Braves’ up-the-middle defense eyes noticeable improvement

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Two minutes into his first official appearance with the media as a member of the Atlanta Braves, Brandon Phillips cut a promo for himself and his new middle-infield partner, Dansby Swanson: “Web Gems coming to a theater near you in Atlanta.” The veteran second baseman might want to throw his new Gold Glove center fielder on the silver screen as well.

Ender Inciarte’s golden defensive performance masked one of baseball’s worst “up the middle” defenses — shortstop, second base, center field and catcher — in 2016. Fourteen different players cost the Braves runs, in terms of Fielding Bible’s defensive runs saved, at those four positions, a deficiency the team addressed internally with a healthy Inciarte in the everyday lineup and Swanson’s second-half promotion.

The front office’s external moves this offseason offer fewer fielding assurances. If Phillips, who, despite coming off the worst defensive season of his career, owns four Gold Gloves, returns to form he could solidify the infield’s double-play duo until top prospect (and plus defender) Ozzie Albies is ready for primetime. Meanwhile, new catcher Kurt Suzuki’s defense appears to be in decline from his heyday in Oakland, but he threw out runners more consistently than Tyler Flowers and has posted a positive defensive WAR in each of his nine MLB seasons.

Then there’s the year-over-year comparison: the Braves’ Opening Day lineup projects to replace A.J. Pierzynski, Erick Aybar and Jace Peterson from last year’s version with Flowers, Swanson and Phillips in the span of 12 months.

Up-the-middle defense earns its reputation through sheer workload. Of the 50,477 defensive plays recorded in baseball last season — excluding catchers and pitchers — shortstop, second base and center field, respectively, did the heavy lifting by the wide margin. Catchers are on the receiving end of every single pitch thrown. Double plays, defensive alignments, pitch framing … the game’s defensive signatures fall disproportionately on the fielders at the center of the action.

Organizations, in turn, often place their best gloves there. Over the past decade, seven of the 11 leaders in defensive runs saved and 14 of the top 16 in defensive WAR played up the middle. As Phillips phrased his role, “I want to be the pitcher’s best friend.”

“If it gives you one extra out per game, think about that. One extra out per game,” veteran starter R.A. Dickey said when asked the difference a formidable up-the-middle defense makes. “In 33 starts, that’s 33 outs. Break that down. Three outs per inning. That’s a whole game worth of outs that these guys are going to maybe give you. That’s a huge deal.”

Dickey should know. The knuckleballer’s Toronto Blue Jays ranked third league-wide in combined defensive runs saved from the four positions last season, anchored by standout center fielder Kevin Pillar:

1. Angels 36
2. Cubs 35
3. Blue Jays 34
28. Padres -33
29. Braves -35
30. Athletics -39

Atlanta’s biggest question mark remains behind the plate. If Phillips does not pan out, Albies, who projects as the starting second baseman of the future and grades out with a plus arm and glove, will eventually receive the green light after he makes a full recovery from elbow surgery.

Catcher, as general manager John Coppolella restated in spring camp, is a longterm need.

Flowers boasts a reputation as a cunning pitch-framer who works well with pitching staffs, but minus-12 defensive runs saved and failing to nab 60 of 63 potential base-stealers undercut the best offensive season of his career. The Braves are relying on two catchers coming off their worst statistical seasons with the glove with no contingency plan in sight. No top catching prospect is close. Flowers and Suzuki are dependable veterans on bargain deals. Atlanta is betting their defense returns to career-average levels.

Holding all of this uncertainty — Swanson is just 313 innings into his MLB career, though all indications point in the right direction — is Inciarte, who bounced back from an early hamstring injury to give Atlanta pitchers added comfort on fly balls. The Venezuela product finished top-three among qualified center fielders in nearly every defensive category — and, as Swanson noted, that just scrapes the surface of his responsibilities.

“He’s special out there in the outfield,” Swanson said. “Just things he’s able to track down and getting everybody else in position. I think that’s something that kind of goes unnoticed is his ability to know scouting reports and read hitters and put (the outfield) in the right position in order to make a play. He’s kind of the captain out there in the outfield.”

Time will tell how substantial a step forward the group can take, but there’s (almost) no place to go but up.

Swanson was not content in praising the potential upgrades up the middle without commenting on the corners; the Braves rookie, much like his front office, is eyeing a complete defensive resurgence — a sentiment reinforced by Nick Markakis’ solid 2016 performance and Matt Kemp, another second-half arrival last season, turning heads at Disney’s Wide World of Sports after a dedicated offseason training program.

“I don’t think it’s just up the middle. I think you look at the growth everywhere else defensively,” Swanson said. “Freddie (Freeman) is one of the best first basemen in the league. Adonis (Garcia) and his growth at third last year. And then you got Flow (Flowers) and Suzuki back behind the dish. A lot of solid players everywhere and a good defensive unit is just a start to winning ballgames.”