It’s hard to believe, but with the close of the 2012 season, Baseball Info Solutions is celebrating 10 years of Defensive Runs Saved data. We plan to use that milestone to reflect on the previous decade of defensive play, starting with a look at the teams with the best defenses in that time.
As baseball exited the power era of the turn of the century, defense reemerged as a focal point in baseball in recent seasons. That narrative trend is reflected in our Defensive Runs Saved numbers since 2003. All the best team defenses were from the later years except for the 2005 Philadelphia Phillies. They were the only team on our leader board of best defensive teams in the last decade before 2007. They also happen to be the best defensive team of the decade:
The 2005 Phillies had not yet reached the overall peak of their core players. They won 88 games that year, the fifth of six consecutive years with at least 80 wins without a playoff berth. That all changed in 2007, when the Phillies won 89 games and reached the playoffs for the first of five consecutive seasons. In terms of overall success, those teams peaked in 2008 when they won the World Series, and then again in 2011 when they won 102 regular-season games. Their 2008 team fell just short of the top-five with 77 Runs Saved, but their 2005 team was the best of the decade with 95 Runs Saved.
Chase Utley was the defensive star of the 2005 Phillies, but he was not alone. Utley was one of six of their players to save nine runs or more: Jimmy Rollins saved 18, David Bell saved 17, Jason Michaels saved 11, Ryan Howard saved 11, and Placido Polanco saved 9. Howard is the most amazing. That was his first season as a regular and his range quickly diminished as his career progressed. In fact, Howard has never again reached a positive Defensive Runs Saved total in the seven seasons since 2005.
The 2009 Seattle Mariners and 2011 Tampa Bay Rays tied for second place with 85 Runs Saved, which they achieved in a similar way. Both teams had a pair of defensive stars that accounted for more than half of the team total. For the Mariners, it was Franklin Gutierrez and Adrian Beltre. Beltre has a well-deserved defensive reputation. That season, he earned the first of his three Fielding Bible Awards. Gutierrez is less of a household name, which is a shame because he had a chance to become an all-time defensive great before a string of injuries derailed him. His 2009 season saved the Mariners 32 runs, more than any player from a top-five team and third-most of any player in a season since 2003.
The Rays will be remembered for their end-of-season heroics that led them into the playoffs in 2011. Two of the biggest reasons they even had that opportunity were Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria. Zobrist rarely gets the attention he deserves for his great play, even from us. He has failed to win a Fielding Bible Award in his career, mainly because the Rays move him around the field, which, in realty, makes him more valuable. In 2011, he saved 29 runs, mostly in right field and second base. Longoria is a star. 2011 was his third consecutive year with at least 19 Runs Saved.
Rounding out the list are the 2007 Toronto Blue Jays and the 2010 San Diego Padres. All of our top-five defensive teams had decisively winning records. Toronto was fifth-best of the group with a 83-79 record in 2007. John McDonald and Aaron Hill combined to save 43 runs up the middle, the second best of any double-play combination in the decade behind Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins in 2008. The Padres did not have a player reach 20 Runs Saved, but they had six players with at least 7, including starting-pitcher Jon Garland, a superlative defensive contribution for a pitcher.