PL Best in Baseball Series: Best Team Defenses

A few clear standouts and others who could be in matters of the glove.

My favorite things about baseball always involve a glove. I’ll take quick hands, a snag on a short hop, or a diving catch in the outfield over virtually anything that a hitter or pitcher can do. My favorite baseball archetypes are the elite defender that can’t hit (Hi, Nick Ahmed!) or the guy who can play decent enough defense all over and hit just a little bit (shoutout Josh Harrison).

I’ve spent a lot of time watching defense. I have also spent a lot of time examining defensive metrics in baseball. And the one thing I’ve learned over the last several years is that we still can’t genuinely quantify defense. Sure, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Outs Above Average (OAA) are important steps. Especially over the old guard of fielding percentage or Range Factor. But ultimately, there is just so much context in forming a statistical narrative about a defense. You almost can’t expect one statistic to encompass all of it.

OAA and DRS each have their merits, especially in being able to establish such context. But, ultimately, there is still enough subjectivity for flaws to trickle into each. We won’t likely ever have a perfect defensive metric. So we’ll just keep working with what we have. This is to say nothing of catching metrics, which are largely excluded from the common metrics and still in their relative infancy.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. But I only have so many words with which to keep your attention and the goal here is the teams, not the overarching defensive metrics discourse.

That does make determining the best overall defenses heading into 2023 a challenging task, though. Sure, there were some elite defensive clubs last year. Roster turnover could lead to a drop for some; injuries for others. The Los Angeles Dodgers, as an example, have the distinction of falling due to both of those elements.

The elimination of the shift is a really important consideration. We won’t truly know the defensive configuration of teams until we’re knee-deep in the regular season, as they push the absence of the shift to its limits I’d bet. The importance of range and its individual factors will loom large, but enough to really overhaul the defensive stalwarts of Major League Baseball? We’ll have to see.

Because of the uncertainty of how large a factor the shift elimination will represent — and we cannot overstate the impact that this could have on defense and defensive configuration — the top tier of Major League defense is presented in no particular order. This list was compiled primarily using OAA & DRS, both as a team and featuring individual standouts. OAA is leaned on more, given its versatility. When relevant, catching metrics are hastily thrown in. A sort of next wave is mentioned as teams that could rise up as the season wears on, mostly thanks to some new additions.

Projected defensive lineups were based on projected depth charts via FanGraphs & Baseball Prospectus.


The Top Five


New York Yankees

  • 2022 DRS: 129 (1st)
  • 2022 OAA: 20 (6th)
    • Infield: 16 (8th)
    • Outfield: 4 (12th)

Projected Defense

The Yankees represent the case study for why this list is not being presented in order. While the first mentioned, they could very well face a decline (more in a moment). Given the lack of turnover on their roster, though, it’s hard to be as dismissive about them as it is, say, Los Angeles.

Trevino is a very good catcher. He sits atop the Baseball Prospectus leaderboard in virtually every category, most notably in regard to framing. Harrison Bader is elite in center. Josh Donaldson and Aaron Judge were each above average by OAA in 2022. That’s a good start.

The questions come elsewhere. Anthony Rizzo’s skills have declined (-3 OAA) and his back is wonky. Gleyber Torres was slightly below average by the metrics. Between Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza, the latter is the vastly superior defender. Of course, it’s Volpe that will man the six to start the year. It’s this trio — Rizzo, Torres, and Volpe — that will have a lot to say about New York’s defensive outcomes in 2023.

Interestingly, the best Yankee — in terms of OAA — was DJ LeMahieu, who doesn’t look to have a regular spot in the field to start the year.


St. Louis Cardinals

  • 2022 DRS: 67 (4th*)
  • 2022 OAA: 26 (4th)
    • Infield: 24 (1st)
    • Outfield: 2 (14th)

Projected Defense

From a team where the catcher is the actual backbone of the defense to one where the position might be the weakest. It’s no secret that the Chicago Cubs chose to move on from Contreras given some of his issues receiving and blocking, cannon of an arm notwithstanding.

Then again, how much does it matter when you have two generational players on the corners of the infield and the no. 3 overall player by OAA last year in Tommy Edman? Second base is the only weak spot of the four infield positions, but Paul DeJong grabbing the occasional start and late-game substitution should help to mitigate that. It’s hard to see an argument among the best infields in baseball that doesn’t result in this group.

The outfield is going to be fascinating to watch. Jordan Walker is a third baseman by trade, but his upside with the stick got him an Opening Day shot, most likely in left. That moved Tyler O’Neill to center. The emergence of Nootbaar likely forces Dylan Carlson to the bench. The moving parts of this group have me thinking that the OAA distribution looks like it did last year. Elite on the dirt just about average on the grass.


Arizona Diamondbacks

  • 2022 DRS: 56 (6th)
  • 2022 OAA: 44 (1st)
    • Infield: 12 (9th)
    • Outfield: 32 (1st)

Projected Defense

Arizona is becoming less of a secret the closer we get to Opening Day. A fun pitching staff and emerging young talent will do that. But what this Snakes club is going to do extremely well in 2023 is absolutely going to come on the defensive side.

Starting in the outfield, the next closest team to the D-Backs’ 32 OAA was Tampa Bay with 23. That trio of Carroll, Thomas, and McCarthy are fast and smart. Watching them play the massive outfield at Chase Field is going to be one of the best things to happen to that venue in a long time.

Don’t sleep on the infield either, though. Christian Walker is coming off a Gold Glove year at first, with an OAA of 14 that blew away his comrades at the position. Ahmed has a strong track record of defensive excellence. Even if he’s supplanted by Geraldo Perdomo, it’s not as if they lose a ton. Perdomo graded above average last year. Longoria and Marte will give you average defense.

Honestly, if I had to give a No. 1 overall for the whole group, it’s probably this one.


Houston Astros

  • 2022 DRS: 67 (4th*)
  • 2022 OAA: 36 (2nd)
    • Infield: 17 (3rd)
    • Outfield: 19 (3rd)

Projected Defense

Wait a minute. You’re telling me that the eventual World Series champion sported an elite defense in addition to a dominant pitching staff and strong offense? Wild.

Of course they did. And realistically, it got better. Peña, Bregman, McCormick (assuming he starts), and Tucker are all in the upper echelon of defenders at their respective positions. Maldonado has had this job on lock because of his defense. Altuve is…fine with the glove. But in case there wasn’t a reason to think that this Astros team, which was extremely good according to both DRS and OAA, could build upon their 2022 outcomes all that much, well, there is.

Yuli Gurriel was absolutely horrendous last year. Now, the caveat is that most defensive metrics tend to hate first basemen. But even with that, there were only 20 players of the 267 qualifiers on the OAA leaderboard who had a worse figure than his -9. Which means that Abreu is going to be an upgrade.


Toronto Blue Jays

  • 2022 DRS: 44 (8th)
  • 2022 OAA: 6 (11th)
    • Infield: 9 (11th)
    • Outfield: -3 (18th)

Projected Defense

The Jays, for my money, look primed to take the biggest jump. Jansen is the more defensively adept of duo of he & Alejandro Kirk. Matt Chapman is elite in the hot corner, even if his bat doesn’t always follow suit. Espinal plays a top-tier second base, as he finished among the top overall performers in OAA, and Vladito won’t hurt you. If there’s a question on the infield, it’s pointed at Bo Bichette (-7 OAA, -16 DRS). He’s clinging to a long-term job at the position by a thread, right now. A position change is likely nigh.

What has me jazzed about this team, though, is the defense. Much was made about Toronto’s decision to move away from the likes of Teoscar Hernández in favor of a more defensive-minded outfield. Well, Daulton Varsho is certainly that. His OAA of 18 led all outfielders last year. Kicking Spring over to right should help him drive up those just-about-above-average defensive numbers. Kiermaier’s lost a step, but still plays a decent enough center. Especially when sandwiched between the other two.

The infield defense is probably about the same as it was last year, lingering around 10th or so. The outfield gloves, though, could catapult them into the league’s very best.


Others to Watch


Cleveland Guardians

  • 2022 DRS: 79 (3rd)
  • 2022 OAA: 21 (5th)
    • Infield: 12 (10th)
    • Outfield: 9 (8th)

Projected Defense

We know Cleveland’s game at this point. It’s pitching and defense and José Ramírez.

What’s interesting is that both metrics featured here liked the Guardians a lot, but their actual performance was pretty polarizing. Giménez and Straw were both dynamite, as both finished inside the top 15 in OAA. Kwan wasn’t far behind. Ramírez and Naylor get you a little closer to average before Gonzalez takes you well below the threshold (-6). Rosario takes you even farther down (-11). This is still a good group overall, but there are glaring spots where the defense isn’t quite as strong.

One element that will be worth watching will be the transition to Mike Zunino behind the dish. Austin Hedges was a top-10 defensive catcher according to those pesky BP metrics. Zunino has largely been looked upon favorably, but what could even a modest regression from a defensive darling look like for the Guardians, a team who basically has no choice but to prevent runs to win games?


San Diego Padres

  • 2022 DRS: 8 (19th)
  • 2022 OAA: 33 (3rd)
    • Infield: 17 (5th)
    • Outfield: 16 (5th)

Projected Defense

The Padres boast three players that were in the top 35 in OAA in 2022: Grisham, Machado, and Kim. Grisham is among the best two or three defensive centerfielders in baseball right now. Kim played a really strong shortstop last year and now gets the easier gig at the keystone. Machado just keeps on doing his thing.

What makes this team so intriguing is the entirely new configuration. Cronenworth at first. Kim at second. Soto in left. Tatis Jr. in right. This is a collection of solid-to-elite fielders. If their adjustment is even modestly smooth, it’s going to be an absolute blast to watch.


Chicago Cubs

  • 2022 DRS: 4 (21st)
  • 2022 OAA: -23 (27th)
    • Infield: -13 (26th)
    • Outfield: -10 (22nd)

Projected Defense

Why in the world did I choose to include a team that was actually terrible at defense in 2022 when there figure to be clubs that are more competent on this side of the ball in 2023 (Atlanta! Tampa Bay! The Mets!)? Because I’m intensely biased.

The Cubs didn’t do a ton to really drive their needle in either direction. What they did do is take their defense up the middle to another level. Dansby Swanson was no. 3 in OAA (21) and Nico Hoerner was 12th (13). A move over to second should be cake for Hoerner in the numbers game. Bellinger’s OAA of seven led the Dodgers last year. Better still, the Cubs seemingly punted on offense entirely behind the plate, with a duo of Gomes and Tucker Barnhart. Ian Happ also won a Gold Glove and Wisdom plays a decent enough third.

Ultimately, the Cubs aren’t going to be an offensive power. And their pitching staff won’t overwhelm anyone. Their defense is going to have as much to say about their 2023 fortunes as anything, and it’s for that reason I wanted to include them here.

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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