Are Braves baseball’s best defensive team?
The sign, which is posted at the base of the ramp that leads from the Braves’ clubhouse to the dugout, lists the franchise’s Gold Glove winners, along with one of sport’s most tried and true cliches.
Defense wins championships.
For Atlanta, it played a part in last season’s National League East title run as the Braves were sixth in the majors in defensive runs saved (46) and saw shortstop Andrelton Simmons emerge as one of the game’s best magicians with his glove, becoming the latest name to grace that sign in the bowels of Turner Field as he won both a Gold Glove and the Platinum Glove as the top overall defender behind a league-high 41 DRS.
Off to a red-hot start this season, winning five of their last six games, the Braves are again subscribing to the blueprint of home runs (21) and quality starts (10), figures that both rank second in MLB.
There’s also the defense. Don’t forget the defense.
"Defense wins games," said right fielder Jason Heyward, himself a Gold Glove winner in 2012. "I feel like it’s been a big underrated part of why we’ve won so many games the last four years."
Atlanta has a MLB-best 13 DRS and ranks second in defensive wins above replacement (12.1), ultimate zone rating (9.4) and UZR/150 (24.6) and 14 players on the roster have positive defensive WARs, led by the outfield of Heyward (3.5), center fielder B.J. Upton (2.7) and left fielder Justin Upton (2.0).
The truly surprising thing in these early goings is Simmons, who had a 31.6 defensive WAR last season, yet sits at just 0.8. He’s turned just five double plays this season, a figure doesn’t even put him in the top 10 among shortstops, which is led by the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus with 12.
However, it’s not as if Simmons’ play is lacking. Just last week he made an absurd throw from the grass — and on his knees — to throw out the Mets’ Travis d’Arnaud at first base.
"That’s (an example of) wanting to catch the baseball," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "That’s wanting to get the out."
No, there are no worries about Simmons, whose DRS last season ranked as the highest since 2003, when FanGraphs began compiling the numbers.
"For Simmons to come and do what he did in his first full season, that’s outstanding. But that’s how he likes to play the game," Heyward said. "He has the knowledge, he has that baseball mind about him that he wants to make every play and be in the middle of everything."
There are some early concerns, though, as second baseman Dan Uggla has a minus-0.2 WAR (though he did make a pair of impressive plays in Monday’s win over the Phillies) and first baseman Freddie Freeman (minus-3.0). But the truth is Uggla hasn’t been north of zero in that department more than once since ’08 and the sabermetric to gauge defensive value has never been kind to Freeman, who has a career WAR of minus-48.7 despite his athletic plays and 10 DRS the last two seasons.
Plus, the Braves haven’t been overly strong in BABIP against of .296 and .694 defensive efficiency are just above the major league average and they’re below the median in fielding percentage (.981).
The early goings have been defined by the spectacular for Atlanta’s defense, including Simmons’ throw to Heyward’s sliding catch against the Brewers in the opening series and B.J. Upton made a pair of running catches in Sunday’s finale vs. the Nationals. He had five putouts and is third on the team with 33.
"(Upton) made some plays in the outfield look fairly easy, but they’re not, going gap to gap," said Gonzalez.
A small sample size is certain to course correct and its’ unlikely the Braves will be at the All-Star Break, let alone the season’s end with more than a dozen players with positive defensive WARs. But there’s no denying the defense has been strong so far, and what’s truly scary is that it has done so with just one of those MLB-leading DRS coming via its best player in Simmons.