Defense Is the New On-Base Percentage
Poor Billy Beane. He goes to all the trouble to find and exploit market inefficiencies only to have them become, well, efficient in a matter of a few seasons. It wasn't so long ago that he was building a 100-win juggernaut in Oakland by picking up every patient hitter off of the scrap heap, glovework be damned.
Then Moneyball came out, on-base percentage became en vogue and Beane had to move another step ahead of the competition.
Well, hopefully Beane has already begun to take his next step ahead of the competition, because they've already begun to catch up to the latest way he's been exploiting the market.
In the wake of the release of Moneyball, the A's shifted their focus to defense, stressing making outs in the field over not making outs at the plate as a way to win on a budget. They were the fourth best defensive team in baseball last year, according to Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency ratings, and in 2006 they went all the way to the ALCS with a below average offensive team because of their pitching and defense.
They're hardly the only team focusing on defense now. As Pat Lackey detailed earlier this week, advanced defensive metrics have begun to seep further into the public consciousness, but it's clear that major league teams have put a huge emphasis on glovework in the last few years. Who can blame them?
The Red Sox have transformed their fortunes this decade by supplementing an outstanding pitching staff with a good defense. The Yankees have struggled to reach the heights of the dynasty teams of the 1990s because they haven't worried about defense enough. The Rays catapulted to the top of the AL East by bringing in Jason Bartlett, calling up Evan Longoria and getting guys like B.J. Upton and Akinori Iwamura in the right spots on the diamond. Perhaps most telling of all, free agency has been incredibly tough on players with poor defensive reputations this winter. Just ask Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn and Pat Burrell.
The truth is, our understanding of defense has grown by leaps and bounds the last few years. It's no longer a great unknown on the statistical frontier. That's a good thing for fans who wish to understand the game on a deeper level. It's not a good thing for shrewd executives like Beane scouring the bargain bin.