Heading into this season, the formula for a successful Orioles’ season was pretty obvious. We knew the rotation would be weak, it was just a matter of how weak. If they could piece together enough decent starts, the power hitting, bullpen, and defense could carry to team to a successful year.
Most of that has happened. The O’s lead the majors in home runs by thirteen, and the bullpen has been one of the league’s best behind a historic season from Zach Britton. What hasn’t happened is the great defense that we’ve come to expect from an Orioles team in the Showalter/Duquette era.
Since the radical changes to the lineup halfway through the 2012 season (remember when Mark Reynolds and Wilson Betemit were splitting time at third?), the team defense in Baltimore has been generally near the top of the majors.
The advanced metrics pretty much agree on this. The two main metrics available on Fangraphs are Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). By DRS, the O’s were 9th in 2013, 3rd in 2014, and 19th in 2015. UZR tells a similar story: 2nd in 2013, 2nd in 2014, and 12th in 2015.
The drop-off in defensive performance last year was concerning, but conventional wisdom was that it was a blip on the radar and that the team would be right back near the top of the pack this season.
It made sense: the team was without J.J. Hardy and Jonathan Schoop for much of the year, and Adam Jones played hurt for a while before finally missing some time. Plus, the O’s used a revolving door of poor corner outfielders, most of whom were released before the season even ended.
The return to form that never happened
Turns out, we were wrong. The Orioles’ defense has been worst than last year by virtually every measure. The O’s rank 19th in UZR and 26th in DRS. So what’s the problem?
First of all, the problem does not lie with J.J. Hardy or Manny Machado. They’re both playing their typical elite-level defense. In terms of UZR/150, which is just runs saved according to UZR and scaled to 150 games to account for playing time differences, Machado ranks sixth overall (1st among third basemen) and Hardy ranks 13th overall (6th among shortstops).
Chris Davis is also having a nice year in the field. UZR (+4.2 runs) and DRS (+7 runs) both have him ranked 4th among first basemen, and he’s on pace for the best year of his career in both metrics.
Single-season defensive metrics aren’t always reliable (the sample size just isn’t high enough), but when multiple systems and the eye test all agree, we can start to believe it. To me, he just looks better this year than he ever has before.
So, if we’ve established that three Orioles infielders are playing Gold Glove-caliber defense, how could the team be so bad overall? What’s the problem? The answer is “basically everybody else”.
Poor defense: a true team effort
For both of these metrics, a positive number means runs saved above average. Zero is average, and a negative number is worse than average. In DRS, there are only two Orioles other than the three mentioned above who have played at least 60 innings at a position and have a positive number next to their names: Ryan Flaherty (+6 runs in 308 innings at third base) and Dylan Bundy (+1 in 81 innings).
That’s it. That’s the list. Yovani Gallardo, Francisco Pena, and Caleb Joseph all have +0 DRS (UZR doesn’t do pitchers or catchers). Everybody else who’s played at least 60 innings has been below average. Everybody.
That includes Matt Wieters (-3 DRS). It includes seven pitchers (Tillman, Worley, Wright, Brach, Wilson, Gausman, and especially Ubaldo Jimenez). It also includes - surprisingly -Jonathan Schoop.
This is the second year in a row now where defensive metrics have rated him as an average or slightly below average fielder. Last year’s surprising numbers looked like a sample size issue, or a result of Schoop being a step slower from his injury.
Now, it’s starting to look like 2014 may have been the outlier - Schoop might just not be an elite fielding second baseman. That’s fine - he can hit, and he’s not a disaster out there. The metrics just confirm what a lot of us have seen - he saves runs with his arm but gives some back with his glove.
With Hardy and Machado to his right, trading some range for a cannon of an arm on double play balls is a trade I’m willing to make. Schoop is still a very good player overall, but he might just not quite be the fielder we thought he was. That brings us to...
Oh boy, the outfield. Alex Conway wrote about this in May, and not much has changed. Mark Trumbo was expected to be a liability in the outfield, and he has been, but not as badly as we expected.
Joey Rickard has continued to struggle in the field as well, but he obviously hasn’t been out there recently because of his injury. Anyone who was watching the Orioles in April and May could plainly see that he takes some questionable routes to fly balls. He may be able to improve on that, but right now he just isn’t a very good fielder.
Meanwhile, Adam Jones is still the poster boy for the analytic community’s skepticism of the Gold Glove awards and the “old school” way of grading defense. Jones is great at the things that are easy to notice (throwing a runner out or making a diving shoestring catch) and weak at the less obvious ones, like playing a deep fly ball off the wall that may be caught by a rangier outfielder.
In fact, Jones’ -10 defensive runs saved puts him in a tie for 8th worst among all outfielders. Unfortunately, that’s not even the worst on his own team. That honor belongs to Hyun Soo Kim.
This is the one factor that’s changed since May. Kim has gotten some well-deserved increased playing time the past few months, but he has been atrocious in the field, even worse than Rickard. He’s at -11 DRS in less than half of the innings that Jones has played, which is remarkable.
UZR agrees, and paints an even worse picture. Among players who’ve played at least 400 innings at any one position, Brad Miller has the worst UZR/150 at -28.3. He was so bad at shortstop that the Rays completely skipped the charade of moving him to second or third base, and just moved him straight to first.
Just behind Miller - our friend Hyun Soo Kim (-26.4). Second-worst in all of baseball. Don’t get me wrong; I really like Kim. He’s likable and has had a fantastic year at the plate. But defensively, he’s just not an MLB-caliber outfielder, especially when it comes to his arm (also rated by DRS as 2nd-worst in baseball behind Jay Bruce).
Add all this up, and you have an outfield that ranks 29th in the game according to DRS and 30th according to UZR. Combine that with below-average fielding at pitcher and catcher, and you get a bad defensive team. If the O’s miss the playoffs, the starting pitching will correctly be to blame. That said, the defense shouldn’t get off the hook either.