Offensive lineups and pitching rotations hoard the hype and fanfare. Homeruns and strikeouts get all the glory. And while a great defensive play might get 10 seconds of love on SportsCenter, the casual fan is more likely to be able to cite a player’s number of bombs hit than his defensive runs saved.
However, a good defense can compensate for many inadequacies in pitching and offense. As a former shortstop myself who was (more than once) labeled “all glove, no stick”, I appreciate the beautiful subtleties of getting a put-out on a backhanded grounder in the hole. Baseball defenses are like a kicker in football - they are usually taken for granted until they make a mistake. The Braves, though, have not taken defense for granted and have made it an undeniable team strength.
The Braves were one of the best defensive teams in baseball in 2018. They ranked 4th in both DRS and UZR last year. Three Braves collected Gold Gloves: Freddie Freeman (his first), Ender Inciarte (his third consecutive), and Nick Markakis (his third). Additionally, Julio Teheran finished second in Gold Glove voting for pitchers.
The 2019 Braves have picked up where they left off last season. Although defensive ability is tricky to quantify and requires a larger sample size, there are some metrics that demonstrate how the defense has performed this season in relation to other teams. The Braves’ 8 DRS in 9 games puts them in 3rd place in baseball at DRS per game. Their .990 fielding percentage ties them for 6th place, and FanGraphs places them as the No. 4 defense in baseball so far. Additionally, they have turned 26 double plays, which places them 2nd in baseball on a game-average basis.
The Braves have committed only three errors in nine games this season, which ties them for second fewest in baseball. They have not committed an error in the last five games. Braves’ opponents, meanwhile, have committed 12 errors. When your opponent is averaging an error more than you per game, you’re putting your team in a position to succeed.
Not only are the Braves not making many mistakes, they’re making plays defensively that they have no business making. Take, for example, the double play by Josh Donaldson yesterday:
Or Ronald Acuña, Jr. showing great range and speed to make a potential double look like an easy out:
Even when the ball doesn’t bounce their way, Braves defenders have been able to convert it into a positive play. Against the Cubs, Dansby Swanson booted a grounder, but Donaldson swooped in and made the play:
When a grounder caromed off Kyle Wright’s foot, Swanson was there for the impressive out:
Dansby Swanson put on a Gold Glove-caliber performance against the Marlins. pic.twitter.com/hYu6OCoSDT— FOX Sports South (@FOXSportsSouth) April 7, 2019
Ozzie Albies got a tough bounce but kept his cool and made a heads-up play to get an out:
It is difficult to find a weak link in the Braves defensively. The infielders have been walking highlight reels so far. The only outfielder with less than three Gold Gloves is Acuña, who possesses tremendous range and arm strength and will likely earn some hardware during his career. And if you consider framing a part of defensive statistics, Tyler Flowers is one of the best catchers in the game at framing pitches.
Furthermore, good defense might be a cost-effective way of building a winning roster, as it allowed teams with lower payrolls to compete in 2018. The Top-5 teams in DRS in 2018 (Diamondbacks, Brewers, Athletics, Braves, and Rays, respectively) all finished with winning records despite being in the bottom-half in payroll. Those five teams won an average of 91 games in 2018 and included two division winners and a wildcard team. While this might be oversimplified, focusing on defense could be a way in which the teams with smaller payrolls are able to level the playing field with the big spenders. Whether this trend continues will be interesting to see.
Whether you’re a fan of analytics or prefer the eyeball test, the Braves’ defense continues to impress. Perhaps most exciting for Braves’ fans is that it seems contagious, with each fielder trying to one-up the other. If the stellar defense continues, the Braves could be in a position to surprise people yet again in 2019.