"Defense, to me, is the key to playing baseball" -Willie MaysNow I am in no position to argue with Willie Mays, but I must respectfully disagree. Everyone talks about the importance of defense in every sport, but is it really as important as the analysts will lead you to believe?
To preface this, I must say that all my information is strictly stat based and, as we all know, the game is not played on paper. That being said, I think some of the information I found to be shocking.
Starting off, I will talking a lot about the Defensive Wins Above Replacement stat (The estimated amount of wins a player adds to a team, using his defensive numbers, compared to a AAA player replacement). The higher a players Defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR) is, the more valuable his defense is to his club. The players with the best dWAR in the NL is Darwin Barney, Second Baseman for the Chicago Cubs, with a 2.9. Second to Barney is his double play partner Starlin Castro with a 2.1. Now when we take a look at the Cubs overall, we can see that they are sitting at 33-52 at the All-Star break, a mere 0.5 games above the Houston Astros for the worst record in all of baseball. Turn to the AL, you will find Brett Lawrie, Third Baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays, edging out Brendan Ryan of the Seattle Mariners, 3.6 - 2.7, for the highest dWAR. The Blue Jays are playing pretty well with a 43-43 record, while the Mariners wallow at the bottom of the American League at 36-51.
Understandably, some people will criticize the fact that I am picking out a few players out of the nine men that take the field each game, so let me show those critics some team stats. The top team in dWAR in the league is the Toronto Blue Jays. As mentioned earlier, they have a .500 record, but they are 14 games behind the MLB leading New York Yankees. The Blue Jays have a 6.8 team dWAR so you would assume the Yankees must be close behind, but when you look at the numbers, the Yankees are a poor defensive team with a -2.1 dWAR. To simplify that a bit, that means if you made the two teams equal in the defense department, the Yankee's lead would really be close to 23 games. In fact, looking at all the Division leaders (LAD, PIT, WAS, TEX, CWS, NYY), the only team with a positive dWAR are the Pittsburgh Pirates at a 0.7. Meanwhile, looking at the teams at the bottom of each division, only two of the six have a negative dWAR, Philadelphia (-0.3) and Houston (-2.1).
Alright, you are all probably sick of me spitting numbers, but it all makes sense. Defense, while being very important, is completely reliant on the other facets of the game. In the case of the Blue Jays, they might have solid defense, but their pitching is a gaping hole in their team. Sitting in last in BBs and home runs allowed is basically a giant sign that their defense does not have a chance to help them out, seeing as those are two plays where defense is completely uninvolved.
In the end, good defense is just the icing on the cake. While it is nice to have a center fielder who can make an over-the-shoulder basket catch (i.e. Willie Mays), or a second baseman who never makes a mistake, if that player cannot hit, he is hurting the team more than he is helping.