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From 2010 to 2019, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ defense was the best in baseball by a wide margin. After slipping back to near average in 2020, the 2021 Diamondbacks might have had the worst defensive season in franchise history. A year later, that seems like a distant memory.
After posting a major-league worst minus-48 defensive runs saved in 2021, the Diamondbacks finished sixth with 55 defensive runs saved in 2022. They also led baseball with 44 outs above average — 12 more than the next highest team.
Most of the team’s defensive value can be attributed to three players: center fielder Alek Thomas, right fielder Daulton Varsho and first baseman Christian Walker, all of whom were named Gold Glove finalists at their respective positions on Thursday. Varsho was also named a finalist in the utility category, a new Gold Glove award for players who play multiple positions.
Diamondbacks outfield defense among best in baseball
It is hard to wrap one’s mind around the season that Varsho had defensively. After opening the year as a center fielder, Varsho saw significant time at catcher when Carson Kelly went down with an injury in early May. He finished the year playing yet another position, where he logged more innings than anywhere else.
“I asked him to shift over to [right field],” manager Torey Lovullo said. “He understood the reasons why, and more credit should go to him in that area for me than anything.”
Varsho graded out as an elite defender at both center field and right field, primarily because of his lightning-quick reaction time and his ability to identify a direct path to the baseball. Varsho led the National League in Statcast’s outfield jump metric.
“Anytime a ball goes up in right field, I know he’s going to have a great break on it,” Lovullo said. “If you’re as data-driven as we are and you understand exactly what’s going on, he’s taken very specific routes to the baseball. There’s no wasted movement.
“Daulton just has this innate ability to find out where that ball is going right off the bat.”
Varsho may not win either award for which he is eligible, with the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts having played more than twice as many innings in right field and advanced metrics favoring the St. Louis Cardinals’ Tommy Edman in the Gold Glove race for utility players. Nonetheless, Varsho’s elite outfield performance in 2022 was nothing short of remarkable. After being drafted in 2017, he did not log his first inning in the outfield until 2019, when he played four games in center field and 76 as a catcher for Double-A Jackson.
Given how good Varsho was in center field early in the season, it is hard to believe that the Diamondbacks moved him to right field later in the year to make room for someone else. That decision spoke volumes about the team’s belief in Thomas.
In 112 games as a center fielder, the 22-year-old did not disappoint. Thomas ranked fourth among National League center fielders in both defensive runs saved and outs above average. He had a strong case for the Gold Glove award as of mid-August, but San Diego Padres center fielder Trent Grisham shot to the top of defensive leaderboards over the season’s final two months. Nonetheless, Thomas is a deserving finalist, and he figures to be a consistent contender for the award in the coming years.
In addition to Varsho and Thomas, former Diamondbacks left fielder David Peralta was also named a Gold Glove finalist. Before Peralta was dealt to Tampa Bay at the deadline, that trio started in the same Diamondbacks outfield together a total of 18 times. That’s eighteen days of Peralta in left, Thomas in center and Varsho in right — an entire outfield of Gold Glove finalists.
Roughly a month after the Peralta trade, Diamondbacks top outfield prospect Corbin Carroll made his major-league debut. In an albeit limited sample of 32 games in the field, Carroll’s defensive metrics were Gold Glove caliber.
Add in the consistently reliable defense that the team received from Jake McCarthy, Jordan Luplow and others, and it is easy to see why the D-backs’ outfield was a defensive powerhouse in 2022.
Christian Walker laps competition in defense metrics
Based on the numbers, Walker was the best defensive first baseman in baseball in 2022 by a wide margin. He had 17 defensive runs saved and 14 outs above average. No other MLB first baseman amassed more than six in either category. Suffice it to say that if Walker does not win the NL Gold Glove award at first base, something is seriously wrong with MLB’s selection process.
Granted, defensive metrics like defensive runs saved and outs above average are far from perfect. Walker did make a few mental mistakes throughout the season that did not count against his DRS and OAA. On the other hand, cerebral plays like this one suggest he could be every bit as good on defense as the metrics say he is.
Based on the numbers, Walker’s biggest defensive asset is his ability to make plays moving to his right. On those plays, Walker graded out as not only the best first baseman in baseball but one of the best infielders at large. Walker’s 12 outs above average moving to his right was tied for second in baseball, trailing only the Detroit Tigers’ Jonathan Schoop.
Because of his defensive prowess and a solid bounce-back season with the bat, Walker was one of the 40 most valuable position players in baseball in 2022, based on fWAR. Even if his bat takes a step back from where it was this year, his defense could keep him a top-10 first baseman for years to come.
Contributions from the rest of the team
Outside of elite contributions from Varsho, Thomas and Walker, the rest of the D-backs defense was just okay, actually bordering on below-average in 2022. The chart below shows the team’s defensive runs saved by position in both 2021 and 2022.
A few items stick out. First, the D-backs took a step back at catcher. Carson Kelly was fine, but backup Cooper Hummel had minus-5 defensive runs saved in just 118.1 innings. Varsho accumulated minus-3 DRS when filling in while Kelly was down with injury.
The D-backs also took a step back at shortstop, where Nick Ahmed played only 16 games before having season-ending shoulder surgery. Geraldo Perdomo got the majority of the reps in his place and graded out slightly below-average, though his numbers improved toward the end of the year. Ahmed should be ready for the start of 2023 and could see significant time at short alongside Perdomo.
After finishing last in defensive runs saved at second base in 2021, the D-backs took a big step in the right direction in 2022. However, that difference probably says more about how poor prospect Andrew Young’s defensive metrics were last year than anything positive about 2022. Ketel Marte graded out below average once again, and it is reasonable to suggest that he might be best used as a designated hitter in future years.
Outside of first base, center field and right field, the table above actually paints an uninspiring picture of the current state of the D-backs’ defense. In fact, if you add up all the numbers, you get 27 DRS. Didn’t we say earlier the team had 55?
That discrepancy exists primarily because we haven’t accounted for runs saved by the shift yet, which is counted separately from the positional DRS stats given above. The D-backs have long been one of the best teams in baseball at using the shift to their advantage. That was no different in 2022. Their 32 team shift runs saved were tied for fifth in baseball.
The downside of drawing so much defensive value from the shift is that it will be heavily restricted in 2023. Granted, there are ways to creatively work around the new rules and the D-backs will undoubtedly explore all of their options. Still, it will be difficult to replicate the defensive advantage that the shift has afforded them in recent years.
On the flip side, the D-backs do have a few things going for them. Emmanuel Rivera played very well defensively in 2022 and could boost the team’s defense should he get everyday reps in 2023. Ahmed was one of the best shortstops in baseball prior to his shoulder injury. Plus, having Carroll in the outfield every day will only further boost an already elite group. With the team’s best defenders all under team control through at least 2024, the D-backs could be a defensive juggernaut for years to come.
Top photo: David Banks/USA TODAY Sports
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