How Much Does Defense Matter, Anyway?


Much has been made about the Phillies decision to go all-in on offense, at the expense of a defense that by available metrics, already wasn’t very good in 2021. Of course defense matters, but is a (possibly historically) bad defense a death sentence for a team’s World Series hopes?

Regarding the Phillies’ defense in 2021, it was bad, yes, but not really close to the worst defense in MLB, at least by outs above average. Philly was 20 outs below average last year, the seventh-worst in baseball and sandwiched between two playoff teams (the Brewers at -18, and the Yankees at -22). More on that in a moment.

Two of the big additions in Philly this offseason were Kyle Schwarber (-10 OAA in 2021) and Nick Castellanos (-7 OAA in 2021). Both should provide plenty of pop into an already strong Phillies’ lineup, but probably aren’t going to turn around the Philly outfield defensively. Last year’s Phillies squad had just three players that were above average defensively by OAA, and out of those players, only Jean Segura (9 OAA) is projected to get significant playing time in Philly this season.

Of course, runs are runs, whether scored or prevented, and Philly is not out here trying to be the best at OAA.

The offense should carry Philadelphia this year, but can a team truly be successful in October with a bottom-tier defense? It depends on what your definition of success is. A full third of playoff teams since 2016 (when OAA was first tracked) have had negative OAA, but no below-average defensive teams have won the World Series. Meanwhile, out of the top 10 OAA teams, only the 2019 Cubs failed to make the playoffs at all. Outs above average, as with any publicly-available defensive metric, is imperfect. However, it does seem to be on to something. Here are the top 10 OAA by playoff teams since 2016:

*reached World Series

Four of the top ten defensive teams in baseball of the past six seasons have reached the World Series. Two teams, meanwhile, have reached the World Series with a negative OAA – the Dodgers in both 2017 (-21 OAA) and 2018 (-15 OAA). Notably, the World Series the Dodgers won in 2020 was also their best defensive year (12 OAA).

The Phillies will have their work cut out for them, at least in terms of postseason success. Perhaps they’ll take comfort in knowing that an elite defense is also no guarantee of success, as neither of the top two teams in OAA of the past six years to make the playoffs made their league’s Championship Series. The 2017 Twins lapped the field in terms of OAA, with 63– the next highest being last year’s Cardinals at 49. That Minnesota team lost in the Wild Card round to the Yankees, 8-4.

The Dodgers’ 2017 and 2018 examples are instructive. In both years, Los Angeles was top-5 in both wRC+ in offense and in pitching fWAR for the season. To overcome a below-average defense, teams really do have to be excellent elsewhere, if not flat-out dominant.

Philadelphia has put its eggs in the offensive basket and are banking on outscoring their opponents on the way to the playoffs. That could offset what is sure to be a below-average defensive team, but to do so they’ll have to perform historically well at the plate. Well-rounded teams simply have more room for error, whether it be over the course of 162 games or in a short playoff series, though there’s no precise formula that guarantees success either, at the plate or in the field.

 

(Photo by Icon Sportswire) Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@PalmerDesigns_ on twitter)

 





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