Dewan: Brett Lawrie, baseball’s best defensive third baseman?

From SABR member John Dewan at ACTA Sports on July 16, 2012:

The short answer: Brett Lawrie of the Toronto Blue Jays is the best defensive third baseman thus far in 2012. Based on our most up-to-date technique to measure defense in baseball, newly minted in the last week, we estimate that Brett Lawrie has saved the Toronto Blue Jays 16 runs with his defense this year, the most of all MLB third basemen. Using the rule of thumb that 10 runs is equal to a win, Mr. Lawrie has helped Toronto win 1.6 games this year with defense alone.

Now for the long answer. As recently as a week ago, we were reporting that Brett Lawrie had saved 30 runs with his defense in about a half-season thus far. Given that the best third baseman in our system has never registered even as many as 30 defensive runs saved in a full season since we started keeping this stat ten years ago, this number stood out like a sore thumb. How did it get so big? Simply put, Lawrie was making plays this year that no other third baseman has made with any consistency. Ever. But it was a flaw in our system that didn’t recognize the defense the Blue Jays have employed on a regular basis for the first time in the history of baseball.

While there have been a few other isolated uses of similar alignments, the Toronto Blue Jays have created a shift defense that they use against left-handed pull hitters very frequently. Call it the Lawrie Defense. As reported earlier this year, major league teams are shifting more often in 2012 than ever before. They are employing the Ted Williams Shift (three or more infielders to the pull side of second base) more than ever, and they are employing other shifts where the second baseman or shortstop is close to the pull-side of second base—but not quite on the other side—more than ever. The Blue Jays have employed the third-most defensive shifts in baseball in 2012, but the Lawrie Defense is a Toronto specialty. The Lawrie Defense is like a normal Ted Williams Shift against a lefty swinger, but the unique aspect is that the third baseman moves all the way over to where the second baseman normally plays in the Ted Williams Shift, short right field.

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Originally published: July 17, 2012. Last Updated: July 17, 2012.