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Brett Lawrie—Best Defensive Third Baseman in Baseball?

July 16, 2012

The short answer: Brett Lawrie of the Toronto Blue Jays is the best defensive third baseman thus far in 2012. Based on our most up-to-date technique to measure defense in baseball, newly minted in the last week, we estimate that Brett Lawrie has saved the Toronto Blue Jays 16 runs with his defense this year, the most of all MLB third basemen. Using the rule of thumb that 10 runs is equal to a win, Mr. Lawrie has helped Toronto win 1.6 games this year with defense alone.

Now for the long answer. As recently as a week ago, we were reporting that Brett Lawrie had saved 30 runs with his defense in about a half-season thus far. Given that the best third baseman in our system has never registered even as many as 30 defensive runs saved in a full season since we started keeping this stat ten years ago, this number stood out like a sore thumb. How did it get so big? Simply put, Lawrie was making plays this year that no other third baseman has made with any consistency. Ever. But it was a flaw in our system that didn't recognize the defense the Blue Jays have employed on a regular basis for the first time in the history of baseball.

While there have been a few other isolated uses of similar alignments, the Toronto Blue Jays have created a shift defense that they use against left-handed pull hitters very frequently. Call it the Lawrie Defense. As reported earlier this year, major league teams are shifting more often in 2012 than ever before. They are employing the Ted Williams Shift (three or more infielders to the pull side of second base) more than ever, and they are employing other shifts where the second baseman or shortstop is close to the pull-side of second base—but not quite on the other side—more than ever. The Blue Jays have employed the third-most defensive shifts in baseball in 2012, but the Lawrie Defense is a Toronto specialty. The Lawrie Defense is like a normal Ted Williams Shift against a lefty swinger, but the unique aspect is that the third baseman moves all the way over to where the second baseman normally plays in the Ted Williams Shift, short right field.

Brett Lawrie has been making plays in short right field. Other teams do not use this shift with any frequency and, as a result, our system was making Lawrie look incredibly good. Too good. So we adjusted our system. Our Defensive Runs Saved System (Runs Saved or DRS for short) now removes all shift plays from the calculation for individual players. The cool thing is that Brett Lawrie is still the best third baseman in MLB making plays closer to the normal third base position. Here are the best third basemen defensively thus far in 2012:

Most Defensive Runs Saved at Third Base (2012)
Player, Team Runs Saved
Brett Lawrie, Tor 16
Chipper Jones, Atl 9
Pedro Alvarez, Pit 7
David Wright, NYM 7
Mike Moustakas, KC 7

Our new DRS System has also been modified to estimate runs saved on shift plays. But because The Shift is more a team defense than an individual player defense, we now only measure runs saved on The Shift for teams. Here are the teams who have saved the most runs employing The Shift in 2012:

Team Shift Runs Saved (2012)
Team Shift Runs Saved
Blue Jays 10
Rays 8
Red Sox 7
Orioles 6
Cubs 5

Our new technique for measuring Shift Runs Saved is very similar to the Plus/Minus System, but instead of looking at each fielder individually it treats the entire infield as one collective unit. For example, let's say the Blue Jays are playing the Lawrie Defense against David Ortiz. Big Papi hits a hard groundball that averages 70 miles an hour through the infield at an angle 17 degrees off the first base line. This play might only be made 25 percent of the time across all of baseball; however, the Blue Jays have Brett Lawrie standing right there, and he makes the play easily. In our new system, the Blue Jays' infield will get a collective credit for making the play, which we then convert to Runs Saved. As you can see, the Blue Jays' new shifts have been very effective, even beating out Joe Maddon's Rays in Shift Runs Saved.

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