Despite a statistical revolution in public facing data over the past decade, the one area that has been the hardest to quantify is defense.
Traditionally, fielding percentage was the lone indicator of ability as it balances the number of errors made with the number of opportunities. During Derek Jeter’s five Gold Glove Awards in seven years at shortstop, the concept of range became better understood. Creating more opportunities with better range can more than make up for increased errors.
The metrics for defense continue to evolve into more reliable indicators. Statcast has done wonders for this advancement through Outs Above Average (OAA). By quantifying every ball put in play over the course of the 162-game season, our perception of a player’s ability is no longer limited to the number of errors they might make.
Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) by the Fielding Bible and Defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR) by Baseball Reference are two more tools to help us determine if a player is struggling at his given position.
Here are nine defenders who would benefit from a change in position:
The Philadelphia Phillies have had a defensive problem for the past several seasons. Extraordinary efforts by two-time Gold Glove Award winner J.T. Realmuto, 2023 Gold Glove Finalist Bryson Stott and center fielders Brandon Marsh and Johan Rojas have managed to keep Philly’s overall numbers from being the worst in the league. However, flaws abound.
GM Dave Dombrowski has loaded the roster with five offensive-minded players making at least $20 million, more than any other club in 2024. Kyle Schwarber (-19 OAA, lowest in the Majors last season) was forced to play 103 games in left field as Bryce Harper occupied the designated hitter role until July 21 following reconstructive Tommy John surgery last offseason. When Harper was able to throw comfortably, he was stationed at first base for the first time in the outfielder’s career.
This kept Nick Castellanos roaming around in right field. The former third baseman started the transition to the outfield during his age-25 season with Detroit in 2017. Results weren’t much better than at third base.
Over the course of his 11-year career, Castellanos has been worth -12.8 dWAR, sapping some value from his above-average bat. Since the start of the Statcast Era in 2016, only Didi Gregorious has a lower Outs Above Average at -76.
Even when filtering out Castellanos’ work at the hot corner and his first full-season in right field in 2018 — his -23 OAA is second-worst behind only Matt Kemp’s -26 OAA in 2016 — he’s still 10th-worst in terms of OAA at -35.
Despite any need the Phillies have about removing Castellanos from the green expanse of grass at Citizens Bank Park, they’ve got no other option. He can’t become a full-time DH, as he’s better than Schwarber in the outfield, and Harper, who himself has -30 OAA in right field, appears to be a first baseman going forward. Perhaps Castellanos could move back to the dirt at first base, but (once again) the option doesn’t exist.
Teoscar Hernández is in a similar boat with the new franchise. The Los Angeles Dodgers free agent acquisition is at -19 OAA since 2018, tied for 15th-lowest amongst outfielders. While he was used a career-high 28 times as the designated hitter by Seattle last season, that option won’t be available for him in 2024 as Shohei Ohtani will be firmly entrenched there when healthy.
Hernández has never had a positive dWAR during his eight seasons in the Majors. He did have 1 DRS, according to the Fielding Bible. Expect him to be positioned for success with the Dodgers defensively. The 31-year-old will be in L.A. on a one-year deal to play left field and, depending on where he ends up in 2025, may require more time at DH with his next club.
Then comes superstar Juan Soto. At just 25 years old — still younger than the average player in Triple-A — it may come as a surprise that this perennial MVP candidate has defense issues. Soto was selected a 2022 finalist for an NL Gold Glove Award even though his -16 OAA was actually worst among full-time outfielders. (Only five right fielders actually qualified for the award that season.)
At -23 OAA since debuting in 2018, Soto isn’t all-world at everything.
Aaron Boone, manager of the New York Yankees, has already hinted that 6’7” Aaron Judge will primarily play center field in 2024. Considering DH Giancarlo Stanton has been limited to a couple hundred innings in the outfield each season, Soto will need to keep running to the outfield once again. The short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, plus a return to that position after being in left field at Petco Park in 2023, means much less ground to cover than years prior, but a shift to designated hitter could be likely before Soto reaches 30 years old.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
When Vladimir Guerrero Jr. tied for the second-most errors as a third baseman in 2019, after only 96 games at the position, the Toronto Blue Jays immediately moved him to first base. Though his fielding percentage has improved greatly, no one has confused him at first base with 11-time Gold Glove Award winner Keith Hernandez.
Beginning with 2020, Guerrero Jr. has been the worst defender at first base with -23 OAA. Both dWAR (-1.5) and DRS (-9) have also rated him less than favorable last year.
Like Soto, Guerrero Jr. is young (24) and experienced. He’ll be a free agent following the 2025 season and his value on the open market will be much greater with a glove in his hand. If he wants to mimic Miguel Cabrera and avoid becoming a full-time designated hitter at the age of 36, he’ll need to make some drastic adjustments.
Rafael Devers and Max Muncy are a pair of third basemen who reached 30 home runs and 100 RBI last season. They both led their respective league in errors at the hot corner in 2023 and have an identical -15 OAA at the position since 2018, lowest of any player who hasn’t shifted away from the position yet.
The most glaring similarity between the two: each player is locked into his position despite a shift to first base being the better defensive fit.
The 27-year-old Devers signed an 11-year deal worth $331 million with the Boston Red Sox this time last year. Though his power numbers reflect a player well adept for being a top-tier first baseman, Devers has 24-year-old Triston Casas blocking his move to the other corner of the diamond. His arm is in the 84th percentile, but his range was in the fourth, so shifting to second base is not much of an option either.
As for Muncy, he’s played all around the diamond for the Dodgers. He nearly breaks even in terms of Outs Above Average at first and second base, but is much worse at third base. Freddie Freeman is at first base, Ohtani will serve as the DH and Mookie Betts — the six-time Gold Glove Award winning outfielder — will play second base this season. So, there’s nowhere for Muncy to go.
When Luis Arráez made his big league debut with the Minnesota Twins in 2019, he entered the game at shortstop where he’d end up making his first error. (The player he replaced, Jorge Polanco, would have made this list a few years ago before moving over from shortstop to second base.)
A failed attempt at playing third base in 2021 resulted in Arráez becoming more of a first baseman during his first batting title in 2022.
As a second baseman, the reigning National League batting champ has been worth -26 OAA, worst in the sport since his debut. As a first baseman, Arráez lacks the typical thump of a first baseman. His five-year career has produced only 24 home runs.
What he lacks in power, he more than makes up for in contact. Rod Carew, Hall of Famer and former Twins second baseman who was also traded by the team the year following a batting title, still managed to be selected to the All-Star Game nine times after moving to first base despite a single-season career-high 14 home runs at the position.
The Miami Marlins don’t seem to be too concerned by the defense at second from Arráez as they acquired 1B Josh Bell in their push for the postseason last July. Perhaps his 0.6 dWAR and 4 DRS are much closer to the in-house analytics used by the denizens of loanDepot Park.
One year into the San Diego Padres’ 11-year, $280 million pact with Xander Bogaerts and the team has a bit of a problem. (There are a lot of issues in San Diego right now, but we’ll stick to Bogaerts’ defense.)
In the Statcast Era, Bogaerts has the third-lowest OAA at -33. Much of that is due to a -17 OAA season in 2016. Even when focusing purely on the past five seasons, his -15 OAA is seventh-lowest. The Fielding Bible had Bogaerts as the fourth-worst (-4 DRS) in 2023 among shortstops with 1,200 innings at the position. Baseball Reference’s dWAR has been much kinder to the Aruba native.
The Padres allowed Bogaerts to stay at shortstop in 2023 despite other options in Ha-Seong Kim and Fernando Tatis Jr. Kim is a free agent after this season, and Tatis Jr. has settled nicely in right field. Both players won a Gold Glove Award for their work. (Kim won at the utility spot, becoming the first Asian-born infielder to be honored.)
Then there’s the curious case of Bo Bichette. Some metrics suggest he’s the worst defensive shortstop in the game right now. Others disagree absolutely.
For some reason, none of the common defensive metrics seem to agree upon Bichette’s ability at the position. Outs Above Average have him as the lowest among those still starting at the position.
(Note: Bichette is actually fourth, but all those ahead of him since 2019 are no longer big league shortstops. Didi Gregorious didn’t play at all in 2023 and has only 308 games to show for the past five seasons, yet his -49 OAA is the lowest. The Dodgers moved Amed Rosario to second base last season and the aforementioned Polanco has been manning the keystone position since 2021.)
Baseball Reference has Bichette at 2.4 dWAR, and the Fielding Bible credited him with five defensive runs saved, good for 13th-best among shortstops in 2023. Even from a quantitative standpoint, Bichette made a fraction of the errors that he made in previous seasons. Last year brought only eight miscues, while the combined campaigns of 2021-22 saw 47 errors.
There you have it. Even when there are advancements in measuring defensive prowess, there can be glaring contradictions with the public-facing metrics afforded us during these times.