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The Orioles aren’t a bad defensive team, they just aren’t as good as they used to be

Not long ago, the O’s were one of the best defensive teams in baseball, but those days feel like a distant memory.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Just a few years ago, the Orioles had one of the best defensive rosters in MLB. From 2011 through 2015, the O’s had at least one Gold Glove winner, including three years with three awards each. Now, Danny Valencia is starting at third base. How the mighty have fallen.

The Buck Showalter Birds peaked defensively back in 2013. According to FanGraphs, they ranked second in MLB in defense runs above average (DEF) (45.7) and UZR (36.9) that year. It’s gone downhill in the years following.

In 2014, the O’s were fourth in both DEF and UZR. They haven’t sniffed the top ten in either over an entire season since then. They bottomed out last season with -29.9 DEF and -29.9 UZR, both of which were ranked 28th in baseball.

The 2017 Orioles had a lot of reasons for dropping so low in various fielding categories. Mark Trumbo and Seth Smith spent a lot of time in right field. Hyun Soo Kim, a bad fielder, and Trey Mancini, a rookie learning a new position, shared innings in left field. J.J. Hardy was a shell of his former self at shortstop. Adam Jones battled injuries all year long, and it showed in his peripherals. Many of those problems have disappeared to begin the 2018 season.

Smith, Kim and Hardy are all gone. Trumbo is yet to play due to injury but should spend a lot of his time at DH. Mancini looks more comfortable in the outfield. And Adam Jones seems to have regained a sharpness in center.

Early on, the team’s fielding stats have seen improvement. They sit in 16th overall with 0.4 DEF, and they are all the way up in 10th with a 1.4 UZR. These O’s aren’t matching the previous heights that the franchise saw from 2012-14, but it is certainly a boost over last year’s disaster.

That said, there are still some glaring holes in the current defense that need to be filled. The team is in the midst of a 5-11 start to the 2018 season. The offense, as a whole, has been anemic. They can’t be depended upon each night, so the O’s may as well defend to the best of their ability.

Valencia hasn’t been a major league caliber third baseman for a few years. If he absolutely needs to play in the field, Showalter could try him in the corner outfield spots or maybe first base, where he appeared in 984 innings for the Mariners last season (-5.3 ErrR, -4.7 UZR).

With Jonathan Schoop on the DL for the time being, Engelb Vielma has been placed on the major league roster. Vielma won’t wow you with the stick (career .256/.316/.303 hitter in the minors), but he’s a plus defender that can play anywhere on the infield. Valencia isn’t hitting as it is (.130/.286/.304), so Vielma would be a net gain for the next week or so until Schoop is fit to play.

As strange as it is to say, Chance Sisco has been the Orioles better defensive catcher early on. Caleb Joseph has a -0.3 DEF, has only thrown out two of nine would-be base-stealers and has been a part of two passed balls and six wild pitches in 85 innings. Sisco, on the other hand, has a 1.5 DEF, has thrown out three of six would-be base-stealers and has allowed no passed balls while being a part of five wild pitches in 62 innings.

Catcher’s defense is more complicated than any other position. It can fluctuate a lot depending on which pitcher is in the game. Plus, there is the ever-evolving stat of pitch framing, which grades Joseph as the better receiver of the two. At the very least, you can say it’s a close call between whether Sisco or Joseph is the better defender. What is not close at all, however, is who is the better hitter. Sisco and his .276/.344/.379 triple slash takes it by a landslide over Joseph and his .097/.125/.161 line, making for an easier decision on who should get the bulk of the playing time.

Arguably the biggest change that happened to the Orioles this offseason was Manny Machado moving away from third base, where he was one of the best fielder’s in the sport, to his preferred position of shortstop, where he had seen mixed results as a big leaguer in short bursts of playing time. It also meant Tim Beckham would be switching to third base full-time, a position he had only minor experience at in his professional career.

So far, Beckham has gotten the better of the position trade. As a shortstop, the former Tampa Bay Ray had a UZR/150 of 10.3 in 2016 and 2.8 in 2017. As a third baseman with the O’s this year, he has a UZR/150 of 11.1. If that number holds, it would be the best full season of defense in his career so far. In fact, it would be the best season put up by a Baltimore third baseman since Machado’s 2014 campaign.

On the flip side of things, Machado has not been nearly as impressive at shortstop. FanGraphs has him with an atrocious -1.8 UZR through 146 innings, which would project out to a -13.8 UZR/150. That currently ranks him as the fifth-worst fielding shortstop in MLB.

Why has this happened to Machado? It’s pretty simple. Range, while important at every position, is more crucial at shortstop than it is at third base. Machado has the worst range of any shortstop in the league (-2.6 RngR). It’s a skill of his that had been deteriorating for a couple of years, but was easier to hide at his old position. At shortstop, the lack of range is quite evident.

Machado isn’t going to move back to third base. The decision has been made that he is this team’s shortstop. It was a questionable decision at the time, and it’s become worse as the games have been played. There is no doubt that Machado has an ability to make amazing plays than no one else on the Orioles possesses and it’s possible that he is still getting comfortable at the position once again. His numbers could improve as the season wears on.

What can be changed is who Showalter deploys elsewhere on the diamond. Vielma gives the Orioles a better chance to win than Valencia. Sisco, at the moment, is better than Joseph. And there are bound to be even better defensive alignments when looking at the decision between Mancini and Chris Davis at first base or Craig Gentry and Anthony Santander in right field.

The O’s have become an offense-first team for too long now. When the home runs aren’t flying, the team doesn’t score. It’s time for a change of course. Going with the best defensive lineup could do more to support a starting pitching staff that needs all of the help that it can get.