PHOENIX — The spectacular defensive plays are the ones that stand out, and the Diamondbacks have made several. Acrobatic efforts by Didi Gregorius, A.J. Pollock, Cliff Pennington and Paul Goldschmidt have been among the most memorable.
But making the routine play, the correct play, the proper play for the situation, is what D-backs manager Kirk Gibson is striving for this season, and it appears his message has gotten through.
The D-backs have the fewest errors in the National League, 15, the most tangible testament to their efficiency. The new math says it another way: The D-backs have saved 39 runs more than the average team, according to baseball-reference.com.
“It’s probably the strength of our team, the most consistent part,” Gibson said.
“The days of getting up and slugging the ball out of the ballpark after a walk and an error are over. That’s our belief. That’s why the team is built the way it is built. So far, it’s been good. We have to continue to do that.”
The D-backs (26-21) enter a weekend series against the Padres in a three-way tie with the Giants and the Rockies for the NL West lead, and there is no question that their defensive proficiency has helped make up for the injury losses, the failure to produce with runners on base and the occasional inability to close out games that dotted the first seven weeks of the season.
The buzzword is “clean.”
Physical misplays will happen, and there is a tolerance for that part of the game. But it kills Gibson to give anything away, from an extra base because of a throw over the cutoff man’s head to the inability to hold potential base stealers close.
It is part of the reason the D-backs acquired Gregorius in a three-way deal from the Indians via the Reds, versatile Martin Prado from the Braves and outfielder Cody Ross in free agency.
“The GM (general manager Kevin Towers) put together a group of guys that try to play the game the right way,” Prado said. “That’s the most important thing right now. playing defense, doing the little things. We are doing pretty good so far.”
Prado has been the poster guy. Though he has played four positions — third base, second base, left field and shortstop — and had only one day off, he did not commit his first error until the 39th game of the season.
The loss of right fielder Justin Upton in the Prado trade also has had a strengthening effect on the D-backs’ defense because it has enabled Gerardo Parra to play every day in either right field or center. Parra leads the NL with six outfield assists and leads the major leagues in WAR (wins above replacement player) in both right and center. Pollock and Ross have three assists each, and Jason Kubel has two. Virtually every throw has gone to the right base.
“When we talked about what kind of team we wanted to have,” Gibson said. “We talked about building the team on pitching and defense. So you get people who are made to do that.”
The D-backs will cede to an opponent what has been earned, but they want it to stop there. They have given up only six unearned runs, the fewest in the majors, while playing the most innings in the NL.
“These guys enthusiastically have bought into some of the things we want to do — take care of the ball, where to throw the ball, when not to do something,” Gibson said.
“Just understanding you have to slow the game down. Mistakes happen when people rush, when they try to something they shouldn’t try to do. I’m not saying there’s not a time to do that, but there is a big segment of time that it is not necessary. Just take care of the ball. They’ve earned it, let them have it. Don’t let them have any more.”
One of Gibson’s top priorities when he became manager in 2011 was cutting down on stolen bases allowed, and the D-backs have improved appreciably in holding runs by varying pickoff moves and using the slide step to get the ball to the plate more quickly. The D-backs have given up only 15 stolen bases — one every three games — which is tied for the fewest allowed in the NL. They led the majors in fewest steals allowed the last two years (48 in 2012, 61 in 2011) after giving up 115 in 2010.
“That’s something I used to look and say, ‘I don’t get it,’” said Gibson, who had 284 stolen bases in his career. “When you look from where I used to be, I said that’s going to change if I’m ever in charge. I know what people look for. So we’re going to try to make it a deterrent.”
Neither Ian Kennedy nor Patrick Corbin has given up a stolen base this season, and Brandon McCarthy has only permitted one. No one has even tried against Kennedy, and Corbin picked off the only runner who was leaning against him.
“It’s important to keep the guy at first to make them earn two hits to score him,” Gibson said. “You can get out of the inning with a double play. When you throw over, sometimes you throw over just to slow the game down. Sometimes it distracts the hitter.”
It is all part of the plan that has kept the D-backs in virtually even game this season. They have played 19 one-run games and won 11, tied for the most in the majors. Their 6-2 record in extra-inning games is the best.
“Keep the house in order,” Gibson said. “That is the most important part of managing any game.”