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Handicapping Baseball Defense

   by Al McMordie - 06/19/2008

It's important for a team to have strong defense at key positions such as outfield, shortstop and catcher. Defense at centerfield, shortstop and catcher are where the term "Strong up the middle comes from." Good teams use defense to assist their pitching, turn double plays and help keep team ERAs down.

From a betting standpoint, defense can be linked to totals along with the overall team’s pitching staff. For example, the young Marlins are prone to errors, the worst defensive team in the National League. They also have a young pitching staff that is fourth worst in the NL. Throw in the fact that their offense is very good, and that’s a more likely combination for high scoring games. Florida started 38-24 over the total, including 18-10 over on the road. Unearned runs may not count on a pitcher’s ERA, but it counts when you have a ticket on the over!

In the American League, the young Texas Rangers have made the most errors. Like Florida, they have a terrific offense but a terrible pitching staff, one ranked last in the AL. Yes, the Rangers have been an over machine with that combination, starting 39-26, including 21-13 over the total away from home.

Defense is something the defending champion Red Sox have put a premium on, ever since their 2005 team couldn’t pitch or hit. In 2006 the front office made a concerted effort to prioritize the defense after a 2005 season where Boston's pitching and defense were flawed. Basically, they won 95 games in 2005 with offense, which is why they got swept out of the playoff quickly by the White Sox. They changed the makeup of the team and were far more balanced in 2006, bringing in SS Alex Gonzalez and 3B Mike Lowell while getting rid of poor defensive players 1B Kevin Millar and SS Edgar Renteria.

Young players like Jacoby Ellsbury and 2B Dustin Pedroia are solid defensively, they resigned Lowell over the winter, while 1B Kevin Youkalis just had his consecutive errorless streak at first base end. That rock solid defense helped pave the way to another title last October. The team they played in the World Series, the Rockies, was tops in all of baseball last season in team defense. Yet, 2008 has been completely different, ranked second worst in the NL in defense, a contributor to their terrible start.

Minnesota is an organization that has preached the importance of defense for years, but this offseason they let CF Torri Hunter walk and traded a slick infielder 2B Akinori Iwamura to Tampa Bay. The Twins defense has suffered this season, ranked sixth worst in baseball. Shoddy defense is an even larger detriment when playing indoors on artificial carpet, like the Twins do in the Metrodome. The Twins started 39-28 over the total and are currently on a 12-4 run over the total.

The team they traded Iwamura to, Tampa Bay, has been the biggest surprise of the season. Yes, the pitching staff has been impressive, but so has the defense, tops in the AL. Note that the Rays started 24-10 under the total at home. Good defense helps a pitching staff, turning would-be singles into more double plays. Fewer errors means less pitches thrown, so pitchers are less likely to wear down in a game or over the course of a season.

The Detroit Tigers terrible start has been largely attributed to their poor pitching, but note that their defense hasn’t helped, making the third most errors in the American League. The only thing going right in a disastrous season for the San Diego Padres is that they’ve made the fewest errors in all of baseball. The Padres are also 23-15 under the total at home, playing in a great pitcher’s park. When examining totals, pitching and offense are the most important numbers, but the quality of defense is also a key factor to measure.

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