Measuring defense is difficult. Traditional numbers like fielding percentage (errors divided by chances) have always been fatally flawed. A player can avoid errors by taking few risks in the field, which is hardly playing good defense. And errors have always been subjective and imprecise. We have all had the experience of seeing a play that should have been called a hit ruled as an error, or vice-versa.
Newer statistics try to measure fielding in a more sophisticated way. One is baseball-reference.com’s defensive WAR. It shows how many wins a defender earned over the standard of a replacement-level player, i.e. the type of player who the team could call up from AAA any time. The formula for Defensive WAR is incredibly complicated, but it produces credible results. The all-time leaders in career Defensive WAR are Ozzie Smith, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken and Joe Tinker.
Byron Buxton leads the league
By this measure at least, Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton is currently the most valuable defender in the American League, at any position — granted, it is a very slim lead. His Defensive WAR is 1.5, squeaking past Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim shortstop Andrelton Simmons’ 1.3.
Unfortunately, Byron Buxton is also currently one of the worst offensive players in the league, hitting only .202 with a .274 on-base percentage and a .306 slugging percentage. WAR also measures offense, and Buxton’s Offensive WAR is -0.1. That ranks 90th among the 99 American League players with at least 200 plate appearances. Among starting American League center fielders, only Rajai Davis of the Oakland Athletics is hitting worse.
An overall asset
Put his offense and defense together, and Buxton doesn’t look half bad. His total WAR is 1.3. That places him ninth among A.L. center fielders. Buxton may not be hitting, and he might not be a star yet. But his overall play is still an asset.
Even though the Twins are contending, few fans have suggested benching Buxton for an extended period of time. Anyone who has seen a few Twins games has witnessed his fielding magic. Plus, he is just 23 years old and still developing into a likely superstar.
Still, at frustrating moments, it might help to think of him as a young Ozzie Smith. Smith also hit very little in his first few years. He didn’t become a top-of-the-order hitter until his fifth major-league season. Hopefully Buxton won’t take quite that long. But until he does, his defense means he’ll contribute.
Eddie Daniels is a Staff Writer for Outside Pitch MLB covering the Minnesota Twins. He is the author of “The Baseball Hall of Fame Corrected,” available on Amazon. You can contact and follow Eddie on Twitter.