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Major league teams measuring defense more closely

The Nats drafted shortstop Danny Espinosa largely because of his ability with the glove. "We watched him play a lot of times with a lot of different sets of eyes," Mike Rizzo said.
The Nats drafted shortstop Danny Espinosa largely because of his ability with the glove. "We watched him play a lot of times with a lot of different sets of eyes," Mike Rizzo said. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

One day last June, Mike Rizzo, then the Washington Nationals' interim general manager, walked into the office of team President Stan Kasten to pitch a trade proposal: The Nationals, Rizzo said, had the opportunity to acquire a player that Rizzo and his lieutenants believed might be the best defensive center fielder in baseball -- at a reasonable price. The only catch: The guy wasn't currently playing center field. He was playing left.

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Intrigued, Kasten asked to hear more. Nyjer Morgan, Rizzo said, was miscast as a left fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Nationals' scouts and their numbers-crunchers, armed with complex defensive stats, agreed that Morgan, were he moved to center and kept there, could be the best in the game.

A short time later, the Nationals pulled the trigger on a trade that sent wayward outfielder Lastings Milledge and fallen closer Joel Hanrahan to Pittsburgh for Morgan and lefty reliever Sean Burnett -- a deal that, for a short time at least, transformed the Nationals' entire 2009 season.

"We were scouting [Morgan] visually and applying some advanced defensive metrics at a position [left field] we weren't going to play him at," recalled Rizzo, who became the Nationals' full-time general manager in August. "That was a great scouting effort. . . . I don't think the industry knew what kind of center fielder he was."

Until a broken wrist ended his season in late August, Morgan hit .351 for the Nationals out of the leadoff spot, stole 24 bases in 31 attempts, and enlivened the clubhouse with a seemingly limitless supply of one-liners and dished-out nicknames.

On defense, meanwhile, Morgan fulfilled Rizzo's prophecy: Statistically speaking, he was, in fact, the best defensive center fielder in the game -- putting up a UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games) of 40.5 for the season, according to http://www.Fangraphs.com, by far the best among center fielders who spent at least 400 innings at the position.

"I kept teasing Mike" after the Morgan trade, Kasten said. "I said: 'C'mon! You're not this good of a scout. You can't be this good.' "

Whether they realized it or not, the Nationals, with that move, were helping to advance an industry-wide trend that has taken hold over the past few years: making moves, evaluating players and building rosters with defense as the primary focus.

No longer is the quality of a player's glove a secondary concern behind his bat, the way it was during the so-called Steroids Era. Now, increasingly, it is the primary motivation behind individual deals and offseason philosophies -- particularly for progressive, smaller-market franchises that came to see defense as an undervalued asset in a marketplace that traditionally emphasized power hitters and starting pitching.

"Defense has become a way to find value," Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro said. "But obviously, the more [teams that] gravitate there, the less it's an inefficiency in the market -- which is what eventually happens in any market."

This winter, in fact, even the richest teams built their offseasons strategies around defense. The defending World Series champion New York Yankees, for the most part, stayed out of free agency this winter, but made a major trade that upgraded their defense in center field (Curtis Granderson) and left field (where Brett Gardner moves over, replacing the defensively challenged Johnny Damon).

Meantime, their arch rivals, the Boston Red Sox, let slugging left fielder Jason Bay walk away without so much as a firm offer, then essentially replaced him with three-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder Mike Cameron, with Jacoby Ellsbury moving to left -- improving two positions with one move. The Red Sox also upgraded their defense at third base (two-time Gold Glove winner Adrián Beltre) and shortstop (Marco Scutaro) through free agency.


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