2024 Pitcher List Major League Baseball Defensive Primer

A glimpse of what we're excited for in the field in 2024.

If you have even the slightest bit of knowledge surrounding my personal interests, you know I’m all about the defensive side of Major League Baseball. That “romance” that we’re ever seeking in this game that is simultaneously beautiful and infuriating is found for me in the pop of a glove. In a diving play in center. In a pick on a short-hop at first base.

To me, it doesn’t matter if Walt Whitman actually said “I see great things in baseball.” Because see great things. Good defense fills me with oxygen and relieves me from being a nervous, dyspeptic set (as much as any one thing can, anyway). With that in mind, I was offered an opportunity to prime you, dear reader, for the defensive angle of the 2024 Major League Baseball season. I aimed for brevity and probably missed it. Ultimately, here’s what you need to be aware of on that side of the ball in ’24.


What We’re Watching For & How We’re Measuring It


Back in January, I presented my MLB All-Defensive Team based purely on aesthetics. It’s not enough for the defenders I watch to simply be good. I want them to look good doing it. Bo BichetteFernando Tatis Jr., and Bryce Harper were among the names mentioned. They bring a certain level of flare to their respective positions. When you’re trying to find things to enjoy beyond the box score, you kind of want that element. So I, for one, will maintain a keen eye on the guys who are demonstrating that in the field. Especially as guys transition to new uniforms or rise from the minor leagues.

More importantly — and as much as my aesthetics-based favoritism might hate to admit — the defensive output matters. Defensive metrics are famously imperfect. Some might say unreliable. The nature of statistics in sports is that they are context-heavy. That may ring more true in baseball than in any other sport. And it may be truer still in matters of the glove. Nonetheless, we have metrics that have been deemed at least somewhat reliable: Outs Above Average (OAA) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).

For the uninitiated, OAA has risen to prominence in the last few years. It’s range-based, measuring the amount of balls in play that have been converted into outs relative to the player’s defensive peers. Exactly ‘0’ indicates a decidedly average defender. The higher above that threshold, the better the defender; the lower below, just the inverse. It accounts for the distance covered in fielding the ball, the time to reach that point, how far he is from the base where the runner in question is headed, and the batter’s average speed on force plays. There are nuances to Outfield OAA against the infield (mainly catch probability), as well as a more formulaic angle.

Some prefer the flavor of DRS, however. The metric, created by The Fielding Bible, calculates runs saved against bunts, steals, double plays, arm strength, and a handful of other factors within the context of defense. Similar to OAA, anything above or below an average ‘0’ will give you the insight you seek. A main difference, however, is that it’s measured in runs prevented, rather than outs recorded. That’s in addition to the fact that DRS includes arm strength as a factor for all, which is not the case on the OAA side.

Ultimately, these are the two most comprehensive defensive metrics we have. Much of this is preference-based, and it largely depends on the position you’re examining and what you’re trying to measure. What we do know is that the days of fielding percentage and errors being anything indicative of a player’s defensive ability are far behind us.


The Catcher Quandary


While the defensive concept may still have a while to go, that’s especially true behind the dish. People much smarter than I have long attempted to calculate a catcher’s value from a defensive standpoint. There are always going to be unquantifiable things. The calling of pitches. The emotional management of pitchers. Some of the general strategies. Now, in a broad context we can probably quantify some of that, but likely never all.

Strides have been made in recent years, though, as multiple outlets have taken their chances at cracking the quantifiable components of catcher defense. DRS does take into account the catcher acting as a fielder. Which is a good start. The run game represents an additional front in which we can measure. Stolen Base Runs Saved Above Average (rSB) is an extension of DRS that measures the ability of a catcher to prevent stolen bases. Baseball Prospectus employs Takeoff Rate Above Average (TRAA) and Swipe Rate Above Average (SRAA) in measuring a similar impact on the running game.

Blocking and framing have their place, as well. FanGraphs’ RPP (Runs on Passed Pitches) works in conjunction with the wild-pitch-to-passed-ball ratio and other data to measure a catcher’s aptitude in blocking. Framing is explored more via Baseball Prospectus, functioning mostly as a ratio within a traditional strike zone. Of course, the issue within the latter is that umpires also exist with their own quixotic idea of a strike zone. So accounting for the catcher, pitcher, hitter, and umpire in all of that creates a bigger mess than the other metrics we currently have.

It’s an imperfect science. Even more imperfect than the standard set in defensive metrics to this point. Nonetheless, the improvements made do represent a great deal of optimism in an aspect of the game that formerly had almost no tangible means of quantifying production and consistency.


Team Breakdown


From a defensive standpoint, no group was better in 2023 than the Milwaukee Brewers. They finished with a collective 41 OAA and ranked second overall in DRS, with 68. Willy Adames led the way with 16 OAA out of the six, trailing only Dansby Swanson as the best defender at shortstop. Among their regulars, Joey Wiemer (6), Christian Yelich (4), and Brice Turang (2) all graded above average on the OAA side. Turang was much better on the DRS side, at 12. The Crew has two prospects poised to become regulars in 2024: Jackson Chourio and Joey Ortiz. Both have high upside defensively, so it stands to reason that group could be just as strong — if not better — in ’24.

Behind Milwaukee, the list goes Arizona, Kansas City, and San Diego.

Arizona is not a surprise. They have a fast, rangy group in the massive Chase Field outfield. Their middle infield is steady between Ketel Marte and Geraldo PerdomoChristian Walker is an elite defensive first baseman. One imagines that the addition of Eugenio Suárez makes them a stronger group. He was well above average by OAA (11) and just about average in DRS (-2).

One wonders if the Royals could experience the inverse. They came in high thanks to the efforts of Bobby Witt Jr.Maikel Garcia, and Kyle Isbel. However, their presumed new look on the outfield corners is uninspiring. Hunter Renfroe contributes the occasional highlight but is historically very below average. MJ Melendez over in left still has growing to do in converting from catcher to full-time outfielder. Having Vinnie Pasquantino back is obviously great for their offense, but not so much for the infield.

San Diego’s hopes of remaining near the top are intriguing. Tatis represented one of the best overall defenders in the sport last year. Manny Machado is still an upper-tier defender. Jake Cronenworth and Jurickson Profar are just about average at their respective spots. But one wonders how the loss of Gold Glover Trent Grisham will impact them, especially if top prospect Jackson Merrill takes the job and continues his transition from short. The swap of Ha-Seong Kim and Xander Bogaerts in the middle should yield positive dividends, at least.

There are plenty of intriguing teams farther down, as well. The Chicago Cubs are elite up the middle. Cincinnati was one of the league’s worst overall and has a ton of moving parts. Their configuration will be fascinating. What about a team like Baltimore? They have so much young talent and were excellent on the margins last year, despite ranking 24th in OAA. Some growth on defense could elevate them even more.


Players to Watch


There are myriad reasons we might be intrigued by a player’s defense. Maybe they’re just really good. Or moving to a new position. Perhaps they’re trying to hold onto one. In any case, here are some of the more compelling defensive situations around the league.


Bryce Harper


The Phillies didn’t get a lot defensively at first base in 2023. Alec Bohm was below average in over 550 innings. Kody Clemens was just about average. Everybody else fell under the threshold. Harper made the transition late in the year, eventually logging about 300 frames at the spot. And he looked fine! While Harper is probably too athletic for the position, the transition allows him a…safer environment in which to ply his trade.

What’s most interesting is that the Phillies have spent the last couple of years almost punting defense entirely, given the majority of their roster construction. But their infield is solid in that respect. Especially if Bohm can show the slightest bit of growth at the hot corner. If Harper can give the Fightins above-average defense, this will further fortify one of the National League’s top clubs.


Jackson Merrill


A shortstop transitioning to a new position is not a new thing. Shortstops have a reputation for being athletes. If anything, they’re most often the ones moving around the field. Such is the case for the Padres’ No. 2 prospect. What makes his situation interesting is that the Padres kind of need him to thrive in center.

San Diego traded Juan Soto. They traded Trent Grisham. They replaced them with…Jurickson Profar. Good clubhouse guy. Versatile. But, ultimately, Fernando Tatis Jr.is their only reliable piece on the outfield grass. Enter Merrill. With Kim, Bogaerts, and even Tatis on the roster, riding him out in center field makes multiple levels of sense. He’s already impressed this spring. A successful defensive transition gets an upper-tier prospect to the bigs almost right out of the gate, which is a victory for all of us, really.


Oneil Cruz


After 769 big league innings at short, we’re not any closer to determining his positional future. There have always been questions about the 6’7″ Cruz’s ability to handle the spot given his height. Many have long assumed he’d be destined for an outfield corner before long. But, again, different metrics measure different things. Cruz has a -10 OAA across those innings but is at exactly 0 in DRS. His offensive upside is undeniable.

But the Bucs do have other bodies capable of handling the middle. One also wonders if moving him out of the infield could help him stay on the field, allowing his bat to remain in the lineup.


Byron Buxton


Minnesota didn’t let Buxton touch grass last year in an effort to keep him healthy. But both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus project him to get about 50 percent of the time out in center in ’24. If he can maintain health (a massive ‘if’), it’s a boon for the Twins.

Among centerfielders with at least 400 innings in 2022, Buxton’s eight OAA ranked fifth. His eight DRS ranked fourth. The previous year, his OAA was seven and DRS was ten. He’s a player with an extensive history of defensive excellence. So it’ll be interesting to see if he can return to his defensive excellence or become somewhat conservative in the name of longevity.


The Cincinnati Reds


The batting order notwithstanding, configuring this Reds lineup is going to be a hilarious task for David Bell. Elly De La CruzNoelvi Marte (post-suspension). Matt McLainChristian Encarnacion-StrandJonathan India. Jeimer Candelario. Spencer Steer. Seven potential starters for five spots. De La Cruz will play short but could appear at third. Marte (post-suspension) is just the opposite. McLain can handle either spot in the middle. Encarnacion-Strand could appear at any corner spot, infield or out. India may appear at first or third. Candelario will appear at first and third. Steer’s already been kicked to the outfield grass. It’s a wildly deep group, and the defensive element further adds to the hilarity.


Why This All Matters


Of World Series champions since 2016 (the first year for which we have OAA data), one team has led the league in both OAA and DRS: the Chicago Cubs. Beyond them, however, only one team was in the bottom half of the league in either OAA or DRS: the 2018 Boston Red Sox. Every champ within that timeframe has been top 5-10 in at least one statistical category. The last two, especially, presented some choice glove work. Last year’s Texas Rangers sat sixth in OAA and seventh in DRS. Their predecessors in Houston were second in OAA and fourth in DRS.

Defense matters. Sure, you can compensate for it in the smaller sample of the postseason. But over the long haul of a Major League Baseball season, you need reliability in the field just to get a crack at an October run. Not to mention how demoralizing it is to watch a bad defensive baseball team. As fun as it is to watch outstanding work with the leather, it’s equally painful to watch the inverse.

Ask a White Sox fan how much they enjoyed their team in the field last year (-17 OAA, -59 DRS). Or a Cubs fan about the pre-Swanson defense (-24 OAA in ’23). You could also ask a Phillies fan how much they enjoyed the ’21 iteration of the squad before they started slugging their way deep into the postseason (-23 OAA, -54 DRS).

Not that anyone would necessarily argue as to whether or not defense matters. It’s obviously a main facet of the game. But in a sport where so few organizations are moving in earnest toward contention, you need that element of the game in order to remain engaged. If your team isn’t doing it, there is a wealth of wonderful defense you can find all over Major League Baseball. You just have to know where to look.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

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