One thing you hear baseball people say a lot: You have to have good up-the-middle defense. Just look at last year's champs; the Kansas City Royals had Gold Glover Salvador Perez behind the plate, Lorenzo Cain in center field and the reliable Alcides Escobar and Ben Zobrist at shortstop and second base. Meanwhile, two of the key plays in the World Series came when New York Mets center fielder Yoenis Cespedes dropped a fly ball in Game 1 and second baseman Daniel Murphy booted a crucial ground ball in Game 4.
Jayson Stark has a piece suggesting the Toronto Blue Jays have the best up-the-middle defense in 2016. Russell Martin is viewed as a plus defender in all facets of catching and is coming off a season in which he led the American League throwing out 44.4 percent of opposing base stealers. Center fielder Kevin Pillar was a daily highlight reel who ranked tied for fifth among all fielders with 22 defensive runs saved. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki may have lost a little range but still has a strong throwing arm and rates as a slightly above-average defender. Second baseman Ryan Goins is an acrobatic infielder who shuttled back and forth between second and short a season ago.
Last year, the Jays were the only team with a positive defensive runs saved total at all four middle positions, and with a full season of Tulowitzki at shortstop and Goins at second, the team's defensive metrics could improve at those spots. The Royals certainly have their supporters, although Gold Glove winner Escobar has rated at minus-5 DRS over the past two seasons, more steady than spectacular (but he's certainly capable of the spectacular play). Perez is a three-time Gold Glover but his reputation may be a little inflated as his percentage of throwing out base stealers has declined from 38 percent a few years ago to a league-average 27 percent, and he doesn't rate well as a pitch-framer. Of course, evaluating catcher defense is difficult and doesn't factor in pitch calling and leadership that is so important.
I'd throw out the San Francisco Giants as a contender for best up-the-middle defense as well. Last year, they had three excellent defenders in catcher Buster Posey (plus-17 DRS), second baseman Joe Panik (plus-2) and Gold Glove winner Brandon Crawford at shortstop (plus-20), but one terrible defender in center in Angel Pagan (minus-20).
Here's a bigger question: How important is defense up the middle? I mean, of course it's important; everything is important on some level. According to the Baseball Info Solutions site -- that's the company that tracks every play to create defensive runs saved -- the three best defensive teams in the AL in 2015 were the Houston Astros, Royals and Blue Jays, all playoff teams. None of the top three in the NL made the playoffs (Arizona Diamondbacks, Giants, Miami Marlins), but the next five teams were the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, all of whom did make the postseason.
Not every team is placing a big emphasis on defense, however. The Mets re-signed Cespedes to play center field, even though all the indicators say he'll be below average out there. They lost Murphy and replaced him with Neil Walker, average at best. They signed Asdrubal Cabrera to play shortstop and while he may be a small upgrade over Wilmer Flores, his metrics suggest his range is below average. The Washington Nationals signed Murphy to play second and intend to start the season with Danny Espinosa, last year's second baseman, at shortstop. The Dodgers brought back Howie Kendrick at second base (minus-12 DRS in 2015), have Joc Pederson in center (minus-3 DRS) and untested rookie shortstop Corey Seager, whose bat rates much higher than his glove.
Here's a study to examine the importance of up-the-middle defense. I looked at the best defensive teams from the past three seasons, all those credited with at least 30 defensive runs saved -- a pool of 27 teams. Here's a breakdown of where their defensive value came from, via the BIS site:
Up the middle: 39.8 percent
Other positions (including pitcher): 45.5 percent
Shifting: 14.6 percent
This suggests that the best defensive teams are essentially good everywhere, because they accrued more value at the other positions. In a way, this shouldn't be surprising. A certain competency is required to play those key up-the-middle positions, but teams are willing to try poor defenders at the four corner slots. This can create a bigger range in defensive value. In fact, that has been a key for the Royals the past few years, with Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer at three of the corner positions. The Diamondbacks rated as the best defensive team in 2015 because of strong contributions from Paul Goldschmidt (plus-18 at first base) and Ender Inciarte (plus-13 in right field and plus-12 in left field).
I also looked at the bad defensive teams, those with minus-30 DRS or worse. The pool was smaller -- just 16 teams over the past three seasons (congrats Philadelphia Phillies fans, your team made it all three seasons, including a horrific minus-103 total in 2015). For the bad teams, more of their negative value comes from positions other than up the middle:
Up the middle: 38.2 percent
Other positions: 69.1 percent
Shifting: (plus) 7.5 percent
Bad defensive teams don't do well up the middle but they tend to be really awful in the corners (and pitchers). Here's another breakdown, comparing the good defensive teams against the bad:
Up the middle (average per team)
Good: plus-20 DRS
Bad: minus-23 DRS
Other positions (average per team)
Good: plus-23 DRS
Bad: minus-42 DRS
Shifting (average per team)
Good: plus-7 DRS
Bad: plus-5 DRS
Bottom line: You shouldn't ignore defense at some positions. While baseball is a game of individual matchups, defense truly requires a team effort.