The title of the article is an allusion to Schott’s Miscellany, which you should definitely check out if you never have and feel compelled to know that a group of larks is called an exaltation or that a member of the 32nd degree of Freemasonry is known as a Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret.
–Important Early-Season Defensive Leaders–
Defense is not a category in typical fantasy leagues, but I don’t think it’s universally safe to ignore it in making fantasy decisions. In particular, the defensive play of newly promoted major leaguers can make or break their chances at playing time, and the defensive success or struggles of all players can lead to changes in positions and therefore eligibilities. It’s early in the season, but there are several players I’ve had my eye on that have already shown a clear tendency in their defensive numbers. First, let’s take a look at the positive performers.
Michael Saunders is scheduled to rejoin the Blue Jays this weekend, but just when we expected the team to have to make a choice, Jose Bautista strained his shoulder and could miss a week of his own. Fortunately, that injury does not look serious enough to put Bautista on the disabled list. That means that either Kevin Pillar or Dalton Pompey will likely be knocked out of the lineup about when the calendar flips to May.
Fantasy owners have to root for Pompey because of his stolen base potential, and while neither Jays’ outfielder has produced a ton of counting stats to date, Pompey has walked at a decent clip (8.6 percent). That’s pushed his on-base percentage to .310, much better than the free-swinging Pillar (1.8 percent walk rate, .268 OBP). I’d interpret the team’s decision to play Pompey in center as a sign that they prefer him; Bautista is entrenched in right field and Saunders is a capable corner outfielder (seven Runs Saved in right field in 2014) but is overmatched in center (-25 Run Saved from 2013-2014).
Meanwhile, Pompey has already saved two runs in center this season. Pillar might well thrive in center, as well—his seven Runs Saved in left field gives him the best total in baseball, non-Andrelton Simmons division—but his success in the corner spot might make the team’s decision easier to move him around as the fourth outfielder.
Several other young outfielders have had some early defensive success this season. Mookie Betts probably earned himself a bit of a leash with both his play in 2014 and in spring training this season as well as Rusney Castillo’s injury in Triple-A, but his tremendous play in center for the Red Sox (five Runs Saved) should shelter him from his BABIP-cold start at the plate (.200/.262/.345 with a .209 BABIP). He’s entrenched in center this season and beyond.
Anthony Gose has been the outfield anchor of the surprisingly-defensive-minded Tigers so far this season. His 3 Runs Saved in center field does not separate him from platoon-mate Rajai Davis (two Runs Saved) so far this season, but Davis has been closer to a neutral defender in center in his career. Gose is hitting .406 with a .571 BABIP, 10 strikeouts and no walks, but keep in mind that his defense could potentially earn him the full-time job before you trade him hot.
After years of Matt Kemp in center field, Joc Pederson was almost definitely going to represent a defensive improvement for the Dodgers. Still, it’s nice to see him performing well. That could help keep him in the majors if the strikeouts (34.6 percent strikeout rate) continue to be a problem. I’m not sure how I’d never heard of Paulo Orlando before this season. With solid strikeout and walk rates in the minors, speed, and potentially excellent defense (two Runs Saved in right field in just 45 innings), he should continue to play while Alex Rios recovers from a broken hand. I’d pick him up in deeper formats to try to enjoy the 10 or so steals he could provide in the next month or two.
In the infield, there are a couple of surprises at third base in Nick Castellanos and Will Middlebrooks. Last season, Castellanos was brutal to the tune of -30 Runs Saved, far and away the worst total in baseball. I’m not ready to take two weeks as evidence of a complete turnaround, but a major improvement could keep him at third base in the future. Otherwise, he could potentially move to the corner outfield.
Middlebrooks was never as bad as Castellanos, but he cost the Red Sox 16 runs between 2012 and 2014 despite substantial missed time. So far this season, he has two Runs Saved as well as three home runs. It helps to be healthy. If he can not be bad defensively, I expect the Padres to give him that job over Yangervis Solarte. Finally, Johnny Giavotella has locked up the second base job for the Angels with his nice start both offensively and defensively. Josh Rutledge’s poor defense is what inspired me to write this column in the first place last season.
–Important Early-Season Defensive Trailers–
Perhaps even more important to fantasy owners, poor defensive play can turn productive offensive players into part-time players or even lead to their demotions.
Danny Santana is about a week away from reaching 20 games played at shortstop, which will earn him eligibility for 2016 on most platforms. I’ll go ahead and predict that 2016 will be his last year with that eligibility. Santana already has -6 Runs Saved this season. He has struggled just as much at the plate, and the Twins can afford to be patient with him. Still, Santana has a much better defensive track record in the outfield.
Speaking of struggling shortstops, Ian Desmond has been an error machine over the first few weeks of the season, but I’m not sure what the Nationals can do about it. Even when Anthony Rendon returns and Yunel Escobar can move off of third base, he’s not a great candidate to push Desmond to second base. Traditionally, Escobar has been a good defender, but he cost the Rays 23 runs at shortstop in 2014 and already cost the Nationals two runs at third base this season. That coupled with his declining stolen base production suggests to me that Escobar has lost range from his defensive peak. I expect Escobar to move to second when Rendon returns and the Nationals to simply deal with the negative that Desmond is at shortstop defensively because of his offensive production.
In center field, the Nationals have already demoted Michael Taylor with the return of Jayson Werth from the disabled list, and Taylor looked overmatched in center in his two weeks with the team, which could delay a return. The Wil Myers experiment in center field is going about as poorly as you’d expect, but the Padres clearly selected power over defense with their offseason moves, so perhaps he’ll stick there. Yonder Alonso has hit .354/.448/.458 in the early going, so it seems he won’t make it easy for the team to move either Myers or Kemp to first base once Melvin Upton returns from the DL (if he even is a factor for the team).
It’s important to note that Trevor Plouffe (-2 Runs Saved) and David Freese (-4 Runs Saved) have been bad defensively in both 2015 and historically because of their teams’ potential options to replace them with prospects this season. Everyone knows about Miguel Sano for the Twins, but Kyle Kubitza of the Angels has been very productive in the minors and is an intriguing player to watch in fantasy because of moderate power and speed potential.
Finally, Didi Gregorius and Marcus Semien are two other players to keep an eye on. Neither player has an extensive track record at shortstop in the majors, and neither player has performed well defensively so far this season. Gregorius faces more direct competition in the form of Stephen Drew, but Gregorius is likely not fantasy-relevant in any case. I’m not sure who can really threaten Semien on the A’s current roster.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt