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Arizona Diamondbacks 20th Anniversary Team: All-defense line-up

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If we wanted to put the best-fielding line-up in franchise history, what would it be?

Arizona Diamondbacks v New York Yankees

Following up on Michael’s series of polls, voting for the best overall player, I figured it might be interesting to look at the best players the Diamondbacks have had over the year, in various, narrower aspects of the game. I’m starting off with defense. The metric here is Baseball-Reference.com’s defensive WAR (dWAR), mostly because the Fangraphs alternative of UZR, is only available from 2002 on, which obviously hampers the prospects of anyone who played before that a bit! dWAR is also available for catchers. Rather than going for total dWAR over a player’s career, I’ve opted to select based off “peak value,” to highlight the defense of their best single season.

So, here are the best defensive players at each position on the diamond, over the first 20 years of the Arizona Diamondbacks franchise. There’s no minimum for innings played: fortunately, almost all of the candidates appeared in at least 2/3 of their games at a single position, so I didn’t have too many difficult decisions, to try and figure out at which position they were eligible!

C. Miguel Montero, 2011 (1.5 dWAR)

Montero’s defensive reputation evaporated with how his time with the Cubs ended, after a game where he allowed seven stolen bases. Last year, teams were 31 of 32 stealing bases against him. That’s not good. But it was very different in his time with Arizona: Miggy steadily improved his CS%, going from 21% in 2008, to 26% and 31% the next two years. Then there was 2011, where he threw out an impressive 40% of base-stealers: league average was only 28%. Teams largely gave up trying: the D-backs only allowed 61 SB all year, forty-five below the mean for the league. They were also second-lowest for wild-pitches and below average on passed balls.

1B. Paul Goldschmidt, 2015 (0.9 dWAR)

The standard belief is that defense is less important at 1B than any other position. That may be true, but it still helps - not only directly, but also in bailing out fielders at other positions, if their throws are less than accurate. This season, a couple of other things stood out about Goldschmidt’s performance: he started 18 double-plays, more than any other first-baseman. In particular, he started eight which went 3-6-3, both fielding the ball and then making the final out. No-one else in the league had more than five, and only seven others had more than ONE. That year, the D-backs were also the only team to convert every bunt that went to first-base into an out (league average = 88%).

2B. Craig Counsell, 2005 (3.4 dWAR)

There’s a case to be made that Counsell was, very quietly, the best defender ever to have played for Arizona. Craig may possibly also be among the best infielders never to win a Golden Glove. He leads the team in all-time dWAR, and it’s not even close: Craig was worth 10.6 wins on defense, more than four above the second-placed man (Pollock, at 6.3 dWAR). Even if you take playing time into account, he’s in the top three, and having sustained such high-quality fieldwork from 2000 through 2006 is undeniably impressive. In this season, Counsell turned 94% of all balls he fielded into outs, a league-high among players with 300+ attempts.

SS. Nick Ahmed, 2015 (2.8 dWAR)

Ahmed, along with Inciarte. is one of the few players whose rate of dWAR per game is superior to Counsell in Diamondbacks’ history. If he stays healthy, gets to play, and isn’t traded somewhere else, he might end up having a shot at eventually surpassing Craig’s tally [Nick is at 5.4 dWAR so far]. It’s no surprise this was his best year, with Ahmed playing over 320 additional innings in the field in 2015, than in any other season to date. He made it count, and was fractionally better than Andrelton Simmons at converting fielded balls into outs, trailing only this year’s Gold Glove winner, Brandon Crawford in that category for qualifying shortstops.

3B. Chad Tracy, 2004 (1.5 dWAR)

This one probably comes as a surprise - and may be a testament to the volatility of fielding metrics, because Tracy would never get above 0.1 dWAR the rest of his career. In his defense (no pun intended), it probably didn’t help Chad that he was shuffled around positions. The following year, he played mostly at first, but also started 51 games in the outfield, at both LF and RF. Given how well he played the hot corner in 2004, one wonders how things might have developed, had he just been left there. But the arrival of Troy Glaus left the team with few options. In case you are wondering, Matt Williams’s best year was 1998, at 0.9 dWAR.

LF. Cody Ross, 2013 (1.8 dWAR)

Perhaps another surprise here. But when you think about left-field and the Diamondbacks, it tends to be where the team has tried to hide its worst-fielding outfielder over the years. Since the end of Gonzo’s time here, when his arm was very much of the noodle variety, we’ve seen it manned by people including Jason Kubel, Mark Trumbo and Yasmany Tomas. None of them were ever exactly going to trouble the Gold Glove committee. But it has also been a position of flux: no-one since 2006 has started even 125 games in a season there for Arizona. Ross comes out as the best of the bunch to date, and his playing-time was as much in right as left.

CF. Chris Young, 2011 (2.6 dWAR)

First, a quick honorable mention of Ender Inciarte, who had two of the seven best dWAR seasons in franchise history... but ranked second in both center and right. This was the closest, Ender’s 2.5 in 2014, just being edged out by Young - though if Inciarte had played a full season, he would likely have surpassed CY. But I think few would argue with Young at the top here. In both 2010 and 2011, he should have been in the running for a Gold Glove, though it appears, looking at this metric, that Arizona very much got the best of him, defensively. Outside this season, over the rest of his time, Young has been slightly below replacement level.

RF. Gerardo Parra, 2013 (4.0 dWAR)

We saved the best for last, although this is the kind of season that makes you want to tap your finger on the glass to see if the metric is broken. For in the history of the stat, only one National League outfielder has ever put up more dWAR: and that was also in 2013, Carlos Gomez. Which kinda makes me go “Hmmm...” And, again, this was a severe outlier: Parra never had another season worth even one dWAR, and has been at or below replacement level in each of the four seasons since the above campaign. Parra was certainly good on defense in the outfield that year. But the second-best NL outfielder in living memory? Only one person here might agree. :)