07 October 2009

The Defense Never Rests

The historically explosive Suns' core established by Mike D'Antoni never got over the hump because of defense. More specifically, it was because their best, most irreplaceable stars (Nash, Stoudemire) werent consistent or inspired defenders, which exposed practical and morale cracks across the roster that inevitably widened come playoff time.

Most great basketball teams are led by a star who plays great D. Tim Duncan of the Spurs, Kobe /Shaq in LA, Jordan and Pippen with the Bulls - and going way back, the first Celtic dynasty, willed by the greatest defender of all, Bill Russell.

Can something similar be said of baseball? I'll leave history for another time. For now, let's just eyeball today's strong teams, quickly assess some stars, and bring it on back to our Dbacks.

The Yankees and BoSox may be special cases, because they're so laden with hitting and pitching talent. Perhaps defense isnt as critical to their success as with financially limited clubs. That said, big hitters Youk and Teixeira are considered good glovemen, albeit at first base.

In Philly, Jimmy Rollins has slipped, but is still the undisputed captain. He and Utley provide solid D up the middle. Pujols and clutch hitting Yadier Molina set the tone on the field in St Louis. The Dodgers' best hitter (Manny) is clearly a weak glove, but two way star Kemp mans center, augmented by Martin and Furcal/Hudson up the middle. Tulowitzki in Coors. Joe Mauer in Minnesota. Torii Hunter and Chone Figgins in Anaheim.

I'm not saying these are their respective teams best hitters or that they all have great defensive stats. I'm suggesting these are either team leaders and/or strong hitters who clearly set a team's tone on the defensive side.

Chris Young is a good defender. Stephen Drew is adequate at a demanding position. Neither is a consistent bat, nor sports the personality of a leader. Reynolds, Upton and Montero are not just breakout impact performers, but more fiery as well, and the issue I have is that they can all be characterized as rather sloppy defenders. Not bad empirically, so much - I realize Upton and Mark have good range. I'm talking about a reputation of fundamental preparedness that reinforces a teamwide expectation that defense is everyone's job - even if you're a good hitter.

Reynolds sets that tone when he dives into the stands, but still makes too many errors to be genuinely considered a defensive leader. JUp makes big plays with his wheels and arm, but his ineptitude at grounders or snagging a fly on a controlled dive, informs teammates that defensive fundamentals arent that important. Not if Justin's time isnt jeopardized by lackadaisical aspects of play. We led the NL in wild pitches with the lovable Montero behind the dish, and were 14th in nailing basestealers.

Hinch emphasized the need to improve team defense. I think one of these three impact hitters needs to evolve into a defensive "leader", and by that I mean someone who not only defends with intensity but who also limits defensive mistakes. A smart defender who thinks a step ahead and doesnt beat himself, and maybe even occasionally outsmarts the opposition with a trick play.

The logical candidate is Justin, because Reynolds' and Montero's shortcomings seem more entrenched. If Upton could turn himself into a reliable right fielder, it would not only save a few runs but might spark a shift in tone across the roster, about what's acceptable. Right now, you cant realistically sit JUp for muffing grounders, because he'd sit out too often to the detriment of the team. Much like the Suns could never effectively sit Steve Nash or Amare Stoudemire in any meaningful way.

This improvement needs to come from within, and is hardly outside Upton's grasp. Corner outfield is not a terribly demanding position. Not for a great athlete. You basically need to think, hustle and concentrate, and Justin's been getting by with his wheels, his arm and one or two of the other three on a good day. Upton needs to blossom defensively, much the way Conor Jackson did in 2008 - through off season preparation. It will do more than save the team a few runs. Inherent in such preparation is an attitude and committment, which teammates respect and ultimately emulate.

In two way sports like basketball or baseball, a team whose best players treat defense as a hobby or annoying little side project will consistently disappoint. When the most athletic stars exert the full extent of their professional will on the defensive side, teams tend to exceed expectations.

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