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March 24, 2011

Future Shock

The Disappearing Defensive Prospects

by Kevin Goldstein

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Adam Dunn is finally a designated hitter this year, an inevitability that would have occurred years ago had he played with American League teams that didn't have to worry about hiding his defensive inefficiencies at first base or a corner outfield slot. Dunn is hardly the first bat-only player to be worth big money, and he'll hardly be the last.

Many believe that New York Yankees catcher Jesus Montero is the best offensive prospect in baseball. But the chances of him holding on to that catcher label seem thin. He's well below-average at the position and will likely spend the majority of his big-league career known for his bat alone.

And then there is Bryce Harper. Sure, he's very athletic now, but he's also a 6-foot-3, 225-pound 18-year-old who is far from physical maturity. It's easy to forget that Dunn was once a similar talent. As a teenager, he was a potential Division I quarterback and was similar in size and athletic ability to Harper at a young age, when he was listed at 6-5, 235 in Low-A when in the 2000 season he (believe it or not) had more stolen bases (24) than home runs (16).

Beyond the size, there are also elite-level young hitters consistently moving down the defensive spectrum. Some, like eventual Pirates first baseman Pedro Alvarez, lack athleticism, while others, like Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, just can't seem to find a knack at a position they have all of the tools to succeed at.

Is this new? Is defense overall in baseball declining, and if so, why? I spoke to a number of scouts, executives, and industry insiders about the issue, and the opinions were wide-ranging.

Theory No. 1: Chicks Dig The Long Ball

The offensive explosion of the 1980s seems to have ended the concept of the defensive specialist, especially on a starting-lineup level. But one scout thinks that the overall quality of defense hasn't changed as much as the opportunities granted.

"I'm not sure that, overall, it's getting worse as much as it seems every guy that can produce OPS is now a valued prospect, and they get chances first," he explained. "There are some pretty good defensive shortstops in Double- and Triple-A that are light-bat guys, and they never get chances anymore."

While defensive metrics have advanced, we're still not totally sure how to measure the value of good glove work. But as much as the stats matter, there might also be a cultural aspect to recent developments.

"For such a long time, the game at the major league level was all about offense," said one scouting director. "It's only natural that young players want to copy their idols, and for the most part, baseball has been about the home run."

Theory No. 2: Lack Of Instruction

For the most part, insiders didn't blame players as much as they blamed a system that simply doesn't teach the fundamentals, even at advanced amateur levels.

"One year we drafted three infielders from top college programs, and all three kids told me they got zero mechanical or technical instruction on defensive fundamentals in college," said one team executive. "Yes, they took some ground balls and worked at it, but there was no actual instruction."

That instruction itself is also hard to find.

"You can find hitting, pitching, and personal strength gurus on every street corner," he continued. "But it's really difficult to find competent, knowledgeable defensive instructors outside the professional level."

Theory No. 3: Where Did All Of The Athletes Go?

By all accounts, the 2011 draft class is one of the best in recent memory, and yet, after Florida prep star Francisco Lindor, there are few shortstops. This isn't anything new, as the first rounds of the past three drafts have featured just nine players selected at the position, and of those, seven have already changed positions or have scouting projections of future slides across the spectrum.

"There are few really good college middle infielders, and while there are some options at the prep level, it's not abundant," one industry veteran said. "It's almost as if we are conceding the shortstop position to the international segment of the player acquisition market."

Another scouting executive noted that the depressing truth is that football and basketball still come first for young athletes.

"What is apparent is that fewer athletes in the states are playing baseball, or a least dedicating themselves to baseball," he said. "Still, I don't know if defense is getting worse as much as players are continuing to get bigger and stronger."

Theory No. 4: We're Partially To Blame As Well

As much as baseball below the professional level focuses on the bat over the glove, many admitted that's where the focus is when in comes to player procurement.

"When was the last time a player was drafted high based almost solely on his defensive ability?" asked one scouting director. "Adam Everett?"

That name might make you snicker, but despite batting a miserable .243 AVG/.294 OBP/.348 SLG in his career, he lasted a decade in the big leagues and made more than $10 million in the process. It's good work if you can get it. But will the industry change?

"The Giants had great pitching in the World Series, but nobody talks about how Buster Posey shut the Rangers down," lamented a scout. "I love offense as much as anyone, but the industry seems to not care about defense as long as a guy can produce. You think Brad Emaus would have ever been considered as a major-league second baseman 20 years ago? No way."

Where Do We Go From Here?

The good news is that we are at, or have even passed, the apex of the bat-heavy focus when it comes to scouting, as the dreaded PEDs rear their ugly head once again.

"I think that the emphasis on offense has ingrained itself in the game at all levels," explained a scouting director. "However, with the reduction in PEDs and the new bats in play at the college level, there may start to be more of an emphasis on defense. Over time, that will carry over to the types of players who are value both at the big league level and in the draft."

For the future Adam Everetts of the world, there is hope.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  A's,  Defensive Spectrum

27 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Wade

will jose iglesias be one who bucks the trend?

Mar 24, 2011 07:54 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

Don't think so. I think it will be a slow burn, but I do think the tide is changing.

Mar 24, 2011 09:58 AM
 
dianagram

Considering the sea change we are experiencing regarding "defensive efficiency", I think the defense-first prospects might get longer looks, IF the team has enough bats/pitching to support it.

Mar 24, 2011 07:59 AM
rating: 1
 
APV2600

I find the lack of defensive instruction shocking. Great read, though.

Mar 24, 2011 08:04 AM
rating: 3
 
Patrick

It makes me wonder if that kind of thing makes teams look to draft more out of the high school ranks, just so they can get these players into their system and start teaching them defense earlier.

Mar 28, 2011 09:04 AM
rating: 0
 
Ian Miller

Nice survey -- it's refreshing to see a variety of opinions rather than someone claiming to have The Answer and ramming it down your throat.

From my very specific historical perspective, the transformation seems to have begun with Cal Ripken and peaked with A-Rod. Those guys bore no resemblance to what *I* thought of as up-the-middle guys like Duane Kuiper and Felix Millan.

Mar 24, 2011 09:03 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

Ripken is definitely a watershed player, and then the big AL 3 of A-Rod, Jeter, Nomar changed everything people look for in shortstops.

Mar 24, 2011 09:59 AM
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

I guess I've always wondered about how much people should let excellent exceptions produce drive paradigm shifts like this--to change sports to the one with the funny-shaped ball for a second, football teams tried (and failed) to draft the next Lawrence Taylor or the next Kellen Winslow for years, and generally speaking they never did find them.

Not to be fatalistic, but is this a case where teams will have to take what the talent pool provides in the meantime--take Grant Green, for example--or is there something that player development people can do in the meantime to expand their options?

Mar 24, 2011 10:33 AM
 
RedsManRick

It seems that, if anything, we're entering an era where teams have begun to evaluate players using something akin to a WAR framework where all players are being more closely evaluated on their overall productivity, including both offense and defense.

On one end of the spectrum, that means mashers without a position may find it harder to break in to the league. On the other, guys with no bats will similarly face a challenge. At the end of the day, it means you can't get by being a one dimensional player because except at the extremes (Dunn, Everett), it's simply too hard to be productive if you aren't contributing on both sides of the ball.

I can't help but think this is a good thing.

Mar 24, 2011 09:41 AM
rating: 6
 
Ian Miller

I'm pretty sure I agree with you here, but the crux is that it turns out we were overvaluing defense all that time. That's why Duane Kuiper had a 10-plus year big-league career while logging a total of 1.4 WAR.

In order for a defensive specialist to bring real value as an everyday player, he would have to be exceptional -- like an Omar Vizquel-level talent in the field.

That's my theory, anyway. I'm happy to have holes poked in it.

Mar 24, 2011 12:46 PM
rating: 2
 
Yarky1

Yeah, I don't see why this is presented as a problem. I mean, it's nice to see good defense, but in the end, I think we all want to best product possible.

We also don't see any more low-OBP, slap-hitting speedsters playing LF and leading off, and I don't hear anyone asking who to blame for that (BP, partly, I'd guess).

Mar 24, 2011 15:33 PM
rating: 0
 
mrdannyg

This article is a great reason to subscripe to BP. It contains real insight into both the game and the market, but is written as a rational argument - a discussion. On any other major site, this article would have a 40-font, bold, threatening headline, a watered-down premise and mention at least 3 Yankees or Red Sox players.

Great work Kevin, great work BP. Interesting read. And, as someone who drafted Jio Mier and Adeiny Hechavarria recently, I hope they and Iglesias help to move the trend back, at least a little.

Mar 24, 2011 12:09 PM
rating: 4
 
mrdannyg

"subscripe" lol

Mar 25, 2011 10:46 AM
rating: 0
 
JoeSky60

I suspect that paradigm shifts have to start at the lowest levels. Until the lowest level coaches/managers think that defense is worthwhile enough push their kids, the kids will continue their own emphasis on offense. Same thing applies at every level. If the players think their best chance to make the Show is to hit, and hit well, they'll continue to tune out the coaches, who may be trying to give them a well-rounded baseball education(Obviously, this doesn't include the coaches who don't give a damn about defense anyway). And, don't forget the parents, who want their kids games all decided by the slaughter rule.

Mar 24, 2011 13:36 PM
rating: 0
 
Dave T
(617)

To a certain extent, isn't this risk aversion in the draft/developmental process? A team can take a big-hitting prospect and move him to a corner outfield spot or first base (or even DH) if he can't field a more difficult position, but a slick fielder who can't hit generally won't be a regular under any circumstances (recognizing that there are a few exceptions).

Mar 24, 2011 14:41 PM
rating: 3
 
Pat Folz

A lot of thoughts on the topic, presented in random list form:
*I'm not convinced there even has been a decline. I know you mentioned that response in the podcast, but it doesn't get addressed much in the article.

*We need to be clear about what time frame over which this decline is supposed to have taken place. 5 years? 10? 30? In the short term, if there has been a decline, it could be due just to random variations in the talent pool.

*To answer the scouting director's (presumbably rhetorical) question: Matt Bush was a top-10 draft prospect in 2004 (actually went 1-1, but for budgetary/political reasons, of course). That spectacular, expensive failure might make other teams leery of doing the same, related to Dave T's point. (also, iirc, BJ Upton went #2 in 2002 as a defense-first guy, though obviously that's not how he turned out)

*Teams' handling of prospects has perhaps changed, primarily in the interest of getting bats to the majors more quickly. For example, Justin Upton barely got a chance to play SS in pro ball, and Wil Myers got moved to corner OF this past winter. The economics of the game and free agency are probably the driving force behind that, since productive young players are infinitely cheaper and more valuable than the various Raul Ibanezes on the FA market. Teams would rather get them to the majors ASAP than force them to develop defensive skills, even if they have the tools for it.

*Furthermore, if players know that they can force their way to the Majors with the bat, they might not be so motivated to work on their defense. This is pure speculation, but Brett Lawrie comes to mind.

*Defense might be appearing to decline due to better hitters and/or other league trends. League BABIP jumped significantly in 1993 or so, presumably due to some combination of juiced ball and juiced players. Since BABIP is related in part to hitter skill, strength and batted ball velocity, better hitters leads to more balls falling into play, which leads to defenders appearing to be worse. That doesn't mean the defenders of the 90s and 00s are any worse than those of the 70s and 80s, just that harder-hit balls are more difficult to get to. Smaller parks with less foul territory probably has a similar effect -- more hard-hit balls in play, or at least fewer outs on poorly-hit ones.

Mar 24, 2011 16:23 PM
rating: 1
 
Pat Folz

Forgot one:
*Do young players in the DR and other countries really get more/better defensive instruction than American high schoolers? I guess it wouldn't surprise me due to the Academies in those countries, but I'd never thought about that.

Mar 24, 2011 16:28 PM
rating: 0
 
njpeacenik

And BP doesn't help. Look at Adam Everett's player card and there is no mention of his defense. You use to have Fielding Runs Above Average and Fielding Runs Above Replacement but no more. There is no way looking at the cards to get a sense of the fielding ability of the player other than by seeing that his WARP is out of line with his offensive stats and some random numbers under DEF under recent performance for an active player.
Maybe BP too believes defense isn't important. Look at Ozzie Smith's card. He has a WARP of 52.5 with at TAv of .248. How he got there is a mystery based on the information you provide.

Mar 24, 2011 17:27 PM
rating: 1
 
greenfrog

As a Jays fan, I have to highlight Adeiny Hechavarria, Anthony Gose, Travis d'Arnaud, and Carlos Perez - four up-the-middle players with lots of defensive promise and some offensive potential. Jays fans are pretty excited about these four prospects.

Mar 24, 2011 18:06 PM
rating: 0
 
evo34

Speaking of Lindor, what would you say the odds are he stays at SS long-term?

Mar 24, 2011 18:40 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

One of the things that excites scouts so much about him is the glove. Pure SS.

Mar 24, 2011 21:26 PM
 
hyprvypr

Are there any teams in recent memory that 'intentionally' ignored defense, even at positions like SS/CF and went with offense-first players at most/all positions? I mean, can you run a team out there with a lineup of(assume the Tigers made some changes the next 2-3 years):

CF Austin Jackson
2B Scott Sizemore
1B Prince Fielder
SS Miguel Cabrera
DH Billy Butler
3B Russell Branyan
RF Ryan Raburn
C Victor Martinez
LF Jack Cust

Isn't this a lineup that is going to score 900 runs a year? How horrific would the defense really be? lol... sure would be interesting to watch...

Mar 24, 2011 19:35 PM
rating: 0
 
buddons42

I think Miguel Cabrera playing short would be the thing that finally convinces me to buy season tickets.

Mar 25, 2011 10:39 AM
rating: 3
 
irussma

The Brewers have pretty much ignored defense for the last few years. Trading Alcides Escobar for Yuniesky Betancourt (not that Yuni can hit much either, but he's a terrible fielder) was the last nail in the proverbial coffin.

But, uh, yeah. Miguel Cabrera playing shortstop?

Mar 27, 2011 06:35 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Great article. Maybe it's just me or the ESPN constraints, but I had the feeling (listened to the podcast first) that there was an even more colourful and informative article waiting to burst out. Would love to get your own analysis on the topic, KG.

Mar 25, 2011 04:26 AM
rating: 0
 
BrewersTT

I'm a little bit confused. Just a couple of years ago, at the MLB level, defense was the rage and we had Brendan Ryan types all over the place. I guess some clubs' wires must have been crossed about what they were putting priority on.

Mar 25, 2011 19:35 PM
rating: 0
 
Patrick

It's generally acknowledged that teams have much better tools for measuring defense than those that are available to the public, right? What if they've been finding out that defense just doesn't matter as much as we thought it did? Then again, tip the balance too far one way, and defense-first players will become more valuable. These things go in cycles.

Mar 28, 2011 09:09 AM
rating: 0
 
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