NLCS Preview: Defense

Over the next two days, we will break down the National League Championship Series in three parts: offense, defense, and pitching.

PHILLIES DEFENSE: The Phillies have long been among the best defensive teams in the National League, but, as I noted in the Division Series preview, the team is aging. With the Phillies only hitting .203 in the NLDS and with an even tougher pitching staff around the corner, defense takes a more important role if the team’s offensive struggles continue. Chase Utley leads all NL players with one postseason home run and four postseason RBI. Buster Posey is the only person left in the NL playoffs who’s hitting over .300. It’s like we’ve died and gone to 1912, and under those circumstances it’s important to make as few fielding mistakes as possible. Though age is starting to catch up with Placido Polanco and Raul Ibanez, the Phillies still make very few errors. With as many as three games being played in tiny AT&T Park, decreased range should be less of a factor.

The only new defensive development from the NLDS is Chase Utley’s pair of throwing errors in Game 2. For those of you flashing back to last year’s NLCS, Utley managed to get over his case of the postseason yips, and he played flawless defense for the last eight innings of Game 2 and in Game 3. It’s something to keep an eye on, but until Utley starts tossing relay throws into the right field seats, I wouldn’t worry too much.

GIANTS DEFENSE: This Giants defense poses a real conundrum to me. Aubrey Huff is such a bad defensive first baseman the Giants routinely sub in Travis Ishikawa in the late innings. Another famous first baseman who was routinely subbed out for defense in the playoffs? Bill Buckner.

The Giants have Pat Burrell patrolling left field. Burrell plays the outfield the way I imagine someone drags a large sack of sand up a hill–with great effort and very little joy. Baseball-Reference lists the left side of the Giants’ infield, Pablo Sandoval and Juan Uribe, at 5-foot-11, 245 lbs., and 6-foot-0, 230 lbs., respectively, to which I can do nothing but laugh. If Sandoval sand Uribe only weigh a combined 475 pounds, then I’m the Queen of Sheba. Even though the Giants have replaced Sandoval in the lineup with the not-quite-so-immobile Mike Fontenot, on paper it looks like I can find only one word to describe the San Francisco defense: dreadful.

However, FanGraphs places San Francisco’s team UZR at 56.4, second-best in the major leagues this year. I couldn’t make any sense of this figure, so I asked someone who knows more about sabermetrics than I do, Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley, to share any theories he might have. His best guess involved a combination of small sample size (UZR takes a couple seasons to stabilize), the small ballpark they play in, and the quality of the Giants pitching staff.

Just as a good defense makes a good pitching staff better, a good pitching staff makes the defense’s job easier. Giants pitchers induce a higher percentage of infield popups than any other team, 12.8% of all balls in play against the Giants are popped up, 1.9 percentage points higher than the second-place Rays, and half again the major league average. What’s more, the Giants allow the fifth-fewest line drives by percentage (the Phillies, incidentally, are No. 1). What this means, from a practical perspective, is that the Giants have an easier time of fielding than any other team in the game. The preponderance of popups is borne out by the fact that the Giants have the most putouts in the major leagues in 2010, but the fewest assists.

Other notes: UZR thinks Giants CF Andres Torres is the second coming of Willie Mays. Among outfielders with more than 1000 defensive innings this season, Torres is second in UZR/150 behind only New York’s Brett Gardner. Also, would-be basestealers were 230-for-289, an 79.6% success rate. For a run-happy team like the Phillies, facing Buster Posey could be like Christmas in October. So are the Giants really the defensive juggernaut they’re purported to be, or are they a statistical mirage that lies at the intersection of three or four happy coincidences? I remain unconvinced.

EDIT: After a couple angry comments from Giants fans, I went back and rechecked my numbers on opponent stolen base totals, and not only did Buster Posey throw out 23 of 62 would-be basestealers (a 63% success rate), my totals were far off for the team. Opposing basestealers were 115 of 164 (70.1%) against the Giants on the whole, and most of those came against Eli Whiteside (who the Phillies won’t see except in the event of some catastrophic injury to Posey) and Bengie Molina (who the Phillies won’t see unless they flip over to the ALCS on TV).  I don’t know where I got the previous number from, apart from maybe clicking on the wrong column on FanGraphs. So I take back my Christmas-in-October comment. I’m sorry, Giants fans, not only that you had to suffer through watching six months of that offense, but that I, though my error, disrespected Buster Posey, Tamer of Horses and Destroyer of Worlds. My bad.


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