Since the start of spring training, the new Orioles management was clear that a main priority of this team was going to be the defense. Speaking to reporters back on April 20th, Brandon Hyde explained:
This isn’t a team that’s going to break any home run records, this isn’t a team that’s going to break any strikeout records. We’re going to have to catch the ball. I look at last year’s stuff this offseason, it was obvious to me that we had to make defense a priority to compete, so that was something we said early in spring training, and we’ve worked hard at it and I think our guys have done a great job so far and we’re going to continue making it important.
If this is the game plan, over the last few weeks it’s been a little hard to tell. The O’s committed two errors against the Yankees in Wednesday’s doubleheader, but there were many more embarrassing lapses that didn’t make the scoreboard, like Stevie Wilkerson missing the cutoff man on a Luke Voit double that allowed DJ LeMahieu to score from first, Wilkerson and Mancini bumping into each other going after a fly ball in right, and a single by newcomer Kendrys Morales in the eighth that hit off Hanser Alberto’s glove.
As the season has crept on, the O’s are slinking down league tables in errors committed per game, and some of those plays really don’t pass the laugh test.
There was this diving attempt by Stevie Wilkerson on a ball slicing away from him that led to a two-run Kole Calhoun triple. It wasn’t a catchable ball, but it wasn’t a good look, either.
Then there was this play—one of the clear low points of the season thus far. You didn’t forget about this play, did you?
Pour one out for Jesús Sucre and Cedric Mullins.
The “no shit, Sherlock” explanation for these miscues is that they’re the result of players playing outside of their natural positions. There’s a reason for this: portions of the lineup have been unexpectedly cold, and Brandon Hyde is trying to plug those holes. The bad news is that the more he’s done so, the more he’s sending out unproven gloves into the field, and the leakier the defense is getting.
In his first quarter-season as a manager, Hyde has proven himself to be the opposite of a standpatter. He pulls struggling pitchers early. When it comes to bullpen roles, he keeps the guys guessing. He tinkers relentlessly with the lineup. And he’s had no qualms about moving people around in the field, whether this means starting Renato Núñez in left, Wilkerson in center, or Hanser Alberto in every spot on the diamond except shortstop, center, first, and catcher (seriously).
The O’s have emphasized “versatility” in their players, and Hyde likes it that way:
The more versatile your club is, the more options you have, the more you’re able to rest a guy or get certain guys in the lineup by being able to move guys around, by exposing guys to different positions. That’s why I did that a lot in spring training, moving outfielders around a lot, moving infielders to places. We’re going to continue to move guys around.
But so much moving around has led to some very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants defensive alignments, and some very ugly plays, as you can see. I admit, it’s kind of fun to turn on the TV and go, Renato Núñez is starting where? But is this what we should be doing a quarter of the way through the regular season?
The question is not whether Hyde should be delivering fans a lineup that performs at a high level on both sides of the ball, because, as far as I can tell, he can’t. The Orioles roster is, for now, one great big game of Whack-a-Mole: thwack a mole in the middle of the batting order and another will spring up in center field. Either way, this will cease to matter as soon as mid-season, when the lineup changes over as players are dealt off and prospects called up.
Going into the future, the more important question is whether Hyde’s hot-button roster decisions are contributing to bad results by moving guys around too much, thereby thwarting player development or watering down the defense so much that it drowns out the offensive improvements. Does Hyde have his players on too short a leash? The argument here is that the nature of a non-competing team is to give new guys long looks (one more reason this season sometimes feels like an extended spring training), and that that guys like Richie Martin and Cedric Mullins need regular at-bats in order to develop.
I’m going to go with a tentative no here, although I’m not 100% convinced that Hyde doesn’t have an overactive trigger finger. (It’ll be interesting to see whether the roster tinkering cools down over the rest of the season and beyond, when the tradeoffs between hitting and the D are hopefully less stark.)
Those who Hyde has benched for their bats, guys like Sucre and Mullins, didn’t just go through cold streaks, they strung together at-bats that gave real reason to question whether they could hit at a major league level, period. Richie Martin I’m divided about: he has shown pluck and a good batting eye that allows him to extend at-bats with two strikes, but the fact that he remains in the bottom 2% of league hitters in strikeout and hard-hit ball percentages gives no reason for questioning Hyde’s decision to use him as a platoon player.
And the guys who have gone into the field in their stead—Alberto, Núñez, and Wilkerson—have certainly made their case with the bat, if not with the glove. (To be fair, Wilkerson, who has a 0.1 UZR in CF so far, has done a thoroughly commendable job there considering his next-to-nil experience.)
Plus, where there have been bright spots on both sides of the ball, Hyde has let them play: Pedro Severino leads the league in caught stealing percentage, while showing more pop than ever in his career. It’s nice to have a consistent presence in the lineup, and one real outfielder, even if Dwight Smith Jr. is playing solid, not spectacular defense. Chris Davis remains a plus defender at first, and is getting more regular starts there now that the bat has come around. (As for Trey Mancini, a lot can be forgiven out in the field for that bat.)
A good craftsman never blames his tools, but it seems that Brandon Hyde is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The best baseball teams can field a productive offense and a run-saving defense, but for now, the Orioles can’t, it seems, have their cake and eat it too.