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Comparing the Astros and Guardians defense and baserunning

Which team will steal bases and runs from their opponents more effectively in 2023?

MLB: JUN 11 Athletics at Guardians Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Can the Guardians run and glove their way to an American League Pennant?

In previous posts of this series, we learned that Houston has a clear edge over Cleveland in projected batting and that their starting rotation is projected to be slightly better (with less depth) while the bullpens stand roughly as equal with a slight edge to Cleveland. Today, we are able to find two areas where the Guardians are projected to be clearly better than the Astros.

Below, I am providing two tables comparing the Astros and Guardians position players, according to FanGraphs’ Depth Charts, relative to defensive and baserunning value.

FanGraphs provides a metric marked as “Def” which attempts to measure defensive runs above average, primarily using ultimate zone rating for position players and defensive runs saved for catchers, and adjust for positional value to provide a number representative of the number of defensive runs they should be expected to provide over an average player.

Since this is the metric for which FanGraphs provides projections, I’ve compared those numbers. I have also provided the 2023 outs above average numbers for each player for a comparison of how things went according to a different metric for 2022 (small sample size alerts in effect for players like Gabriel Arias, Will Brennan, Mike Freeman, and Richie Palacios).

I did not include Michael Brantley in the Astros’ defensive projections since he seems likely to be strictly a DH. I also took Josh Naylor and Josh Bell’s defensive projections and averaged them, assuming they probably mostly split time between first and DH to create one, full-time defender.

Astros 2023 defensive projections

Position Astros player S-Def Z-Def OAA in 2022
Position Astros player S-Def Z-Def OAA in 2022
C Martin Maldonado 11.9 7.4 n/a
1B José Abreu -15.5 -11.7 1
2B Jose Altuve -2.4 -0.6 1
3B Alex Bregman -0.3 2.9 8
SS Jeremy Peña 3.5 11 7
LF Yordan Alvarez -8.1 -15.8 -7
CF Chas McCormick -1 2.2 7
RF Kyle Tucker -6.5 -2.7 5
Bench C Korey Lee 4.4 8.3 n/a
Bench IF David Hensley -0.5 -5.9 -1
Bench OF Mauricio Dubón 0.2 5.4 6
Bench OF Jake Meyers 1 6.8 7
Totals -- -17.1 7.3 34

Guardians 2023 defensive projections

Position Guardians player S-Def Z-Def OAA
Position Guardians player S-Def Z-Def OAA
C Mike Zunino 9.9 11.5 n/a
1B Josh Naylor -15 -10 2
2B Andrés Giménez 5.7 14.8 13
3B José Ramírez 2.1 6.2 3
SS Amed Rosario 6 4.9 -11
LF Steven Kwan -4.1 5.8 9
CF Myles Straw 6.8 10.2 13
RF Oscar Gonzalez -8.1 -5.7 -6
DH Josh Bell -15 -10 -4
Bench C Bo Naylor 5.2 10.5 n/a
Bench IF Tyler Freeman 4.5 2 -2
Bench OF Will Brennan -1.8 -7.2 0
Bench IF/OF Gabriel Arias -2.9 5 -4
Bench OF Richie Palacios -0.4 -1.6 -1
Totals -- 7.9 36.5 12

Bsr is a metric that combines all baserunning plays into one number designed to tell us how many runs above average a player provided as a baserunner. I have provided Steamer and ZiPS projected Bsr’s for each player as well as the Bsr each player achieved in 2022.

Astros 2023 baserunning projections

Position Astros player S-Bsr Z-Bsr Bsr in 2022
Position Astros player S-Bsr Z-Bsr Bsr in 2022
C Martin Maldonado -2.6 -0.7 -3.9
1B José Abreu -1.5 -0.9 -1.7
2B Jose Altuve 0.5 0.6 -1.5
3B Alex Bregman -1.1 -0.7 -3
SS Jeremy Peña 0.2 0.5 3.7
LF Yordan Alvarez -0.4 -0.8 -0.6
CF Chas McCormick -0.8 -0.6 -1.1
RF Kyle Tucker 1.7 2.6 4
DH Michael Brantley -1.6 -0.5 -0.7
Bench C Korey Lee 0 0.5 --
Bench If David Hensley -0.5 -0.3 --
Bench OF Mauricio Dubón -0.4 -1.2 --
Bench OF Jake Meyers -0.1 0 --
Totals -- -6.6 -1.7 -4.8

Guardians 2023 baserunning projections

Position Guardians player S-Bsr Z-Bsr BSR in 2022
Position Guardians player S-Bsr Z-Bsr BSR in 2022
C Mike Zunino -0.8 -0.6 0
1B Josh Naylor -1 0.1 -3.6
2B Andrés Giménez 1.2 1.4 3.4
3B José Ramírez 2.8 1.4 6
SS Amed Rosario 1.5 0.8 1.5
LF Steven Kwan 1.2 0.1 4.9
CF Myles Straw 3.6 3 7.6
RF Oscar Gonzalez -0.6 -1.1 -1.3
DH Josh Bell -2.2 -0.8 -5.6
Bench C Bo Naylor -0.1 0.6 --
Bench IF Tyler Freeman -0.5 -0.1 --
Bench OF Will Brennan -0.2 -0.1 --
Bench IF/OF Gabriel Arias -0.5 0 --
Bench OF Richie Palacios 0 0.8 --
Totals -- 4.4 4.3 12.9

In past performances, the Guardians dominated the Astros in baserunning, but the Astros were a far better fielding team in 2022, overall. However, in the spirit of these articles, we will go with the projections, which offer more of an attempt to balance various positional values.

ZiPS loves the Guardians defensively, while Steamer has a more measured approach to their expectations. I think it’s useful to note that outs above average has Josh Naylor as an above-average first baseman, while Josh Bell is decidedly below-average there. Perhaps, Bell should be thought of as the primary DH while Naylor tries to lock down first defensively as well as he possibly can. Personally, I think you can count on Kwan and Giménez to continue to improve as defenders, while the projections, generally speaking, calculate that some regression is in order.

The Astros, overall, project to be a better team than the Guardians because the advantages of being a much better-hitting team and having a slightly better rotation are more significant in terms of producing wins than those of having a superior bullpen, being better at running the bases and defending. However, that doesn’t mean that the Guardians cannot find some additional edges over the Astros and other American League teams by continuing to be excellent in defense and baserunning.

As everyone wonders what the effects of shift restrictions, larger bases, and limitations in pickoff throws will be, teams like the Guardians should be well-position both to take advantage of those rules by being aggressive and efficient while running the bases and to limit the damages those rules could cause by playing consistently great defense.

Overall, while completing this exercise, I am certainly tempted to say that a great place to upgrade the team would be to find a good defender who could hit like a league-average hitter to replace Amed Rosario. My guess is that Giménez would move to short and that player — perhaps Arias, Freeman, or Brayan Rocchio — would come in to play second base. I don’t know if this replacement will happen in 2023, but it would seem to be another solid indication that this is likely Rosario’s last season in Cleveland.

As mentioned in my post about offense, it’s tempting to consider replacing Myles Straw with a player like Brennan (or George Valera, if Kwan can move to center) with more hitting upside, but Straw’s defensive value is massive and should continue to be liberally deployed for the team to continue to enjoy an advantage over others defensively. if the Guardians can continue to find value in the margins by taking extra bases, playing quality defense around the diamond to limit damages of harder contact off their pitchers, and getting relief arms to maintain reduced walk rates and maximized strikeout rates, I expect them to outperform projections again in 2022, bringing them closer to the Astros in winning percentage as well as competition in a divisional or championship playoff series.

Make no mistake — there is still a talent gap between Houston and Cleveland, at least on paper. So we will see how or if the Guardians can close that gap, and if baserunning acumen and fielding prowess can help in that effort.