A year ago, the Cleveland Indians allowed the most runs in the American League, a pretty remarkable achievement considering the Minnesota Twins had a historically awful rotation. The Indians, however, combined bad pitchers and bad defense -- their -51 Defensive Runs Saved ranked 28th in the majors.
Like the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, the Indians decided to make their pitching better by improving their defense. First they traded impending free agent Shin-Soo Choo, who graded out as -12 DRS in right field, and landed Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs in the deal, pushing Michael Brantley to left. Then they signed free agent Nick Swisher to replace Choo; Swisher is a better right fielder than Choo. But when Michael Bourn remained unsigned into February, the Indians swooped in and signed the two-time Gold Glove center fielder. That pushed Swisher primarily to first base and gave the Indians an outfield of three guys who played center field last year.
The Indians' outfield collectively rated as -17 a year ago, and it's conceivable this group could rate at +30 runs -- a 47-run difference worth nearly five wins. Not to mention maybe some added confidence to the pitching staff.
The Red Sox, likewise, signed Shane Victorino to play right field and promoted rookie Jackie Bradley to play left. They join Jacoby Ellsbury to give them an outfield of three center fielders; Bradley defers to the veteran Ellsbury for now, but scouting reports suggest he's an elite defender.
The Angels, who rated as the second-best defensive outfield a year ago at +46 runs (behind Atlanta's +55), could be even better this year, with Peter Bourjos getting more time in center, Mike Trout playing left, and Josh Hamilton, who played a lot of center field for Texas, in right. Essentially, the Angels decided to replace Kendrys Morales' bat with Bourjos' glove, with Mark Trumbo playing more DH and less outfield.
If Bill James and then "Moneyball" popularized the importance of on-base percentage, then that sort of makes outfield defense the new OBP. Of course, just because emphasizing outfield defense appears to be a new trend doesn't really make it new. Just like Branch Rickey was talking about the importance of OBP over batting average in the 1950s.
For example, look at Whitey Herzog's Royals of the late '70s and then his Cardinals in the 1980s. Playing on turf in both places, he always emphasized speed in the outfield. His 1985 Cardinals, for example, had an outfield of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Andy Van Slyke, three guys who could play center field (although Coleman had a poor arm). Van Slyke later paired with Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh to give the Pirates two Gold Glove outfielders as they won three NL East titles in a row. The A's of the early '80s had the great trio of Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas. The 2001 Mariners won 116 games in part by employing three great defenders in Mike Cameron, Ichiro Suzuki and part-timer Stan Javier.
But I would suggest that it seems we are deep in outstanding defensive outfields right now. Here's how I would rank the top five -- remember, we're talking only about defense here.
1. Angels: LF Mike Trout, CF Peter Bourjos, RF Josh Hamilton
Trout and Bourjos are arguably the two best outfielders in the American League, and Hamilton is at least adequate with a strong arm.
The A's were fifth in DRS last year at +17, but that includes Cespedes' time in center, where he rated poorly. He should be solid in left (he made a nice play on Hamilton the other night, running down a deep drive in left-center and doubling Albert Pujols off first) with a strong arm, Reddick is outstanding in right (+19 last year) and Crisp average in center. And backing up is Chris Young, who always had excellent defensive metrics with Arizona.
3. Indians: LF Michael Brantley, CF Michael Bourn, RF Drew Stubbs
Bourn's +24 DRS last year tied him with Alex Gordon for the best total of any outfielder in the majors. He can run everything down in center, and now you flank him with two decent center fielders who should rate above-average in the corners. The only question here: Will Stubbs hit enough to remain in the lineup?
The Brewers ranked third at +24 DRS a year ago and should be very good once again. All three are above-average defenders.
5. Red Sox: LF Jackie Bradley Jr., CF Jacoby Ellsbury, RF Shane Victorino
Victorino's metrics have dropped a bit in the past couple seasons as a center fielder, but he can still run and has a chance to be outstanding in right. Bradley won't get to show off his range at Fenway Park, but that doesn't mean he won't add defensive value. Ellsbury was +7 DRS back in 2011.
Worth considering: Nationals (Bryce Harper, Denard Span, Jayson Werth). Span is very good and Harper actually rated very good in center last year, despite some bad routes at times. Werth appears to have lost a step from his Phillies days.
Worth considering but overrated: Braves (Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward). It will be interesting to see what happens here. Since Baseball Info Solutions began their Defensive Runs Saved metric in 2003, the +55 the Braves were evaluated at last year was the third-highest by any outfield (behind two other Braves teams in 2005 and 2007 that featured Andruw Jones). But Bourn and Martin Prado are gone, replaced by the Upton brothers. Some consider B.J. an elite center fielder, but I've never thought that and his metrics aren't great (-30 runs over the past three years). Heyward is terrific in right (+20 last year and a deserving Gold Glove winner) while Justin has been solid (+14 total over the past three years) if prone to throwing errors.
The defensive metrics don't like them: Orioles (Nate McLouth, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis). Jones won the AL Gold Glove for center field, but DRS considers him below average. Just a few games into the season, the Orioles are at -5 runs ... although, to be fair, so are the Angels (Trout is -2 and Hamilton -4). Maybe Trout is fat.