There are many things you can point to as legitimate reasons why the Cincinnati Reds languish in last place in the National League Central for what seems like the umpteenth year in a row. Poor play on the road, the inability to win close games, and a largely stagnant offense have plagued them all season, for instance. But while the trend of moves the team emphasized over their busy winter seemed to de-prioritize one particular aspect of the roster - defense - so far that’s hardly been a problem, at least relatively speaking.
Defensive metrics have long been flawed in many ways, something that become obvious when they blatantly disagree on one single individual’s performance. That said, at least one measure from FanGraphs rates the Reds team defense as the 7th best in all of baseball this season, even after jettisoning their single most dynamic defender over the winter (Billy Hamilton) and replacing him with a career 3B (Nick Senzel). More specific metrics like UZR, UZR/150, and the likes aren’t quite as high on the team’s defense, but all still rate the Reds no worse than the middle of the pack. And if errors are still your thing, it’s hard to ignore that the Reds have committed the fourth fewest all season, which leaves only the team’s persistent shifting as the go-to target for armchair managers to critique so far.
Part of the reason why so many of us are intrigued by the work done by MLB.com’s Statcast research crew is because they’ve begun to use the advanced technology now available to them to begin to revamp many of these defensive metrics, measuring so much more of what goes on in the field of play around batted balls than simply whether an out was recorded. One new such metric was just released: jump, an attempt to measure the initial reaction outfielders have when the ball first comes off the bat, as detailed by MLB.com’s Mike Petriello. It certainly makes sense to try to quantify that, seeing as the three obvious component of an outfielder making a catch on a ball hit in their vicinity would seem to be reaction time, sprint speed, and the ability to actually catch the ball in a glove before it hits the ground.
The thing is, the initial numbers sure as heck don’t seem too high on the reactions of the Reds everyday outfielders. Senzel, as you would expect from the CF, ranks as the best of the bunch on the initial leaderboard of feet covered vs. average (+0.3), but still only checks in as the 32nd overall OF among the 102 with enough chances to qualify. Flanking him are Yasiel Puig (69th, -1.4) and Jesse Winker (100th, -3.8), with Winker worsted only by Detroit’s Christin Steward and Pittsburgh glacier Melky Cabrera.
Since this is purely and outfield metric at this juncture, that does tend to jive with more of the specific looks at the overall Cincinnati team defense. For one, Jose Iglesias is clearly the team’s best overall defender, but he’s an infielder by trade. Focusing purely on team OF defense, FanGraphs seems to concur with what Statcast’s Jump research indicates, as the Reds team OF UZR/150 ranks 25th among the 30 MLB teams, while their range checks in at 26th overall.
Perhaps that’s precisely why the Reds employ shifts as often as they do. Giving their weakest defenders the most likely advantage sure seems to be a valuable thing to use as a hedge if it’s obvious that their overall defensive abilities are not their respective strengths. Factor that in with the career reputations of the players the Reds have used in the OF this year - each of Matt Kemp (gross), Jesse Winker, Yasiel Puig, Derek Dietrich, and Phil Ervin rank as net negative defenders per FanGraphs DRS in their careers while Senzel had never even played OF professionally - this data does seem to reinforce the idea that the overall scheme of team defense has been prioritized more so than simply the talents of the individuals with their gloves.