Doing More on Defense in 2013?

Bob DeChiara-US PRESSWIRE

Most everyone expects the Orioles to regress in 2013, and it's just a question of how badly. But if there's one area in which we can expect them to be better in the coming season, it's on defense. Let's see by just how much.

Everyone please welcome our old friend Vuff as one of Camden Chat's new writers! -Stacey

The still-surreal end of the Baltimore Orioles' 2012 season makes it hard to remember the long days from May through the All-Star break, which felt to most fans like the seasons we'd grown used to: a strong April followed by a weaker spring followed by summer oblivion. With Dan Duquette making roster moves like a hamster on speed, it's easy to forget that Tommy Hunter started 20 games, Kevin Gregg appeared in several high-leverage situations through May, and Wilson Betemit started 69 games at third base.

Obviously, I'm not the first person to note that relegating Betemit to the DH slot did the team a tremendous amount of good defensively. Manny Machado has looked tremendous at 3B thus far, showing good range and making few errors in his limited time at the position. But with Birdland anxiously wondering how the team can sustain its success from last year, given that the biggest move the team has made thus far is to re-sign fan favorite Nate McLouth, I thought I'd take a look at the likely 2013 O's position-by-position and see if there's reason for optimism elsewhere on the diamond.

One quick caveat before I begin: Looking at only one year's worth of defensive statistics runs counter to their intended use. We really don't measure defense well enough yet to draw conclusions from a single season's worth of data, let alone partial seasons. In theory, since I'm not trying to judge anyone's true talent level (except Machado's, I suppose), it shouldn't be so bad, yet I should probably write something like, "But, that may not mean anything given the small sample sizes and the limitations of the metrics," after each paragraph. But, you know, it's the offseason, and we don't have anything better to do. Into FanGraphs' DRS tables we go!

Pitchers: Baseball scoring conventions compel me to start at the position most people don't consider much when thinking about a team defensively. While it's tough to predict how the 2013 rotation will shake out - which will determine who's getting the most innings - it's worth noting that overall, the O's staff was worth +7 runs according to DRS. Likely 2013 starters Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen saved themselves 4 and 3 runs, respectively, which is nice, but Brian Matusz isn't the best defender (-3), and Tommy Hunter (+4) is hopefully staying in the bullpen to throw fewer innings, just to pluck out some notables. I think it's reasonable, given the relative youth of the O's staff, to assume it'll be average to a touch above in 2013 as well.

Catcher: We all know Matt Wieters is excellent behind the plate; his +17 run season in 2011 is one we won't be forgetting anytime soon, and DRS has yet to measure him as below-average in a season. Matt was "only" worth +5 fielding runs in 2012 - still good enough to be arguably the best defensive catcher in the American League (though Salvador Perez may decisively claim that title if he can repeat last year's performance), but a reminder that catchers rarely post double-digit run values defensively. Expect more of the same +5 to +10 runs next year, and that's a wonderful thing.

First Base: Here's where things get a bit less upbeat. Chris Davis looks set to start here next year, and the defensive metrics have never liked him much (-8 career DRS in ~2,100 innings and -3.2 career UZR/150 games). However, while he's below-average, he's not awful, and despite Mark Reynolds's magical toe, the O's first basemen put up a collective -7 DRS last year. The most likely outcome for 2013 is probably something in that -5 to -10 runs range, and it's entirely possible that Davis improves with regular playing time at the position for the first time since 2009.

Second Base: With Robert Andino's glove (+5 runs) gone, your guess is as good as mine. If healthy, Brian Roberts could start and may even be the most likely candidate, given his large contract veteran presence. Meanwhile, Alexi Casilla is looking for his first opportunity with a new club, Ryan Flaherty brings power potential and postseason experience to the equation, Yamaico Navarro exists, and a strong season from Jonathan Schoop could see him in Baltimore after the All-Star break. Flaherty is still a bit raw defensively but seems likely to be about average in the end, Casilla has had his ups (+15 DRS in 2012) and downs (-13 DRS in 2009) over the years but is spoken of as an above-average defender, and Roberts... put up -6 runs in only 149 innings last year, which is about as bad as it's possible to be. The 2012 second basemen put up -3 DRS collectively, and as much as I hate to say it, that will likely be hard to match or improve upon if Brian Roberts plays more than a handful of innings. Some combination of Flaherty and Casilla would likely be an improvement on last year, if a marginal one.

Third Base: On a cheerier note, going from Wilson Betemit to Manny Machado at the hot corner was like switching from dialup to FiOS circa 2005. Betemit was worth -6 runs in ~600 innings - a pretty terrible 12-15 runs lost over a full season - while Machado was worth +7 runs in ~470 innings - a rate which puts one in the +15-20 runs/year range and the Gold Glove conversation. Mark Reynolds was worth another -7 runs over there (in only 142 innings!), so all Manny could do was cancel him out, putting O's third basemen at -7 runs overall. Obviously, a full season of Machado should be a substantial improvement over the 2012 O's; if there's anything I'm most looking forward to watching in games next year, it's the defensive prowess of Machado, and playing next to him...

Shortstop: J.J. Hardy, Gold Glover, with apologies to the perpetually slighted Brendan Ryan. It's hard to expect another +18 runs or 158 games played, both career highs for Hardy, but +8 to +10 runs is quite likely if he can stay healthy. He's done nothing but impress with his glove since coming to Baltimore, and if his bat bounces back to something more like league-average, he can make up for whatever runs are lost due to the likely return to "merely" very good, rather than ridiculously good, defense.

Left Field: Did you know the Orioles had 13 different left fielders last year? Together, they were basically league-average on defense, totaling -1 run. Nate McLouth, the only one to play more than 216 innings there, was worth -1 run in 473 innings. In just over 900 career innings in the position, Nate has put up a DRS of -3... which still is not nearly enough to go on, but given that he was well below average in three full seasons' worth of center field, we can probably expect him to look more or less as he did last season: a roughly average left fielder, with occasionally impressive range countered by a weak arm.

Center Field: Adam Jones's defense is awfully difficult to judge. DRS penalizes him heavily for balls hit to deep center, rating him -13 runs per season range-wise over the last four years, and only his strong arm has kept him from posting double-digit negative run values... until 2012, when his arm was only about average, and he was rated at -16 runs in all. I suppose that the glass-half-full view here is, regression would work in the O's favor, so there's reason to hope that Adam will be back to a little below average in center next year.

Right Field: It'll be nice to have Nick Markakis back playing every day again, but mostly because of his bat, as the metrics haven't liked his defense much since his excellent 2008 season. His range is usually rated below-average, but his arm is average or a tick better, and he doesn't make a lot of mistakes out there, so he often partially counteracts that. Last year, he didn't, and posted a -7 DRS, and we probably shouldn't expect significant improvement going forward, all things considered. The time Chris Davis and Endy Chavez put in at the position didn't affect things much, and O's right fielders as a whole posted the same -7.

Verdict: I was hoping to be a bit more inspired by this point, to tell you we could gain 3-4 wins on defense alone over last year. Now, frankly, I'm wondering where I got that idea; I guess I thought McLouth was better out there or something. Since the 2013 defense looks a lot like the 2012 defense, Machado really is the major difference. Jones probably won't get rated that badly again, but Hardy probably won't be that good again, either. Wieters might be a little better, but Davis might be a little worse. So let's look forward to a full year of Machado's glove at third. It'll be fun to watch, and there's good reason to think it'll be worth a win or two by itself. And you know what? I'll take that any day.

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