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How good will Cincinnati's defense be in 2016?

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Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

There are plenty of ways that fans and analysts attempt to predict the success of MLB teams prior to the start of a new season. How does the lineup look? Will it be able to produce enough runs? Is there an ace at the top of the starting rotation? Will the bullpen be able to lock down late inning situations? These are important questions to ask, and they're the kinds of questions fans like to debate in the spring. Part of the reason that these questions are so prominent is because we have clear statistics and measurements to help us evaluate how teams and players have previously done in these areas.

However, there is a key factor to a major league team's success that is easy to overlook. Over the past few seasons the importance of team defense has received a lot more attention. Part of this stems from the fact that several successful franchises have made defense a priority (e.g. Kansas City). Another reason defense has received more attention is because we have relatively new metrics that allow us to measure how good a team or player is on defense. Instead of simply using our eyes to assess a player's defensive prowess, there are now numbers we can look at to discover defensive value.

So how do the Reds look defensively heading in to the 2016 season? In order to assess this we will use several advanced fielding metrics (UZR and DRS). Before we discuss what these metrics measure it's important to add a qualifier. There are questions about the accuracy and validity of some of these metrics. Fangraphs admits that these numbers aren't perfect, but also reminds us they're better than what we've had in the past. So take these numbers with a grain of salt, but also recognize there is a lot of data and information helping us come to here conclusions.

In case your unfamiliar with these stats, here is what you need to know to understand the gist of these comments (per Fangraphs). Click the link below for a much more thorough discussion of a particular statistic and how it's calculated.

UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating)

  • "Puts a run value to defense, attempting to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess."
  • "UZR tells you how many runs better or worse that players has been relative to the average player at his position."
  • "UZR is relative to positional average."
  • Thus, a league average defender at a given position would have a UZR of 0.
  • Calculated by The Fielding Bible.
  • "How many runs a player saved or hurt his team in the field compared to the average player at his position."
  • "DRS captures a player's total defensive value."
There are minor differences between DRS and UZR. If you're curious about the differences, click on the DRS link above and scroll to the bottom of the page. More often than not they agree with one another regarding a player's defensive ability.

With these definitions in mind, what should the Reds expect at every defensive position this season?

First Base - Joey Votto

Last Three Seasons

2013 2014 2015
DRS 6 5 6
UZR 2.2 0.9 2.6

2015 MLB Leaders: Paul Goldschmidt (18 DRS) & Brandon Belt (8.6 UZR)

Everyone knows how valuable Joey Votto is at the plate (well almost everyone). In fact, he's so good his contributions in the field can often go overlooked. By DRS Votto, was a top five first basemen a year ago, and he was top ten by UZR. Votto's quad injury in 2014 likely had a lot to do with his declining performance in the field, but he was able to rebound in 2015. Since 2009 Votto has give the Reds good to very good defense, and even when he was hurt he didn't cost the Reds runs in the field. His defensive value peaked in 2011-2012, but Votto shows no signs of being a detriment to the Reds with his glove.

What's not to love about this guy?

Second Base - Brandon Phillips

2013 2014 2015
DRS 1 6 4
UZR 8.6 8.1 2.0

2015 MLB Leaders: Ian Kinsler (19 DRS) & Dee Gordon (6.4 UZR)

Even at 34 years old, Brandon Phillips gave the Reds top ten value at second last season. When you think of Phillips on defense it's easy to think about the eye popping plays that he makes. However, a lot of his value comes from being as sure handed as any player in the league. If a ball is hit to Phillips, and he can get to it, it's as good as an out. From 2007-2010 Phillips had his best run of defensive play by finishing in the top three of either UZR or DRS three times. While his range has clearly slipped some as he's aged, Phillips continues to be worth starting at second base.

Shortstop - Zack Cozart

2013 2014 2015
DRS 4 19 7
UZR 6.4 12.1 2.1

2015 MLB Leader: Andrelton Simmons (25 DRS/17.3 UZR)

Clearly last season's numbers were affected by Cozart's season ending knee surgery. It's easy to forget just how good Cozart was at short in 2014. If Andrelton Simmons didn't exist, he would have been in the conversation for the best defensive shortstop in all of baseball. That season he ranked second in DRS and third  in UZR. While Cozart's struggles at the plate are well known, his defensive play makes it almost impossible to take him off the field. While it will take some time to figure out just how much his injury has affected/limited him, it's hard to imagine the Reds finding a better option on defense at short for the foreseeable future.

Third Base - Eugenio Suarez

These statistics measure Suarez's play at shortstop.


2013 2014 2015
DRS
-5 -12
UZR
-0.1 -12.9

2015 MLB Leaders: Adrian Beltre (18 DRS/11.8 UZR) & Nolan Arenado (18 DRS)

Over the past few seasons Suarez has gotten the opportunity to play at least 600 innings at short. In a 2014 scouting report Tucker Blair of BP wrote, "The most important aspect of his game is the ability to stick at shortstop." Suarez was viewed as a solid OBP contributor, but it was his defense at short that would give him a major league career. However, last season the opposite was the case. Suarez had an above average offensive season hitting .280/.315/.446, but his defense took a major step back.

The move to third should be a huge boost for Suarez's defensive value. If he hits enough to stick at third, and that's a big if, then the Reds will be in good shape with a prospective shortstop at the hot corner. Hopefully this move is an opportunity for Suarez to get his defensive confidence back. Even if its impossible for his play at third to be as valuable as his potential defense at short, he shouldn't cost the Reds any runs in the field this season.


Right Field - Jay Bruce

2013 2014 2015
DRS 16 -6 5
UZR 10.2 -6.1 -4.2

2015 MLB Leader: Jason Heyward (22 DRS/20.2 UZR)

No Reds starter had a broader variation between their DRS and UZR last season than Jay Bruce. DRS still viewed Bruce as an above average defensive player in right, but UZR argues that Bruce cost the Reds four runs. Part of this difference stems from one of the component parts of UZR.

One of the measurements used to calculate UZR is "range runs above average" (RngR). Fangraphs defines this measure as "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity." In 2015 Bruce's RngR was -7.2. This was easily the largest contributor to his negative ranking.

What are the advanced metrics saying about Bruce's defense? When Bruce can get to a ball he's likely to make the play, but he's getting to a lot fewer balls than he used to. Not only that, but according to RngR he's getting to a lot fewer balls than the average right fielder. Clearly age and injuries are contributing to this development, but the presence of the next guy in the outfield helps mitigate Bruce's deficiencies.

Center Field - Billy Hamilton

2013 2014 2015
DRS 1 14 8
UZR 0.7 20.1 14.5


2015 MLB Leader: Kevin Kiermaier (42 DRS/30 UZR)

We're all well aware of Hamilton's struggles at the plate. However, there are few players in baseball who contribute more in the field than Hamilton. Kevin Kiermaier's 2015 looks like a major outlier when compared to the other players at the position last season. Without Kiermaier's video game totals, Hamilton would have led center fielders in UZR, and finished 6th in DRS.

The same thing that hurts Bruce's defensive rating helps Hamilton. His RngR score last season was 11, and UZR also shows him to have an above average arm for the position (2.3 ARM). As long as Hamilton can stay healthy he will contribute in a big way while he's out in center. There are clear deficiencies in Hamilton's game, but his ability to excel at one of baseball's most demanding positions isn't something to ignore.

Left Field - Adam Duvall

Based on 15 games in left field.

2013 2014 2015
DRS

-1
UZR

1.7

2015 MLB Leaders: Starling Marte (24 DRS) & Yoenis Cespedes (18.8 UZR)

Duvall really hasn't played enough meaningful innings in the outfield for these metrics to tell us much. For most of his career in the minors he's alternated between first and third. John Sickels wrote in a 2014 scouting report on Duvall, "His athletic limitations show up on defense where he's merely mediocre at third base. He's performed decently in limited exposure at first base, so perhaps he can be a corner utility type with a power bat."

He's been slowly making the transition into the outfield since being traded to the Reds. While he may struggle initially, it's important to remember how limited his reps in left field have been. His power is promising, and if he's hitting well he shouldn't cost the Reds too many runs at a corner outfield spot. Once again, the presence of Billy Hamilton can help limit some of Duvall's athletic deficiencies.

Catcher - Devin Mesoraco

I left Mesoraco for last because these stats aren't the best measure of catcher defense. Over the past year, Baseball Prospectus has come out with a number of new catching metrics to help us assess the a player's value behind the plate. How has Mesoraco fared up to this point?

The first stat worth looking at is Mesoraco's framing numbers. In any season he's spent time behind the plate he's cost the Reds at least 0.5 runs with his ability to frame pitches. What's encouraging to see is the trend in this metric. In 2013 his framing runs total was -11, in 2014 it was down to -5.8, and in very limited action in 2015 it was -0.5. It would be nice for Mesoraco's framing to continue to improve, but it's definitely on an upward trend.

BP's comprehensive fielding measurement (fielding runs above average/FRAA) shows Mesoraco to be a below average defensive catcher who is improving. In 2013 his FRAA was -9.8 (mainly due to his framing). There was over three runs of improvement in 2014 to -6.0. Again, the major culprit here was framing. BP views Mesoraco as hovering around a league average catcher in terms of blocking runs and throwing runs.

Conclusion

At four defensive positions the Reds should safely have an above average player in the field this season. That number increases to five depending on how you handle Bruce's UZR/DRS split. There are plenty of reasons to worry about the team this year, but the defense shouldn't be a concern. As mentioned above, Billy Hamilton can really help limit some of the concerns about range in the corner outfield spots. Also, Suarez's move to third should help boost his defensive contribution. Things will likely be hit and miss for Mesoraco behind the plate as he recovers from surgery, but if he's able to continue his development it will be a huge boost for Cincinnati (and a young pitching staff).