Defense is a tricky, tricky thing.
Last year, naturally, the Orioles were a train-wreck defensively. Miguel Tejada took over, playing out of position for the first time in his career, for the solid glove of Melvin Mora at third base. Ty Wigginton saw a massive amount of innings in the field, as did an aging Julio Lugo. Cesar Izturis seemed to be aging, losing a step in the field, which of course is ruinous to his tagline "all glove, no bat". The outfield was at least full of talent, but we've all been frustrated enough with Adam Jones' defensive lapses to suggest that he ought to move to one of the corners.
Was this the worst defensive Orioles' team in recent memory? It doesn't seem like a stretch at all to think so. They certainly didn't help prevent many runs from scoring, as the Orioles gave up the fifth most runs in baseball last year, and they looked bad (and, honestly, bored) doing it. I wouldn't at all be surprised to tell you that the defense was one of the team's worst weaknesses, and I imagine you wouldn't at all be surprised to hear it. I know I'm not.
And that is encouraging, because if you've been following along with my expectations, you'll know that I think the Orioles only need to prevent about 65 more runs from crossing the plate as they did in 2010. That's only moving from 4.85 runs allowed per game to 4.45 runs. A hugely upgraded defense, with actual corner infielders, will go a long way towards bridging the gap. There's only one problem:
The 2010 Orioles weren't bad defensively.
In fact, the 2010 team had the best defense Baltimore has seen in at least five years. Ridiculous? Absolutely. But still true. Defense is a tricky, tricky thing.
Defensive statistics are a labyrinth of information, so let's just look at this in the simplest possible way: what percentage of balls put into play does the defense turn into out(s)? That concept is measured with Baseball Prospectus' Defensive Efficiency, which can also be thought of as a combination of opponent's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and the number of times opponent's reached base on errors. Higher is better:
|Year||Overall Def. Eff.||Ground Ball Def. Eff.||Fly Ball Def. Eff.|
"Well, so what" you say, "If the Orioles were surprisingly decent at fielding in 2010, then that's good news. Now, with the upgrades to Lee and Reynolds, and getting Roberts for a full season, they should be even better in 2011!". But there's a problem with that theory, and that is that one season of games is too short and too volatile a sample to be able to say that with any accuracy.
Think about it like this: We know that Carlos Quentin is a better hitter than Adam LaRoche. In 2010, LaRoche hit for a .339 wOBA while Quentin hit for .356, so it's not even particularly close. But in May 2010 LaRoche hit .346 while Quentin only managed .293. LaRoche wasn't just better, he was dominatingly better. But we're still sure that Quentin is the better hitter - it's just that a month is too prone to hot and cold streaks to be a reasonable measuring stick. And it would be almost impossible to predict who would be better for any one month for the same reason. And defense is the exact same way.
I can point you to defensive metrics that I have faith in which will tell you that Ty Wigginton was a better first baseman than Derrek Lee in 2010, which just sounds completely absurd. But it's not infeasible that Wiggy got hot defensively and Lee got cold. And it's certainly no guarantee that Lee will improve upon Wiggy's numbers from 2010.
Also worth pointing out is the Orioles pitching staff has, in the past two years, moved towards allowing more fly balls than ground balls. Brian Matusz and Jeremy Guthrie in particular are among the league leaders in the amount of fly balls they give up. Unfortunately the outfield is the one spot that we can all agree has been downgraded, moving Luke Scott to left field. And fly balls, while they have a lower expected ball-in-play batting average also are where most extra base hits get hit.
So, if you have a mind to suggest that the Orioles will definitely shave runs off their "runs allowed" column in 2011 because of their improved defense, I'd advise you to reconsider. While I do not doubt that there is more defensive talent in the infield (and less in the outfield), I would not put any expectation on the defense as a whole to help or hurt the run prevention of the 2011 Orioles.
Instead, any expected improvements will have to come from the pitching staff. But should we expect improvement? Stay tuned for our thrilling conclusion (coming soon!).