulars at that position in UZR. But he hit .301, with 31 home runs and an OPS of .959, which exceeded those of Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols.
The ideal, of course, is to have players who can do everything. This is why the Rangers, who ranked near baseball's top in virtually every significant offensive and fielding metric, are so formidable. Most other would-be contenders have to make choices. Early in 2012, some have decided that while it's nice to have players who can routinely catch the ball, it's even nicer to have those who can routinely crush it.