We’re about two-and-a-half months into the season and with that level of sample size accumulated, we can try to evaluate some of the top contenders for this year’s Fielding Bible Awards.
This will be our 18th year selecting the top defensive player at each position (plus a multi-position winner).
We looked at up-the-middle players in a writeup last week, so this we’ll look at the corner infield and corner outfield spots, as well as the multi-position award.
First base is a tough position to evaluate because of the question of how you evaluate throw handling in relation to play making (fielding grounders, liners, popups). We have methods for both though we do put considerable weight on play making
There are some surprising names at the top of the leaderboard. LaMonte Wade Jr. has completely remade his offensive and defensive game and stepped up to replace a Giants longtime standout, Brandon Belt. He’s the co-leader at the position with 5 Defensive Runs Saved.
He shares the lead with Rangers first baseman Nathaniel Lowe, who has gone from -9 Runs Saved in 2022 to 5 Runs Saved in 2023. On the last episode of our company’s baseball podcast, his teammate Marcus Semien articulated one reason for Lowe’s improvements being more certainty over what balls he could get in the absence of defensive shifts.
“Me not being deep in right field (for shifts) is helping us,” Semien said. “If I’m over a couple of steps to my left now, closer to him, he’s able to move over to the (1st base) line. There were plays last year where he had to go to his right to get an out and we didn’t get outs … that are now outs. If I’m close to him, I just tell him ‘go to the base’ (rather than field the ball). If I’m over and more straight up, he knows he has to go get it.”
But both Wade and Lowe don’t have good throw-handling numbers (what we’d call Scoop Runs Saved). So it’s certainly reasonable to say that some of the usual position standout, like Anthony Rizzo, Paul Goldschmidt, or Christian Walker, are still be viewed as a strong contender. Rizzo, Pete Alonso, and Carlos Santana are just one run off the Runs Saved lead.
Just keep an open mind to possibilities outside the norm given the data so far.
This is shaping up as a really good three-player race. Ke’Bryan Hayes, who led all third basemen in Defensive Runs Saved in each of the last two seasons, has been strong wire to wire in 2023. He leads all third basemen with 12 Runs Saved.
Ryan McMahon has stepped up his game the last few weeks and now ranks 2nd to Hayes with 9 Runs Saved. And Matt Chapman seems to be healthier and closer to top form than he was last season.
Chapman’s 8 Runs Saved rank 3rd and he’s eradicated the throwing issues that cost him 3 Runs Saved off his total last season. Since the start of May, McMahon and Chapman are 1-2 in Runs Saved at third base.
It’s hard to believe but through ~500 innings at the position, Nolan Arenado has a negative Runs Saved total (-1). We’d expect him to turn that around, but at the moment, we don’t view him as being at the top of the pecking order. The numbers point in other directions.
The 2022 Fielding Bible Award winner, Steven Kwan, totaled -2 Runs Saved through the end of April. He’s bounced back since, to 4 Runs Saved, which vaults him onto a list of contenders. Only one player has more Runs Saved than him in left.
That would be Daulton Varsho of the Blue Jays, whose 6 Runs Saved are the most at the position. Varsho has shown he can handle all three outfield spots well, so it’s not surprising that he’s excelling in left field.
Several other players are in the mix, including our co-Defensive Player of the Month for May, Austin Hays of the Orioles (4 Runs Saved). While Kwan’s game is largely about his range, Varsho and Hays offer value both with how often they catch the ball and in how well they throw it to deter baserunner advancement. Hays and Kwan lead left fielders in Runs Saved since the start of May.
One sleeper, J.J. Bleday of the Athletics, who has 4 Runs Saved in minimal time in left field. He’s started the last 11 games and if he plays at this level the rest of the season, he’ll definitely be in the discussion.
Fernando Tatis Jr. had a lot of ups and downs at shortstop, but he has acclimated to his new home in right field beyond expectations. He’s saved an MLB-best 10 Runs there, almost entirely through an array of nice catches.
While Ramón Laureano’s range was sometimes problematic in center field, that’s been less of an issue in right field since he moved there last season, even as the Athletics have sputtered. His value is spread out well between his range and his arm. His 9 Good Fielding Plays match the number he had in center and right field combined last season in half as many innings.
Alex Verdugo, Adolis García, and Will Brennan would be the other names to watch here. Verdugo has a good history in left field and has converted that to right field this season. Garcia has the most Outfield Arm Runs Saved in right field and Brennan is right behind him.
Our multi-position ballot factors in both versatility and skill and it’s hard to project who will be on it and who won’t.
But for now, we’d peg Ha-Seong Kim as the favorite given that he’s been terrific whether the Padres put him at second base, shortstop or third base. He leads the majors with 16 total Runs Saved. Taylor Walls of the Rays also lands in the versatile middle infielder and third baseman class. He has 5 Runs at third base and 3 at shortstop.
In terms of versatility, though he’s currently at -1 Runs Saved, it is hard to beat last year’s Fielding Bible winner, Tommy Edman, and last year’s Gold Glove winner, Brendan Donovan, even if their Runs Saved numbers don’t warrant it just yet. Edman has just added a new position to his repertoire, center field. He’s played four positions this season. Donovan has played six, though at the moment, he doesn’t have positive Runs Saved at any of them. But he does have 1 Run Saved at second base since the start of May.