Ben Reiter at SI.com uses the Ultimate Zone Rating stat to show the Dodgers are among six teams projected to improve their records by at least ten wins due to improved defense:
A back injury limited shortstop Rafael Furcal to 35 starts last year, forcing the Dodgers to replace him with a series of subpar or inexperienced defenders that included Angel Berroa, Nomar Garciaparra, Chin-lung Hu and Luis Maza. Furcal, whom the Dodgers re-signed as a free agent over the winter, has stayed healthy this season, and despite his uncharacteristic offensive woes (he's hitting .251) ranks as the sixth-best defensive shortstop in the majors, according to UZR.
Eight Dodgers received starts at second base in '08, but 40-year-old Jeff Kent got the vast majority of those (114), and he finished the season with the worst UZR (-11.8) of any second baseman in baseball. [...] Free-agent signing Orlando Hudson, a three-time Gold Glover, has solidified the position.
The Dodgers, however, have perhaps benefited most from the defensive development of 24-year-old Matt Kemp, who has in one season advanced from an average center fielder (1.3 UZR in '08) to an outstanding one; his current UZR of 11.3 ranks him behind only the Mariners' Franklin Gutierrez and Cardinals rookie Colby Rasmus.
Reiter also supplies these numbers for the Dodgers:
|2008 UZR||2009 UZR (Proj.)||Diff.||'08 Wins||'09 Wins (Proj.)||Diff.|
While offensive displays like last night's heroics are sexier in the box score, Reiter's article is a fine reminder that the Dodgers are employing a balanced attack this season. Offensively, the Dodgers are 11th in home runs and third in runs scored in the NL. It's their improved defense that is helping to separate them from the powerhouse offensive teams.
Better D has indirect benefits as well. "Helps us as pitchers know that we don't have to strike everybody out, you can just let them put the ball in play, and if it's a catchable ball it's going to be caught," Clayton Kershaw is quoted as saying. (Think Derek Lowe could have used some of that last year? With the majors' third-worst UZR defense behind him this year, Lowe is still 9-7.)
Strangely, as has been noted in many an SoSG Game Thread, UZR "hates" some of the Dodgers' more dependable gloves: James Loney is at -0.9, Hudson at -4.2 and Andre Ethier at a whopping -14.4. But it should be noted that Juan Pierre in left field is at 6.5.
Although the numbers may not correlate with the anecdotal evidence, it's comforting to know this year's Dodgers are anything but a one-note team. This diversity has been key in the team's much-lauded feat of avoiding a three-game losing streak. In other words, leather and wood match quite nicely, thank you very much.