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Adding Mookie Betts to the Dodgers’ already strong defense

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Betts joins fellow former MVP Bellinger, giving the Dodgers excellent outfield defense (again).

2020 Los Angeles Dodgers Photo Day Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

One of the underrated aspect of the Mookie Betts trade was how the Dodgers upgraded on defense at what was already one of their strongest positions.

I talked last week with Mark Simon, an author of “The Fielding Bible, Vol. 5,” about the Dodgers defense, which was stellar in 2019 and got even better.

The Dodgers had the most Defensive Runs Saved as a team in baseball in 2019 (+126), coming up below average at only two positions — -8 at shortstop (Corey Seager, who started 125 games there, was +2), and -2 at first base (though Cody Bellinger was +4 at the position). Arizona, which was second to LA with 112 DRS, was the only team in the National League with above-average DRS at every position. The Astros did the same in the AL, and came in third in MLB with 96 DRS.

The defensive standout for the Dodgers is Bellinger, who won last year’s Fielding Bible Awards for both right field and multi-position. He was above average in Defensive Runs Saved in right field (+20), center field (+3), and at first base (+4).

“He’s able to make catches on balls to whatever location, whether it’s the shallow ball, the deep ball, or the ball that’s kind of in between,” Simon said. “That’s the most important aspect of Defensive Runs Saved, being able to turn batted balls into outs.

“Second is the throwing component. He had nine unaided assists, which we value because it’s the outfielder making the play directly to the base. When you cut off an advancing runner, you’re getting an out and erasing a baserunner. If you have nine of those, and don’t allow an inordinate number of runners to advance against you otherwise, you’re going to see a nice spike in your Defensive Runs Saved total.”

Bellinger’s break down in right field, where his +20 tied for first in the majors at the position with Aaron Judge, was +13 for range, +5 for throwing, and +2 for good fielding plays, the latter which is positively affected by home run robberies like this one.

Now, right field belongs to Betts, who was third at +16 DRS in 2019. That moves Bellinger to center field, where Bellinger is +11 DRS in 107 career games and 692 innings. Simon said if we were to use Bellinger’s +20 DRS in right field to project what he might do in center, the conversion loses roughly seven DRS per 1,000 innings.

With Bellinger and Betts locking down two spots, that leaves left field to a group that was mostly above-average at the position last year, including Joc Pederson (+6) and Chris Taylor (+5). A.J. Pollock was -1 DRS in his 145 innings at the position, his first time in left field in five years. The outfield as a whole figures to be quite strong defensively on the whole.

“If you’re going to do projections, they’re going to come out at or near the top,” Simon said. “Keeping Pederson factors into that too.”

Shift happens

Switching to the infield, we get to another Dodgers strength, but also an important question. Are the Dodgers good defensively because they shift — a league-high 50.6 percent of plate appearances in 2019 — or because they have good defensive players who happen to shift?

“They rate well in terms of the number of runs saved just with the shifting alone, forgetting about the value of the play made itself,” Simon explained. “We break the components of the play up, giving a credit to the team for defensive positioning, a credit to the player for getting to the ball, and a credit to the player for completing the play.”

The Dodgers were tied with the Rays and Diamondbacks for most Defensive Runs Saved while shifting in 2019, at +33.

Kiké Hernandez was key here, posting an excellent +13 at second base despite only 589 innings there. Eleven of those runs saved came during the shift.

“He was getting to a lot of balls in the shift, and did what he was supposed to do, turn them into outs,” Simon said. “He’s someone you would attribute as a good player making plays [in the shift].”

Hernandez was had positive DRS in center field (+4) and right field (+2), and was average in left field, though was below average at shortstop (-2). Max Muncy was +2 DRS at second base, +2 at first base, and +8 at third base, the latter despite only 234 innings at the hot corner. Chris Taylor was average or slightly above average at second base, third base, and all three outfield spots, though was -8 at shortstop, his worst career mark at the position.

“The Dodgers prioritized and I think maybe beat other teams to the punch on multi-positional guys, like Hernandez, Muncy, Chris Taylor,” Simon said. “They know what they’re doing when it comes to positioning, and they have a few good players that bring the value.”