PHOENIX — Paul Goldschmidt excused himself briefly, then returned to his locker stall with a pair of needle-nosed pliers. Goldcshmidt can manually fix most knots on his first baseman’s mitt, but this one in the webbing needs extra attention. He dug and tugged until the knot was remade to his liking, then put his tools aside.
Witness the Diamondbacks’ dedication to defense, in real time.
And, yes, their defense has tightened quite nicely in recent days.
The D-backs (34-35) have not consistently put all three phases of their game together in defense of their NL West title, but defense has been a constant as they look to get over .500 for the first time since May 4 in a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs at Chase Field this weekend.
If not too many have noticed, well, that comes with the territory, no matter how much or how little is covered.
“We all know that offense is more sexy,” said bench coach Alan Trammell, a four-time Gold Glove winner and a three-time Silver Slugger winner.
“You hope that defense is a constant. It is not always that way. It is not always that easy. But it is something you have a little bit more control over. It certainly has been a constant this year. We hope if we can get back into this thing, that is a big part of it.”
The D-backs have been the best defensive team in the NL for about a month now. They have committed two errors since May 26, a span of 22 games and 198 innings. The D-backs have the fewest errors in the league (32) and consequently the highest fielding percentage (.988). They have thrown out the highest percentage of potential base stealers.
The statistic manager Kirk Gibson likes most is their record in those 22 games — 13-9 — a testament to the cumulative effect of getting to that one extra ball, or making that one more accurate throw, or being positioned in just the right spot.
“We tried to move guys around a little more and pitch to the game plan. It’s worked pretty good up to this point,” Gibson said. “Guys are catching the ball. You can be where you want to be, but you still have to catch it. We have done that, yes.”
Willie Bloomquist, playing his first full season as a regular at shortstop, has the highest fielding percentage among starters at the position, and the D-backs’ other shortstop, John McDonald, has not committed an error.
Left fielder Jason Kubel leads the majors with 10 outfield assists, nine from left and one from right, after throwing out Seattle’s Kyle Seager attempting to stretch a single into a double Wednesday on a ball hit that Kubel had to back-hand down the line. Justin Upton has the third-highest range factor among NL right fielders.
The advanced metrics are just as positive. According to one used by baseball-reference.com, the D-backs have saved 22 runs with their defense this season, second only to Atlanta in the NL.
Montero, who has thrown out 52.5 percent of runners attempting to steal, is rated as the most valuable defensive catcher. Gerardo Parra and Chris Young are two of the top four outfielders in runs saved above average, and Upton is slightly behind them. The strength in the middle is evident in the infield, too. The D-backs’ shortstops have three errors, the fewest in the league. The second basemen, primarily Aaron Hill, also have only three. First basemen Goldschmidt and Lyle Overbay have three errors combined while positioning themselves closer to the hole, making it more difficult for opponents to shoot a ground ball into right field.
You better believe the pitchers have noticed.
“It’s pretty damn solid,” Daniel Hudson said. “You look up the middle, it’s about as solid as you are going to get. Outfield, we have guys who can run it down and guys who can throw people out. And can really pick you up if you are having a bad inning. When guys are back there making plays, not just making the routine plays but the pretty spectacular plays, it gives you a lot of confidence. You just go after guys and let them hit it.”
The better the defense, the fewer pitches a staff accumulates. The effect can be felt in a game and over a long season. Trevor Cahill, a ground-ball pitcher, knows that he does not have to always be so fine.
“If I am going good, hopefully I am getting some ground balls,” Cahill said. “The more range they have, the more hits they take away. They are making the routine plays and also the web gem-type plays. It’s one of those things, it also gives you momentum going in to hit. If someone makes a good play and hits the next inning, they have a little bit of momentum from that.”
It is not as much about web gems as it is about being consistent, Bloomquist said.
“The object is to try to give them only 27 outs and not give them more than that,” he said. “I think any manager, any pitcher, all they’ll ask of you is that you make the routine play and turn the routine double play for them.
“You want that confidence from your pitching staff. You want that confidence as a defense, to be able to make the plays when you need to. You catch it and you throw it to the right base. That’s the focus, just go out and make the routine plays.”