That the Orioles defense, despite a very strong left side of the infield, is not very good is something readily apparent to anyone who spends a lot of time watching the team. How many times do you think you’ve seen a team make a play against the O’s this year, particularly in the outfield, that made you think, “How did he make THAT play?”
It’s a surprise to see that if you watch the Orioles all of the time because Orioles outfielders don’t make those plays. But very good outfielders make them with some regularity. The Orioles just don’t have that kind of outfield this year. That’s the price they’re paying for Mark Trumbo’s 41 home runs. So they’re getting something out of it. But they’re definitely paying a price.
ESPN’s stats guru, Mark Simon, shared to Twitter today a chart listing every MLB team’s total Defensive Runs Saved, broken down by position, with shifts included. The Orioles, by this measure, rank 26th in baseball in defense. How much has this poor defense been a contributing factor to the struggle of the Orioles starting rotation? It surely hasn’t helped.
Defensive Runs Saved, if you’re not familiar with it, is a publicly-available defensive metric that has a lot of complexities to it but at its core is pretty simple. If a player makes a play, it’s a plus. If a player doesn’t make a play, it’s a minus.
You get a bigger plus if you make a great play that not many others would make, and a bigger minus if you blow an easy play that most everyone at your position would make. The same is true with a smaller plus for a routine play made and a smaller minus for what would have been a tremendous play not made.
Add it all up and that’s your DRS. The Orioles are at -27. It’s on the abstract side in that you can’t say definitively that the sum total of bad Orioles defense has cost them exactly 27 runs, but it’s as close as we can get. The Orioles defense is not good. The best defense, belonging to the Chicago Cubs, is at +96 runs. Well, no wonder their pitching staff is so great.
It’s not all bad news for the Orioles. Not surprisingly, they have done very well at third base, thanks mostly to Manny Machado. Their +13 runs from third base is tied for third-best at that position in all of MLB, behind only the Giants and Rockies.
At the shortstop position, which has been mostly but not entirely J.J. Hardy, the Orioles also come out well. A +12 from their shortstops is tied for fourth-best at the position. If the O’s were so good everywhere, they’d be in much better shape than they are right now. The Orioles are one of only two teams with double digit positives from both third and shortstop.
The only other position on the diamond where the Orioles have a positive number is at first base, where their +8 runs are tied for second-best in the league. Chris Davis brings more than just home runs, a lot of strikeouts, and a low batting average this year.
I’ve skipped right over “the bad” because the ugly is really ugly. There are four positions where the Orioles are at or below -10 Defensive Runs Saved, including the entirety of their outfield. Yikes.
Another place where the Orioles really come out badly is their pitchers, who have been worth a collective -12 runs. I was surprised by this one - it seems tougher to gauge a pitcher as he doesn’t have as much room to move around. At -8 runs, catcher isn’t very good either.
But it’s the outfield that really hurts them. Center field, at -10 runs, is seventh-worst in all of baseball - a full 30 runs behind the leading team, the Royals. Adam Jones, for all of his Gold Gloves, just does not have the range of the really elite center fielders in the modern game, or even of the average players at that position. The elite includes the O’s division opponents like the Blue Jays (+15 in CF) and Rays (+14).
It gets worse! At right field, where the Orioles sit with -16 runs, they are third-worst in all of baseball. Again, this is no surprise if you’ve watched Trumbo out there. He’s not a right fielder. That’s just how it is. The Orioles are trying to get by and it’s not going well.
Worse even than right field is the Orioles left field situation, where they have been good for -24 runs according to DRS. That is the single worst left field defense in all of MLB. It doesn’t matter who’s been out there. Hyun Soo Kim, Nolan Reimold, Joey Rickard, Steve Pearce, whoever. They’ve all been bad at fielding.
The Orioles are one of just two teams to be in the negative at all three outfield positions and their combined outfield defense, at -40, is the single worst unit in MLB.
At least at right field, the Orioles have made up with it somewhat on offense. Their right fielders - mostly Trumbo - have combined for an .841 OPS, fourth-best in MLB. You can’t say the same at left field, where the combined .706 OPS ranks 23rd in the league.
So that’s two years in a row where left field has been a near-total disaster for the Orioles. If that’s going to get any better next year, it’s not going to come from inside the organization, either.
In the great old days of the Orioles franchise, there were the three pillars of Earl Weaver: Pitching, defense, and three-run homers. The 2016 Orioles are trying to get by with just the three-run homers, and since they don’t get on base much, it’s really just homers.
It’s worked for them, at least so far, as they sit in a playoff spot, and just one game behind the division lead, with 18 games to play. But sometimes it really isn’t pretty, especially when a ball is hit into the outfield.