The Rays have yielded some runs, and even lost some games, thanks to a few ugly errors. In a few cases players have muffed routine plays, in others failed to execute on more challenging plays. Kevin Kiermaier committed a few head-scratching misplays; Brad Miller has already committed seven errors in this young season. The Rays are eighth in the league in errors with 28.
Errors hurt the team, embarrass the players and aggravate fans, but they actually tell us very little about a team’s defense. Errors aren’t a good way to judge defensive effectiveness because they punish players with range who have many more opportunities from getting to balls. It gives too much “credit” to the infielder who dives but fails to get near the ball, and too little to the infielder who dives and snags the ball but then makes an errant throw.
Ultimately, there are many ways to be a good defender. You can make an abundance of good plays or you can limit the bad. You can do a bit of both.
In the end the defenses’s job is to turn balls in play into outs. Baseball Prospectus records Defensive Efficiency (DE) which is the inverse of BABIP, offers a good, transparent and simple way to see how successfully defensive players carry out this essential task. It gives you, in essence, the percentage of times the defense makes the out.
How well have the Rays done using this measure?
In overall Defensive Efficiency the Rays defense ranks fourth in the league at .726. after coming in thirteenth in the league last year with a .702 Defensive Efficiency rating.
Not all balls in play are equal, and BP breaks it down by ground ball, fly ball, and line drives.
Defensive Efficiency on ground balls is where the Rays have made the biggest gains over last year. Last year they were worst in the league at .721. This season they have improved to fourth in the league with a .783 Defensive Efficiency rating. That is an absolutely massive gain of .062 BABIP on ground balls.
This improvement is consistent with overall better outcomes from the infield. They are turning so many more balls in play into outs. Baseball Prospectus also tracks double play percentage as a percent of balls into play when a double play was possible (runner on first with less than two outs). The Rays have improved from 11.35% to 13.54%.
The Rays outfielders have fallen to .892 from .913 last year. That places them tied for 14th in MLB. Specifically in the outfield it’s more about limiting damage from extra bases and in that regard they have allowed the sixth lowest wOBA on fly balls with a .328.
Another area where the defense has done a better job is converting line drives into outs. Last season the Rays ranked 25th in baseball with a .349 DE rating on liners. This season it has improved to a .404 DE rating on liners which ranks tenth in baseball.
Some plays have been difficult to watch. Players deserve the criticism when missing a play, but don’t let the awful blind you to the good. The defense isn’t perfect, but that’s not a reasonable expectation.
Before we lose too much time debating DRS vs. UZR, let’s get back to the fundamental purpose of having players in the field. The Rays defenders have done a terrific job in turning balls in play into outs and that’s what matters most.