Reds defensive work not to be taken for granted

CINCINNATI – I’ve never been one for extravagant statistics. I will leave that to people much smarter than I, but I do know you can quantify anything if you try hard enough and you can make stats pretty much say what you want them to say in order to fit your premise.

My premise isn’t a wild one. The Reds play really good defense. Day-in, day-out. Not just the spectacular, highlight reel stuff but the solid, understated stuff like getting back on a pop up into the no man’s land between the infield and outfield and not having to make a diving stab at the ball. Stuff like hitting the cut-off man on a throw in from the outfield so that guy who just singled in a run doesn’t move up to second and into scoring position. Or simply fielding the ball cleanly and throwing the runner out at first base.

Watch enough other teams and you realize it’s not always the case.

“If you can’t catch the ball, you can’t play on my team,” said manager Dusty Baker. “In San Francisco I had Gold Glovers everywhere. I had capable guys who worked at it in Chicago and guys here. Go out and watch Joey (Votto) and Brandon (Phillips). You watch (Zack) Cozart. And I’ve got a staff that works them.

“This game is not one to give away extra outs.”

The Reds have committed just 20 errors in their first 49 games, compared to 38 by their opponents. They are tied for the fourth fewest errors in the Major Leagues. Of the eight teams that have committed 20 or fewer errors through Saturday’s games, six of them are at least five games over .500 and four of them lead their divisions. The Reds are one-half game behind St. Louis, which has just 18 errors in 48 games.

Defense might be mundane but not on this team.

“We do take pride in it,” said Cozart. “I think that’s a pitcher’s best friend when he’s pitching and he knows that most of the time that you make a routine play. We’re making good plays, too, but the routine plays are outs and that’s key. It’s keeping guys off base. If the pitcher has confidence in that then they’re going to pound the strike zone and let the guy hit it and not try to pitch around guys. They’re not scared to let them hit it.”

It’s such a simple concept. Let ‘em hit it.

Cozart has a .982 fielding percentage. Again, in today’s day-and-age of sabermetrics that quantify everything up to how well oiled a player’s glove is, it’s an old school stat. And that’s just fine with me for my premise.

The Reds as a team have a .989 fielding percentage, tied for the best third-best average in all of the Major Leagues. Cozart, Phillips, Todd Frazier and Jay Bruce are all ranked in the top 10 defensively at their respective positions, while the Ryan Ludwick replacement squad of Chris Heisey, Derrick Robinson, Donald Lutz and Xavier Paul in left field would be ranked 11th with a .990 fielding percentage if they were one person.

Yes, I know, not all of their games and chances have been in left field but you get my drift.

“The biggest thing with any defense is we don’t make a lot of errors and as long as the plays that should be made are made, that’s all you can really ask for. The good thing is we’ve got a couple of guys on this team who are capable of making exceptional plays,” said pitcher Homer Bailey. “There are some balls that Cozart and Brandon make look routine even though if you watch it from above they went a pretty good ways to get it.”

Votto’s work at first base gets overshadowed because of his prowess at the plate. He doesn’t buy into the theory that defense is contagious within a team but it is still a collective effort of each player working on his own game. You have to know your surroundings, especially playing next to a second baseman like Phillips who does get to so many balls. Only Howie Kendrick of the Angels has had more chances than the 225 Phillips has had this season.

“The team aspect of it is when the shortstop and second baseman figure out how to coordinate with one another,” said Votto. “I pay attention to where (Phillips) is at. Sometimes he’ll be leaning more towards a certain side and I’ll adjust to that and respect his range but also I’ll go get what I can and take away any hits I can.

“I don’t really know their psyche but I think if you’re a pitcher that had a defense that struggled behind you, you would have a hard time feeling confident in them. It would be frustrating and make you feel a little powerless at times.”

There’s not much reason for those feelings on this team.