DUNEDIN, Fla — One day early in spring training, Brian Cashman was talking about the importance of up-the-middle defense.
“I grew up in the game with the belief that the spine of the team run right through the middle,” the New York Yankees’ general manager said. “It starts with a good catcher, continues with a good middle infield and ends with a good center fielder. It’s an absolute necessity.”
Cashman will get no argument from anyone in the clubhouse of the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the Yankees’ rivals in the American League East.
“I’ve never seen a championship team that wasn’t strong up the middle,” shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said before a recent exhibition game at Florida Auto Exchange Park. “I don’t think we would have the kind of success we’ve had the last two years without it.”
The Blue Jays have made back-to-back appearances in the American League Championship Series following a 22-year postseason drought that stretched to 1993, when the franchise won its second consecutive World Series title.
ACTA Sports projects the Blue Jays to have the best up-the-middle defense in the major leagues this season with center fielder Kevin Pillar projected for 12 defensive runs saved, catcher Russell Martin for six, Tulowitzki for five and second baseman Devon Travis for two.
Last season, that foursome combined for 40 DRS — 21 by Pillar, 10 by Tulowitzki, seven by Martin and two by Travis.
“I think a lot of people still have the perception that we’re all-or-nothing team that tries to outscore the opponent with home runs,” Pillar said. “That’s changed the last couple of years and the results have shown. We still hit home runs but not a station-to-station (baserunning) team anymore, we’re a better situational-hitting team and the defense has been a whole lot better.
“The defense has made the biggest difference. We don’t have a strikeout-type pitching staff. Four of our starters are sinker-ballers and they can pitch to contact without the fear.”
While Pillar has not been able to unseat the Tampa Bay Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier for the AL Gold Glove in center field, he was second among league outfielders in Baseball-Reference’s version of defensive WAR in 2015 with a 2.8 mark and fourth last year with 2.6.
“He’s outstanding, one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Tulowitzki said of Pillar. “The great catches that he makes aren’t just all a matter of athletic ability. He has such a great understanding of how to position himself and anticipating where the ball is hit before the pitch is thrown. He’s very well-prepared.”
While injuries have robbed Tulowitzki of some of the ability that allowed him to win National League Gold Gloves in 2010 and 2011, the 11-year veteran has provided a steadying influence on the infield since being acquired from the Colorado Rockies in a July 2015 trade.
“Everything really turned for us when we got Tulo,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “Not only did our defense get better, his professionalism has made a difference on the field and in the clubhouse.”
Travis has been Tulowitzki’s primary double-play partner, but injuries have limited his playing time each of the last two seasons. Travis could also begin this season on the disabled list while recovering from offseason arthroscopic knee surgery.
Thus, Tulowitzki has been frequently paired with second basemen Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney, who won an NL Gold Glove in 2012 with the Chicago Cubs.
“It hasn’t been difficult, at all,” Tulowitzki said of learning to work with different double-play partners. “Darwin is as good defensively as any second baseman in the game and Ryan is up there, too, even though he doesn’t get the recognition. Devon has worked really hard at his defense and he keeps getting better. I feel very comfortable with all of them.”
As Cashman said, a good catcher is the head of any defense, and the Blue Jays’ return to their winning ways coincided with Martin signing a five-year, $82 million contract as a free agent prior to the 2015 season. The Canada native has helped the Blue Jays reach the doorstep of the World Series in each of his first two seasons.
Martin has won just one Gold Glove during his 11-year career, though, in 2007 with the Dodgers. That confounds current and former teammates.
“He’s the heart of this team,” Pillar said. “He does a great job of running the pitching and he makes each guy on our staff better because of the rapport with each of them and his understanding of how to attack hitters. He’s indispensable.”
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Martin had never won a Gold Glove; this has been corrected]