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The Orioles' New Defensive Identity

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It's tough to shake the idea of the Orioles as a team that can hit but is super-easy to score on. And yet, that very perception is starting to look outdated.

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Last week, Baseball Info Solutions* released the 2012 Fielding Bible Awards. The Fielding Bible is not even remotely as mainstream as any of the Baseball Writers Association of America awards nor Rawlings' Gold Gloves, but they do seem to carry more weight amongst those of us who pay attention to them. The Fielding Bible is chosen by an MVP-esque ballot given to ten different sources, mostly some of the more respected baseball writers (Bill James, our boss Rob Neyer, Joe Posnanski, Peter Gammons, and so on), and it seems to me like the voters take it more seriously than the "Rafael Palmeiro: Gold Glove winner in 28 games played at first base" voters of the Gold Gloves. Your mileage may vary.

*My employer, so take whatever grain of salt you want to take along with me praising my own work. I did not vote on the Fielding Bible Awards, except to take part in Tom Tango's Fan Poll.

Last year, Matt Wieters won the Orioles' first Fielding Bible ever (the award has only existed since 2006). This year, the Orioles were shut out, though a couple of guys placed high on the ballots. Wieters came in second place for catchers, behind Yadier Molina (who I think is one of the best defensive players in baseball at any position). J.J. Hardy came in second place for shortstops, behind the incredible Brenden Ryan (who may also be the best defensive player in the game).

If I were a betting man, I'd be putting a lot of money down on the Orioles taking home some more defensive mantlepieces in the next month or so. Wieters, Hardy, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis all have extremely good defensive reputations in the game. In fact, the Orioles on the whole have really remade themselves into a run-prevention squad.

It wasn't too long ago that the Orioles were giving up the most runs in baseball. Literally. In 2011 they led the majors in runs allowed. In 2010 they were fifth worst. In 2009, they were the worst. 2008, third worst...2007, third worst...2006...well, you get the idea. In 2012, they still gave up more runs than 16 teams, but as many have pointed out the composition of the roster improved significantly as the season wore on. In the second half of 2012, the Orioles were—finally—an above average run prevention team, 12th in baseball.

If we try to separate the defense from the pitching, we only have a handful of tools at our disposal. Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved marks the 2012 O's as one of the game's worst defensive teams, as does UZR. On the other hand, for what it's worth, the 2012 Orioles ranked 9th best in defensive efficiency (basically, the inverse of batting average on balls in play: how often does the defense convert a ball in play into an out), and 9th best in James Click's park adjusted defensive efficiency. Click developed the stat a while back when he was writing for Baseball Prospectus. He is now one of the gurus in the highly-thought of Tampa Bay front office.

The Rays are the media darling of defensive work, often ranking high on the advanced defensive metric scales as well as being one of the teams we think is benefiting the most from using defensive shifts. The Blue Jays were ranked number one is this category, according to BIS, the Rays second. The Orioles - surprisingly enough - were third in runs saved by the shift*.

*Notice any similarities between these teams? I'll add that the Red Sox came in just behind the Orioles, while the Yankees are towards the bottom of the pile. Is this a case of the AL East teams getting the most opportunities to shift on the pull-heavy Yankee lineup? I don't have an answer to that yet, but let's keep it in mind for the future.

The Orioles have quietly but deliberately put some serious infrastructure into maximizing their defensive work. They use a lot of shifts effectively. They took a guy billed as "Joe Mauer with power" and instead turned him into the best defensive catcher in the American League. They developed Manny Machado in such a way that he could not only move to third base easily, but he could move to third base and instantly become one of the better fielding third basemen in the league. They locked up a plus defensive shortstop despite his mediocre bat.

They certainly deserve to share in that praise that's headed to the Rays.

This has been a long, long process, and it is hardly finished. But it was incredible to harvest some of the fruits of all that labor this past season and see this team thoroughly shut down opposing offenses in the playoffs. The way things are progressing, it probably will not be the last time we're talking about the Orioles' defense.