Stat Geek: Small Market Teams Are Winning With Defense

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Oakland Athletics

The Athletics lead MLB in defensive efficiency. Photo by Natalie Litz.

Money can buy a lot of things. Cars. Vacations. Happiness. What it doesn’t buy, apparently, is a winning baseball team. The Angels, Phillies, and Giants all have payrolls north of $140 million, and they have all been virtually eliminated from the playoff race, while the small market Athletics, Rays, and Pirates all appear destined to play October baseball. I decided to take a look at some team stats to figure out how these teams have managed to remain competitive in an unfair market.

Stat Geek Perspective

You can peruse the opening day payrolls for all 30 teams here. For the purposes of this article, I’ve extracted the ten smallest payrolls for analysis:

TEAM

PAYROLL

RECORD

Houston

$24,328,538

37-77

Miami

$24,328,538

43-71

Tampa Bay

$57,030,272

66-48

Pittsburgh

$66,289,524

70-45

Oakland

$68,577,000

65-49

San Diego

$71,689,900

52-63

Colorado

$75,449,071

53-64

Minnesota

$75,562,500

51-62

Kansas City

$80,491,725

60-53

Cleveland

$82,517,300

62-54

If the season were to end today, five of these teams would finish with winning records, while the Rays, Pirates, and Athletics would all be making the playoffs. The common thread among these three teams is that they all play very good defense. The easiest way to quantify a team’s defense is to look at their defensive efficiency – the rate at which teams convert balls put into play into outs. You can take a look at the defensive efficiency of all 30 MLB teams at Baseball Prospectus. I’ve pulled aside the DE ratings of the ten small market teams:

TEAM

DE RATING

MLB RANK

Oakland

.729

1

Pittsburgh

.728

2

Tampa Bay

.721

3

Kansas City

.709

10

Cleveland

.707

14

San Diego

.707

17

Miami

.704

20

Houston

.692

28

Minnesota

.690

29

Colorado

.689

30

The trend is undeniable. The top three teams in defensive efficiency are the three small market teams that currently hold playoff spots. Even the two other small market teams that are currently above .500 are in the top half in DE rating, while all five of the losing small market teams have below average defenses.

Before I go into further detail about this phenomenon, I want to briefly take a look at how these teams rank in hitting and pitching. In order to gain an appreciation for how strong the correlation is between wins and defense, we need to determine whether there is a stronger correlation between wins and hitting or wins and pitching. For hitting, I ranked the ten small market teams by wOBA, and for pitching, I ranked the same teams by xFIP (you can click on those links to familiarize yourself with these stats if you aren’t sure why I selected them).

TEAM

wOBA

MLB RANK

Tampa Bay

.328

3

Cleveland

.324

10

Colorado

.320

11

Oakland

.313

15

Pittsburgh

.308

18

Minnesota

.305

21

San Diego

.304

22

Kansas City

.302

24

Houston

.296

28

Miami

.277

30

 

TEAM

xFIP

MLB RANK

Pittsburgh

3.66

6

Tampa Bay

3.72

9

Cleveland

3.84

14

Kansas City

3.92

18

Miami

3.93

19

Colorado

3.98

21

San Diego

4.08

23

Oakland

4.19

27

Minnesota

4.25

29

Houston

4.46

30

Two things stick out to me here. First, the Astros are really bad at baseball. But you already knew that. The second thing is that hitting and pitching at an elite level are not requirements for a small market team to be competitive. Two of the five winning teams rank in the bottom half of both wOBA and xFIP. The Pirates have the best record in baseball while having a slightly below average offense. The Athletics have one of the worst xFIPs in baseball, but their excellent defense has allowed their pitching staff to put up the third best ERA in the American League.

A Market Inefficiency

These trends do not demonstrate that defense is more important than hitting and pitching. Out of the 15 winning teams in baseball, 11 of them rank in the top half of MLB in wOBA, and 12 of them rank in the top half in xFIP, while 10 of them rank in the top half in defensive efficiency. All three of these facets of the game are important, but I believe that large market teams are underrating the importance of defense when assembling their rosters.

Let’s take a look at the starting position players for the Rays, Pirates, and Athletics that did not come from those teams’ own farm systems. Analyzing these outside acquisitions can give us a feel for how these small market teams utilize their scarce financial resources.

PLAYER

TEAM

POS.

oWAR

dWAR

Jose Molina

Rays

C

0.4

0.0

James Loney

Rays

1B

1.8

-0.3

Yunel Escobar

Rays

SS

1.8

1.2

Kelly Johnson

Rays

LF

1.7

0.2

Russell Martin

Pirates

C

2.7

1.8

Clint Barmes

Pirates

SS

-0.3

1.2

Coco Crisp

A’s

CF

1.4

0.4

TOTAL

 

 

9.5

4.5

I’ll contrast this group of players with the players meeting the same criteria for the three sub-.500 teams that have the highest payrolls: the Phillies, Giants, and Angels.

PLAYER

TEAM

POS.

oWAR

dWAR

Michael Young

Phillies

3B

1.4

-1.8

Ben Revere

Phillies

CF

1.4

-0.4

Delmon Young

Phillies

RF

-0.1

-1.6

Marco Scutaro

Giants

SS

3.0

-0.3

Andres Torres

Giants

LF

0.1

-0.2

Angel Pagan

Giants

CF

1.0

-0.9

Hunter Pence

Giants

RF

2.8

-0.5

Chris Iannetta

Angels

C

1.7

0.1

J.B. Shuck

Angels

LF

0.6

-0.6

Josh Hamilton

Angels

RF

0.3

-1.1

TOTAL

 

 

12.2

-7.3

Josh Hamilton

Fantasy Freaks know that Josh Hamilton has been a disappointment at the plate in 2013, but he hasn’t been very good in the field, either. Photo by Keith Allison.

 

Of course, one season of fielding data can be a smallish sample size, so I looked at these players’ career oWAR and dWAR totals to see if the trend continued. It did. The small market players put up career totals of 86.5 oWAR and 47.9 dWAR, while the large market players put up career numbers of 148.7 oWAR and -3.1 dWAR. This shouldn’t be too surprising based on the reputations of the players on these lists: defensive whizzes like Clint Barmes and Jose Molina are affordable to cost-conscious front offices, while sluggers like Josh Hamilton are too expensive for small market teams.

I’ve never heard the cliché “defense wins championships” used in the baseball context before. Maybe it should apply here, at least for small market teams in 2013. Ironically, if that cliché were to become popular in baseball circles, the large market teams might catch on, and the market inefficiency would dry up. But for now, teams like Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh are taking advantage of the situation.

Mark Busch

Mark Busch

I'm a die-hard Pittsburgh sports fan who had the privilege of watching Jerome Bettis and Mario Lemieux raise championship trophies. I'm a stat geek who loves sabermetrics and is still searching for that one advanced stat to tell me that the Pirates didn't actually suck at baseball during my childhood.
Mark Busch

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