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The 30: Defense saves (or sinks) in this week's MLB power rankings

In this week's edition of The 30, Jonah Keri looks at four teams whose Gold Gloves (or lead ones) have helped or hurt their hopes.

Pitch framing, route efficiency, Defensive Runs Saved (by shifts and otherwise): Never in baseball history have we been better able to quantify the impact of a team’s ball-catching ability.

Yet despite all these detailed metrics and teams’ keen awareness of them, vast gaps in defensive performance have dramatically influenced this year’s standings. Being aware that great pitching and heavy hitting wins games doesn’t guarantee that you’ll field a killer rotation or stacked lineup, and the same is true on defense. You can know all about the importance of good glove work and still employ a bunch of dudes who stink at catching the ball.

The analytically inclined Athletics are staring at another losing season thanks in large part to this disconnect, and the Tigers’ recent progress could get stunted by iffy defense of their own. On the flip side, the first-place Cubs can count airtight D as another of their many strengths, and the Dodgers lean on their own defense as a remedy against disappointing performance in other areas.

The defense can never rest. It’s Week 10 of The 30.

Best "Still Got It" of the Week: Hideki Matsui

When we think of Old Timers’ games, we usually imagine graying players meeting up to exchange laughs, maybe bloop a single or two, then call it a day. On Sunday in the Bronx, Hideki Matsui had other ideas.

Facing David Cone, Matsui annihilated a thigh-high hanger down the the middle of the plate, launching the ball into the second deck in right field. The majesty of the homer was impressive; the casual bat drop and slow walk-and-watch up the first-base line was delightful. Cone’s hands-on-head look as the ball soared to the heavens? Hilarious.

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A league-worst defense has sent to the A’s to last place in the AL West.

30. Atlanta Braves (18–44 record, minus-110 run differential, last week: 29)
29. Minnesota Twins (19–43, minus-105, LW: 30)
28. Cincinnati Reds (24–39, minus-99, LW: 28)
27. San Diego Padres (26–38, minus-48, LW: 27)
26. Oakland A’s (26–36, minus-58, LW: 26)
25. Philadelphia Phillies (29–34, minus-69, LW: 20)
24. Arizona Diamondbacks (28–37, minus-31, LW: 25)
23. Los Angeles Angels (27–36, minus-34, LW: 19)
22. Milwaukee Brewers (30–33, minus-38, LW: 24)

It’s been 13 years since Michael Lewis’s Moneyball hit the shelves, yet to this day, its core message is misunderstood by many, particularly those who never read the book. That message is this: Forward-thinking teams look for market inefficiencies to exploit, rather than hewing to any one specific team-building strategy.

A few years after Moneyball came out, the undervalued commodity du jour started to shift. Where Billy Beane and other analytically inclined general managers once coveted undervalued on-base percentage hounds, the target instead became defense. But just as OBP stopped being an underrated asset, appreciating defense became a mainstream concept: When the Cubs signed Jason Heyward to a $184-million contract coming off a 13-homer season, everyone in the game understood why.

This year’s Oakland roster was built with that change in mind. With ballhawks much better appreciated than they were a few years ago, the A’s rolled into this season featuring a lineup that in some ways more closely resembled the 2003 model. Even at the most demanding defensive positions on the diamond, the A’s appeared to punt defense in favor of players whose bats might have been undervalued. Unfortunately, that strategy has backfired. According to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved, A’s defenders have allowed 49 more runs than the average team, by far the worst mark in all of baseball.

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Many culprits can take the blame. Per DRS, the only position at which the A’s don’t rate as below average this season is rightfield, where a Josh Reddick-led crew grades out at zero runs allowed above average. It’s ugly everywhere else. Danny Valencia is raking at third base, but he and his hot-corner compadres rate as worst in the league defensively. Jed Lowrie and friends form the fourth-worst group of defenders at second base. Marcus Semien’s defense hasn’t been as bad as it was during last year’s 35-error nightmare, but he still ranks in the lower half of AL shortstops defensively. Meanwhile, Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley are dead last in the league by DRS and rate as below average (Phegley) or awful (Vogt) by pitch-framing metrics.

Bad defense can compound pitching weakness, and Oakland’s pitchers have paid the price. Other than surprisingly dominant (and now injured) veteran lefty Rich Hill, the rotation has been a disaster. Every single pitcher who’s made a start for the A’s this year giving up more than a hit an inning—in many cases, a lot more than that. Overall, Oakland’s starters rank 29th in the majors in park-adjusted ERA.

If the A’s keep on the same path and finish in or near the cellar, GM David Forst and company will surely look back at the team’s leaky defense as one of the biggest causes of that result. Then again, if everyone in the business grasps the importance of defense and is willing to pay for it, fixing the problem for 2017 might not be easy.

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Central Casting

In a flawed division, the Tigers try to overcome three major defensive holes.

21. Houston Astros (30–35, minus-17, LW: 18)
20. Colorado Rockies (30–33, minus-7, LW: 23)
19. Tampa Bay Rays (29–32, plus-2, LW: 22)
18. Miami Marlins (32–31, minus-19, LW: 16)
17. New York Yankees (31–32, minus-20, LW: 21)
16. Chicago White Sox (31–32, minus-3, LW: 15)
15. Kansas City Royals (32–30, minus-21, LW: 14)
14. Detroit Tigers (32–30, plus-7, LW: 17)
13. Pittsburgh Pirates (32–31, plus-7, LW: 13)

If you’re a decent but flawed team taking aim at a division title, this season is a tale of two Centrals. If you’re the Cardinals and Pirates trying to chase down the front-running Cubs, it’s hard to escape the feeling that a wild-card berth might be the best-case scenario. On the other hand, if you’re any AL Central club that’s not the the Twins, the crown is very much in play.

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No team in baseball has seen its recent fortunes improve via other teams’ incompetence more than the Tigers have. The Royals finally halted a long losing streak by winning two straight over the weekend, but they sit just two games over .500, with those two wins coming after eight straight losses. That’s still better than the team that K.C. beat: By dropping two straight to the Royals, the White Sox are now below .500 and sit in fourth place, a far cry from the six-game division lead they enjoyed just a few weeks ago. Those two slumps from rivals, combined with some good but not great recent play in Detroit, has the Tigers suddenly tied for second place, within striking distance of a good but hardly perfect Indians team.

But for Detroit, there’s a complicating factor in play. With 21 more runs allowed than the average AL club, only the woeful Twins and A’s have fared worse on defense. Fixing the problem won’t be easy either. Of the team’s three worst defensive positions, two are manned by players who would require an act of Congress to be bumped out of their jobs.

In rightfield, J.D. Martinez leads a group that rates as eight runs worse than average, ahead of only the Twins; Martinez is also one of the most prolific power hitters in the league and is hitting a solid .273/.343/.500 this season. At third base, a Nick Castellanos-led crew has put up a minus-seven for the season, better than only the A’s; Castellanos is in the midst of a big breakout season, hitting .305/.335/.545.

That leaves centerfield as the lone defensive black hole that could theoretically be upgraded soon. At nine runs below league average, Tigers centerfielders rate as second-worst in the AL, ahead of only those division-leading Indians. Cameron Maybin recently returned to the lineup and is hitting a cool .375/.433/.432, making him seem like an immovable object in his own right despite the shaky D. But those numbers will crash back to Earth soon, given Maybin’s unsustainably stratospheric .421 batting average on balls in play (his career BABIP is .317) and poor track record when it comes to health.

It’s possible, however, that none of the obvious trade deadline sellers have a centerfielder on the roster who would constitute a significant upgrade at the position for Detroit and also be gettable in a deal. If the Tigers do march on with that many big holes in their defense, then, they’ll need a catalyst to complement the big bats in their lineup. Luckily, an early candidate has already emerged.

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Holding On

The Dodgers’ defense has kept them competitive, despite injuries and shaky hitting taking their toll.

12. Los Angeles Dodgers (33–31, plus-36, LW: 11)
11. Toronto Blue Jays (35–30, plus-16, LW: 10)
10. New York Mets (34–28, plus-21, LW: 7)
9. Seattle Mariners (34–29, plus-55, LW: 9)
8. St. Louis Cardinals (35–28, plus-74, LW: 12)
7. Cleveland Indians (35–27, plus-47, LW: 8)

Coming into this season, no team offered a greater disconnect between projection systems and man-on-the-street sentiment than the Dodgers. The computers loved Los Angeles’ depth and big-name talent, figuring that the roster’s quality would win out. Meanwhile, plenty of Dodgers die-hards wondered if the team’s brass was a little too cute in its quest to find maximum value, and if passing on the likes of Zack Greinke and David Price missed the point, given the franchise’s massive war chest.

With 40% of the season in the books, it’s the doubters and cynics who can feel vindicated. The three-time defending NL West champs sit in second place, well behind the front-running Giants and with a record that would shut them out of a wild-card spot if the season ended today too. But here’s the thing: Dodgers pitchers have done a decent job this year, even beyond Clayton Kershaw’s brilliance. Instead, it’s an offense that both statheads and more traditional fans liked that has let the team down.

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For a team that ranks just eighth in the NL in runs scored, the problems start in the outfield. At the start of the season, it looked the Dodgers would actually have too many players out there. Then things started to unravel. Andre Ethier hit the disabled list to start the season. Yasiel Puig turned into a shadow of the phenom he was as a rookie, batting just .237/.283/.360 and landing on the DL himself. Carl Crawford played so poorly, the Dodgers simply designated him for assignment and stand poised to eat tens of millions of dollars in owed salary.

With too many second basemen on the roster, the Dodgers have tried to use Howie Kendrick to cover for all of those injuries and weak at-bats, and Kendrick has rewarded them by batting a terrible .219/.276/.284. Enrique Hernandez batting .205/.282/.357 as a supersub hasn’t helped either. Throw in Yasmani Grandal and Justin Turner both hitting well below recent norms, and you have a disturbingly lackluster offense.

Still, there are reasons for optimism. Corey Seager is starting to emerge as the young star most expected him to be, and Trayce Thompson is hitting an excellent .269/.350/.531, establishing himself as the potential steal of the off-season deal between the Dodgers, Reds and White Sox. Moreover, if you believe in regression toward the mean, you hope that Los Angeles can shake off some awful batted-ball luck that’s left the team dead last in the majors in batting average on balls in play.

Silver linings abound on the run prevention side, too. The Dodgers rank as the third-best defensive team in the NL, saving 31 more runs than the average club according to DRS. Despite the offensive struggles, Puig, Turner and Grandal have all flashed defensive results that rank near the top of the league at their respective positions. Kershaw, meanwhile, is threatening to obliterate the record books, sitting on an impossible 122 strikeouts with just six walks in 100 2/3 innings.

But if you want a true wild card who could affect the Dodgers’ chances this year, keep an eye on Julio Urias. The 19-year-old rookie lefty got lit up in his first two big league starts, allowing nine runs and five walks over 7 2/3 innings. But his two starts since then have been considerably better: 9 1/3 innings pitched with just three runs and two walks allowed and 14 strikeouts. After pitching five effective innings Sunday night against the Giants, Urias could start getting more work, too: Manager Dave Roberts said Urias will start on his regular rotation turn next time out, with a pitch limit that could rise to 90–100 pitches.

Put it all together, and we might very well see the computers vindicated before long.

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Carry On, Heyward Son

The fly-catching maestro is finally starting to hit, too.

6. Baltimore Orioles (36–26, plus-27, LW: 6)
5. San Francisco Giants (38–26, plus-26, LW: 4)
4. Texas Rangers (39–24, plus-38, LW: 5)
3. Boston Red Sox (36–26, plus-85, LW: 2)
2. Washington Nationals (39–24, plus-76, LW: 3)
1. Chicago Cubs (43–18, plus-162, LW: 1)

At what point does defensive dominance render offensive futility moot? Cubs fans have had plenty of time to ponder that question this year in considering the performance of Jason Heyward.

Given an eight-year, $184 million deal over the winter, Heyward was the highest-paid position player of the off-season. The deal built in some expectation of offensive improvement—a reasonable consideration given that Heyward was hitting the open market at just 26 years old. Though he cuts an imposing figure at 6’5”, 245 pounds, Heyward had consistently ranked among the best overall base runners in the game, too, further boosting his value. Still, a huge part of the Cubs’ interest in Heyward came from his terrific defense: With 48 combined runs saved above average in 2014 and ‘15, Heyward had established himself as the unquestioned best defensive rightfielder in the game.

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This year, that offensive improvement has been nowhere to be seen. Instead, Heyward’s working on the worst numbers of his career: Through 53 games, he’s batting a miserable .240/.336/.346, ranking him in the NL’s bottom 10 for slugging percentage. On the other hand, with 10 more runs saved than the average rightfielder, he’s on pace to top his defensive contributions from last season. Over a full season, he would be about as valuable defensively as the NL’s best catcher, Buster Posey, was with his bat last season. That’s a healthy reminder that despite our greater recognition of the importance of defense, we can still underestimate just how valuable a truly elite defender can be.

The good news is that Heyward is actually starting to hit more lately too. In his past 15 games, he’s batting a strong .304/.381/.536, including a banner game Sunday against the Braves in which he reached base five times in six trips to the plate. Given that the cost of a win (as measured by Wins Above Replacement) might now be approaching $7 million, Heyward’s still sparkling D combined with some intriguing progress with the bat could start to make his mega-deal look a lot less cumbersome soon.

Moreover, in many ways Heyward is a perfect microcosm of how his team is built. Jake Arrieta’s superhuman abilities acknowledged, the Cubs now trot out five starting pitchers with sub-3.00 ERAs, for which Chicago’s 44 Defensive Runs Saved (the best mark in baseball) deserve a lot of credit. (And that’s even after including the seven errors the Cubs committed during a 13-inning stretch over the weekend against Atlanta.) Third base rates as the club’s only below-average defensive position this year, with even leftfield turning into a position of strength once big-bat, bad-glove slugger Kyle Schwarber was lost for the year.

As much as Arrieta’s arm and the bats of Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant and Dexter Fowler get the ink, if the Cubs do continue this rampage through the league and take aim at a World Series, stingy defense could prove to be an invaluable key to their success all year long.