The Miami Marlins once upon a time had a great infield defense led by Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez, and Derrek Lee. It was questionable how great that defense was with that quartet managing the infield, but the group won several Gold Gloves and they were led by a defensive guru in then-infield coach Perry Hill.
After the 2005 fire sale, the Marlins’ defensive prowess dropped badly around the diamond. Featuring guys like Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla up the middle tends to do that to a team. But in 2011, the Marlins re-hired Hill to again coach a struggling defensive roster about its game.
In 2015, it began paying some dividends, and that trend has continued in 2016.
The Marlins’ infield defense has not made an error since May 30, a record 26 games in a row which represents the best mark since 1913. The crew of Adeiny Hechavarria, Martin Prado, and Derek Dietrich, along with help from the team’s first baseman Justin Bour, have worked out very well so far.
"The defense has been really good," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. "We seemed shaky early, but we really kind of hit our stride. Martin [Prado's] unbelievable at third. [Adeiny Hechavarria], obviously, he's been one of those guys on the Gold Glove list the last few years. Derek's been solid. [Justin Bour] been fine at first. We've been a pretty good defensive club, and we thought we would be."
If you know anything about Perry Hill’s mantra of defensive work, it is that he does not want to give up "extra outs." He has tasked the Marlins to perform simple tasks in order to avoid committing errors on the field that will provide the offensive side of the ball the extra outs they could use to score. Errors, of course, are just one aspect of defense that requires focus, and we all are aware that a range-less team of defenders that do not commit errors is just as bad as a range-heavy and mistake-laden team.
However, the Marlins’ infield right now is best equipped for this particular discussion on defense. The team is blessed on the left side of the infield to have two effective, rangy defenders in Hechavarria and Prado, guys who have the skills to get to baseballs and who could best benefit from error management. Hechavarria’s work with Hill on positioning has done the most good for him, but clearly focusing on limiting errors to the balls he reaches has also helped. In 2013, he committed 15 errors and was worth about two runs above average on errors. This year, he has committed just four so far and has been worth 3.4 runs in about half of the number of innings. Prado’s range has seemingly worsened this year, but he has been about three runs above average on errors in 2016, and that ranks third among all third basemen so far.
Derek Dietrich may be the player who best benefits from this focus on errors. Back in 2013 and 2014, Dietrich’s defense was a major talking point, and the talk was primarily on his error counts. He famously committed 10 errors in 358 2/3 innings playing second base and was sent down to the minors despite a decent batting line. This year, he has primarily played second base in the absence of Gold Glove winner Dee Gordon and has done better. UZR and DRS both have him as around two runs worse than average on defense, and his errors have been cut down dramatically. In about the same number of innings at second base that he had in 2014, he has committed just three miscues.
Errors are not the be-all, end-all of defense. Range is a critical aspect of this as well. However, teaching range is not a real possibility; you either have the athletic acumen or you don’t. Positioning, a part of the game on which Hill also focuses, can help with range problems, but one can only put talent in the best position to succeed and see if they can perform. Error-free baseball, on the other hand, is something that can be taught to a degree and improved with attentive focus, and the Marlins have done that so far with the infield. It has paid dividends; the team ranks second in all of baseball in error runs according to UZR, with seven runs above average in that department. The team is eighth in UZR in large part because they make few mistakes, even if the club does not boast elite range. This has helped to keep a Marlins pitching staff that has always been a little questionable afloat.