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Orioles defense and its contribution to run prevention in 2014

One thing that helped the Orioles on their way to a division title last year was a great defense. With most all of the same players back, here's hoping they can manage that again.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

In my last post, I analyzed the first of three theories for why the Orioles as a whole got significantly better at run prevention as last season progressed. I looked at the starting pitching and while it did get better, there’s not enough evidence to support the argument it was the rotation alone. The Orioles are known for having an above average defense, but did it get better as 2014 progressed?

To answer this question, I looked at two positions that I thought may have been most responsible due to the changing players at those positions: LF and 3B. I’d argue that whether the defense was good or bad at RF, CF, 1B, SS it was at least consistent since Markakis, Jones, Davis/Pearce, and Hardy were everyday players. (Note: I briefly also looked at 2B and C, but decided there wasn’t as much of a difference between players to those positions in regards to defensive play to warrant including in this analysis).

For Left Field, games played in the three thirds of the season are approximately as follows:


Games

De Aza

Cruz

Lough

Pearce

Young

April/May

54

0

26

23

3

2

June/July

53

0

19

8

23

3

Aug/Sep

55

20

15

7

0

13

RF/G


2.1

1.92

1.25

1.86

1.19

In order to gauge the defense from that position by each player, I decided to use the stat of Range Factor per Game (RF/G). The range factor is the sum of each players putouts and assists. By combining the RF/G for each player in Left Field with their number of games played there, I can create a composite RF/G for the position. This is not a perfect calculation since there were a lot of defensive substitutions that probably helped, but the contribution in those instances was very minimal. The results look like this:

Period

RF/G (LF)

April/May

1.6

June/July

1.75

August/September

1.89

League Average

1.65

This shows the defensive contribution from Left Field did significantly increase as the season went on (18% increase). While this cannot be compared directly to ERA, it makes sense that steadily increasing defense in LF correlates to (and is partially responsible for) steadily decreasing ERA and run prevention.

Manny Machado is very likely the best defensive player the Orioles have and arguably one of the best defenders in the game. Unfortunately, he missed significant time in 2014 and that had an effect on the play at the hot corner. Using the same method as above provides the following results for Third Base in 2014:


Games

Machado

Flaherty

Schoop

Davis

Parades

Johnson

April/May

54

27

17

14

0

0

0

June/July

53

45

8

0

0

0

0

Aug/Sep

55

10

7

0

19

12

7

RF/G


2.79

1.7

2.18

1.48

2.08

0.88


Period

RF/G (3B)

April/May

2.37

June/July

2.63

August/September

1.8

League Average

2.13

Before I did this analysis, I would have said that the combination of Schoop and Flaherty at Third Base before Machado returned last year was worse than the combination of everyone who filled in after he left...at least based on this measure, I would have been wrong. Likely the fact the team was winning seven games out of ten at the time clouded my judgement. On the other hand, Schoop committed four errors in 14 games. After Machado left, the trio of Davis, Parades, and Johnson committed nine errors in 38 games. Machado? He only committed nine all season (82 games). Double plays went down without him as well - he turned 17 while everyone else only turned 12. So I think it can comfortably be said the defense was a lot better with him on the field. Again, improved defense is going to correlate to decreased ERA. While it did get worse at Third Base after Machado left in early August, remember that the starting pitchers actually did pitch better in the time frame. We always hear players talk about "picking each other up", maybe this is what they mean.

To complete the story though, I still need to look at the performance of the bullpen, which may also help explain the better run prevention. In this case, I'm less concerned with the performance of individual relievers as I am with the bullpen as a whole. Therefore, I just calculated the ERA and FIP for each pitcher over each third of the season and found the average of those values. Note: Preston Guilmet, Troy Patton, Joe Saunders, and Ramon Ramirez were excluded due to such a small number of innings pitched.


ERA

FIP

April/May

4.22

4.53

June/July

3.63

3.21

August/September

2.37

3.34

Note: Values are averages of individual performances

As with the starting rotation, there's a steady decline in ERA as well as a decrease in FIP but it doesn't follow the ERA drop. While the rotation's drop in FIP came in August/September, the bullpen's came sooner - in June/July. A couple other interesting things in the data I compiled:

- Remember Tommy Hunter's struggles as closer? I'm not saying he should get that role back, but it probably didn't help that he had a .431 BAPIP against him in April/May
- The numbers above may make it seem as though Andrew Miller had no real effect, but he did - his individual FIP was 1.13 while Britton's, O'Day's, and Brach's all increased from the previous period

So where does all this leave us? I've attempted to summarize some of the data above into some kind of narrative that might fit the season.

April/May: The team as whole did not play particularly well. Pitching was below average and defense was only slightly better than average. This was reflected in the team's record at the end of May of 26-24.

June/July: The starting rotation did not pitch much better, but was aided by a slightly better BAPIP against. The defense improved, especially at third base with the return of Manny Machado. The bullpen pitched better than they did all season. All of this led to an overall improvement at run prevention and a record of 60-47.

August/September: The starting rotation improved a lot, and continued to be aided by a drop in BAPIP against. The defense at Third Base got worse after Machado left, but in Left Field it continued to get better. The bullpen continued to pitch very well, with Andrew Miller providing an excellent contribution. This continued the trend of better run prevention. It probably also helped that their competition at this point was down, with teams like the Rays and Red Sox having traded some of their more talented players outside the division. They finished 96-66.

So what should be done in 2015 to continue the trend? That's pretty hard to say. The pitchers all showed they could pitch well and could pitch poorly. With so many young guys, its still a toss-up which way they're going to fall. Defense matters and I don't think losing Markakis or Cruz really hurt that too much, so as long as Machado stays healthy it should be just as good as ever. As you might have expected, there's nothing definitive here. There's just too much variation over 162 games to be able to say for sure what might have helped turn a team around. But hopefully the analysis here provides a slightly better picture of how the team got its first division title in 17 years.