Spring training is a time for optimism, and it's not only fans who participate in wildly delusional thinking. Players, coaches, and even general managers will all give upbeat-sounding quotes, and the reporters who are in Florida for essentially the sole purpose of relaying these quotes to us will dutifully report things like, "The bullpen looks like it will be a strength this year!" Which is one of those things they wrote about the Orioles every year, and it was never true, until last year.
Another of the spring training story cliches has to do with fielding. There will always be stories written about players who must improve their defense. Last year, we heard about Mark Reynolds losing 15 pounds to improve his agility, which helped him at third base not at all.
Stories from this spring aren't much different than any other. Chris Davis is taking extra grounders and he's really working hard so he can play first base. Brian Roberts will finally stabilize the second base position. A full season of Manny Machado at third base will make a difference. That last one should actually prove true. About the others, I am less optimistic.
Evaluating fielding is a challenge for even engaged fans, because there are so many different metrics out there to do it, some of which conflict with one another, all of which occasionally disagree with your lying eyes, and none of which are given a lot of credence by front offices.
Still, if I might paraphrase a noted former Secretary of Defense/philosopher, you evaluate players with the metrics you have, not the metrics you wish you have. My favorite is John Dewan's Defensive Runs Saved, which works like this: the velocity and position of each batted ball are plotted along with whether or not the fielder made a play on it. If a player makes the play, he gets a positive. If he doesn't, he loses something.
This is determined by the percentage of time major league fielders make the play in that location at that velocity. For a 50/50 play, a fielder would gain +0.5 for making it and have -0.5 subtracted for not making it. A more exceptional play that's only made 5% of the time would net the fielder +0.95 points and only penalize him -0.05 points. In the case of the routine play that's made 90% of the time, a fielder who makes the play only gets +0.1 points but the one who misses it loses -0.9 points.
I like this system because it's the least abstract. The exact plus/minus value of every play isn't going to pop up on your TV screen live, but you know where the numbers come from, generally. Additionally, every missed play that looked easy affords an opportunity to grimly shake your head as you issue a swift denunciation: "That's a minus!" The head shake/exclamation combination was pioneered by former Camden Chat writer Andrew Gibson.
One weakness of DRS is that it does not account for pre-pitch positioning. It makes no attempt to mitigate when a pitcher, for instance, misses his spots and is pitching against his defense, or if a player might be poorly positioned due to some sort of poor scouting report. These are not questions DRS attempts to answer. It is not meant as an exact system, but generally, the cream will rise to the top and anchors will sink to the bottom.
That preamble out of the way, let's take a look at the 2012 Orioles vs. the likely 2013 Orioles in the field by DRS. For positions that spent 2012 in flux, I've included anyone who played over 100 innings there. As with last week's ZiPS, the past does not always predict the future - but with something like fielding statistics, you'd better have a good reason for thinking it'll be different.
McLouth and Reimold figure to split the time in left field this season, unless Reimold gets hurt, or McLouth goes back to being the player who was cast loose by Pittsburgh. If you want to be wildly optimistic about Nolan, he was worth +5 runs in 732.1 innings in 2009. Both of these guys lost a little credit based on arm strength. Not having the position be an offensive black hole will be a more important consideration for the Orioles as long as it's not a complete disaster in the field, which it doesn't look like it will be.
Last year: Adam Jones (-16)
The DRS tier scale notes that anyone below -15 is "awful" defensively. Ouch. For each of the last four seasons, the range component of his DRS is at least -12 runs, which means he's either being positioned bad consistently, he's not as good as everyone thinks he is, or DRS does not do a good job evaluating the center field skill of Jones. Whichever of these it is, this figures to remain about the same in 2013, and maybe he will win another Gold Glove anyway if he has a great year at the plate.
Last year: Nick Markakis (-7), Chris Davis (0), Endy Chavez (0)
Markakis was worth a fantastic +22 runs back in 2008, including +10 runs on the basis of his arm strength. He was exactly 0 on arm strength in 2012. This matches what our eyes have seen, where your memory of strikes to home is gradually eroded with dire visions of four-hoppers up the third-base line. DRS has no answer for why a player's arm and range degrades as he goes through his prime years. Likely will be similar to last year's performance. That's like Newton's First Law of Baseball.
Last year: Mark Reynolds (-7), Wilson Betemit (-6), Manny Machado (+7)
Note that Reynolds' -7 runs was in only 142 innings, which is really, really, really bad. Projecting Machado to have +21 runs in a full season would be wildly optimistic, but if he triples his playing time and doubles his runs saved, that's still a swing of +20 runs compared to last year's third basemen. That's huge. Massive potential for defensive improvement at the hot corner relative to last year.
Last year: J.J. Hardy (+18)
Save 18 runs in the field and we are more forgiving, somewhat, of a sub-Izturisian OBP. He may not have been the most deserving of a Gold Glove, but it's no embarrassment to the process that he won. He has been fairly consistently an above-average fielder in his career. If he's healthy enough to play - which he was last year, 158 games - it's not unreasonable to think he could remain in the same excellent vicinity.
Generally a disaster, both offensively and defensively. Roberts was -6 runs in only 149 innings, which is only slightly less awful than Reynolds was at third. Alexi Casilla was worth +15 runs by DRS in 744 innings for the Twins. However, as recently as 2009 he was worth -13 runs. Significant improvement as a player, or another sign that this may not be a great statistic to use?
To believe that Roberts has anything to offer to this team, you have to believe that he is healthy, and that a healthy Roberts has enough baseball skill left in his 35 year old body to contribute. That Roberts may still find a little something at the plate is possible; defensively, it's got to be Casilla. And if Roberts can't hit, it might as well be Casilla out there. Wide range of outcomes possible depending on what Roberts has and how long they stick with him.
Last year: Mark Reynolds (-2), Chris Davis (-4), Wilson Betemit (0)
That's -4 runs in 343 innings for Davis, which would put him in "awful" territory over a full season at the same rate. But don't worry, you guys, because he slugged over .500 last year and he's put lots of work in over the offseason and is taking lots of grounders in spring training. An optimistic scenario is Davis as below average, instead of awful, and then he hits 40 home runs. A pessimistic scenario is he strikes out 200 times, hits fewer homers and is giving back -15 runs by DRS.
For catchers, DRS adds in a factor for how they control the running game. Wieters is worth +6 runs here. The two classic blunders are getting involved in a land war in Asia and going in against a Sicilian when death is on the line. A blunder so obvious that it did not even need to be listed by Vizzini is running on Matt Wieters.
One thing that goes along with bringing back mostly the same team is that you're bringing back mostly the same defense. Machado at third base for a full season represents the possibility for marked improvement, as does Casilla at second base, if he plays and is at the level he was last year. If you squint, and you think Markakis was dogged by injuries that hurt his range and are now healed, he could improve. Left field looks to be a wash defensively. I am scared of Davis at first base.
All of which adds up to: can the regular season get here already? I'm tired of hypotheticals. Thanks.