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Notes on D: Do NL teams play better D?

5/7/2014

Take a look at the list on the right and a pattern emerges.

Of the top 11 teams in Defensive Runs Saved this season, 10 are from the National League.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are the only AL team in the bunch. The next-highest AL team is the Kansas City Royals, with 1 Defensive Run Saved. Twelve of the 15 AL teams rate negatively in that stat (the Athletics are at zero).

Granted, it’s early in the season and defensive numbers fluctuate plenty over the course of a calendar year. In each of the last three seasons, at least seven AL teams posted a positive Runs Saved total, so this probably will change in the near future.

But it certainly is possible we have an imbalance here. With regards to individual players, there are 30 with at least four Defensive Runs Saved this season. Twenty are on National League teams.

Of the 33 players with -4 Runs Saved or worse, 21 are in the American League.

We wanted to get some type of answer on this, so we turned to former manager and current "Baseball Tonight" analyst Manny Acta.

"Overall, the middle infielders currently playing in the NL are younger and more athletic than those in the AL," Acta said. "Plus most of the best defensive center fielders are there too -- (Andrew) McCutchen, (Carlos) Gomez, (Juan) Lagares, (Peter) Bourjos. I also think that the weaker contact by the pitchers at bat can help that rating some."

Acta's point about the NL teams and their younger middle infields was right on. Of the 35 players (minimum 50 at-bats) whose primary position is middle infield and are in their age 28 or younger season, 21 of them are in the National League.

We’re not sure that this necessarily means anything. Perhaps it’s just a fluke. But it struck us another of those stats to keep an eye on as the season continues.

Who’s improving?

We asked a couple of members of the "Baseball Tonight" crew to give us a player whose defense has improved noticeably from last year.

Both Chris Singleton and Acta gave us the same name -- Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon, who has made the smooth transition from shortstop, where he often struggled.

"He seems to be learning the angles, making better throws to (Adrian) Gonzalez at first, and (using good) footwork around the second-base bag," Singleton said. "He told me the first weekend of the season that he had to forget about all of the technical things they were telling him about turning the double play, like using the bag for protection or taking the ball on one side or the other. He said he told himself to just be athletic around second base and once he started doing that, he really started to find his own rhythm."

Acta also cited Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria.

"He looks more under control and his footwork is better," Acta said. "It also helps to have Perry Hill as the infield (coach)."

Spotlighting: Brian Dozier (and Kyle Gibson)

Last week, we gave Orioles outfielder David Lough props for his penchant for leaping catches.

This week, we wanted to offer a salute to Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier for his ability to make the diving play, with a little bit of help from his friends.

The most recent was one in the Twins' 1-0 win over the Indians on Monday, which required an equally good (and rather unusual) dive by pitcher Kyle Gibson to complete the putout. It currently ranks as "Baseball Tonight"'s "Best of the Best" for 2014.

Dozier was rather modest about his contribution.

"Those are plays where you've gotta get rid of it quickly," Dozier said. "That's basically Kyle's play. He made a tremendous scoop and slide to the bag. I said to him in the dugout afterwards, heck of a scoop. He said, no, I caught it on the air. I saw it on ESPN and he definitely scooped it. I don't think even he knew where he was at at the moment (of the play). But a great play by him."

This was the second straight Gibson start in which he and Dozier combined on a special play. They also teamed for this one, an Adrian Gonzalez deflection off Joe Mauer's glove, on which Dozier flipped the ball with his glove to Gibson for the out.

Dozier makes this sort of play a lot.

To this point in the season, UZR likes Dozier a little bit more than Defensive Runs Saved. He rates first at second base in the former (with a value of 3.4 runs). His 14 out-of-zone plays (plays outside the area in which second baseman turn more than half of batted balls into outs) ranks first at that position.

Dozier is similar to Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado in that there is a high-risk, high-reward component to his play. He leads second basemen in both Good Fielding Plays (think "Web Gem nominee") with 22 and Defensive Misplays & Errors with 11 this season.

"Great instincts," said one scout we talked to about Dozier. "He anticipates very well, plays from the ground up, and is trustworthy. And he continues to improve."