I was drving home the other day while listening to a local sports show and a caller brought up the terrible defense (four errors) played by the Rangers in the 12-1 loss to Oakland. As the host and caller discussed the defense by the Rangers, the caller stated that he didn't have any numbers to back up the claim, but it seemed, to him, that there were more errors being committed now than in the past.
That got me to thinking about the Rangers over the years and I came to the conclusion, without looking anything up, that they were probably better on defense now than in the past due to players like Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre and many others who have played here over the past three or four years. The Rangers have come a long way on defense since the days of Benji Gil, Dean Palmer and Hank Blalock. As far as the entire league, I believed the caller was probably right, since Barry Larkin and Ozzie Smith have since retired.
I started with 1960 to last year comparing errors to chances to make a play and fielding percentage all the way to last year. I didn't use UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) or any defensive metrics, just three simple categories to see if there was a trend. Information was compiled through Baseball Reference.
The 1970's saw an increase in in both chances and errors due to two more teams being added with the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners. The addition of the designated hitter in 1972 has to be considered as well as more balls were put into play than in the 60's. There was an increase in chances and also in errors but the fielding percentage stayed the same as the previous decade. There was a work stoppage in 1972 as well, which did account for 86 lost games but not enough to affect the overall fielding percentage.
The 1980's saw an increase in chances by nearly 4,000, but a decrease in errors resulting in a higher fielding percentage. The 1981 players' strike could be looked at as a factor to the decrease in errors, but the increase in chances offsets that. Simply, they played better defense in the 1980's than in the previous two decades including a fielding percentage of 98 percent in 1987 and 1988 which had not been accomplished in the 60's and 70's. Sure-handed players like Cal Ripken, Jr., Manny Trillo and Ozzie Smith, among others, are sure contributors to the decrease in errors.
The trend continued in the 90's with more chances and fewer errors. Players like Barry Larkin, Ryne Sandberg, Dale Murphy and others played in a decade where defense shined. More athleticism could be a factor with bigger, stronger and faster players playing in this decade. Steroids or not, the defense was again better than the previous three decades.
The 2000's were the first decade in this study without a labor issue or expansion. Chances increased dramatically over the 1990's and errors again decreased. Fielding percentage jumped from .981 to .983 from the 90's to the 2000's which included three straight years of a fielding percentage of 0.984.
So far in this decade there has been a slight decrease in chances, which are probably attributed to the rising strikeout rate in Major League Baseball. Most teams in Major League Baseball have placed a premium on pitching and defense, as noted by the .985 fielding percentage last year. 2013 had the fewest errors in a season since 1967, not including years with a work stoppage.
The defense in Major League baseball is getting better as we go, or more flyballs are being hit now more than ever before or both. I don't have that answer.Every decade saw either an increase in fielding percentage or it stayed the same but with more chances on balls in play.
So to the caller on the radio on my drive home the other day. No, defense isn't getting worse and there are not more errors. The fact is you are viewing more games on tv or the internet than you did as a kid and Ranger baseball is under a microscope compared to just 10 short years ago so you are seeing more of them. So....that's the way defense go.
Patrick Despain is the former CEO of ShutdownInning.com and co-host of a new Rangers podcast launching later this month. You can follow him on Twitter @PatrickDespain or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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