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Grading the Orioles defense so far

It’s not the errors that are hurting the team, but the inability to make routine plays.

MLB: APR 11 Red Sox at Orioles
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s tough to make predictions, as Yogi Berra once said, especially about the future. This Orioles team was expected to have a few weak spots: the rotation, followed by the rotation, and also the rotation. So far, so good: Baltimore’s starter ERA is 4.75, 22nd in MLB.

The problem with this story is that ERA is a limited tool, as statheads way more gifted than myself know. Take the starters again: their total ERA is 4.75, 22nd in the league. That’s pretty bad. On the other hand, their xFIP (expected fielding-independent-pitching) is 3.96, 14th in the league. That sounds a lot better.

As it happens, three of five Orioles starters—Matt Harvey, Jorge López, and Dean Kremer—have ERAs that are about two runs higher than their FIPs (Harvey: 5.12/3.39; López: 8.56/6.67, Kremer: 6.75/4.58). (Bruce Zimmermann has been moderately lucky, with a 5.07 FIP/4.57 ERA. John Means has had good defense behind him, with a 3.00 FIP and 1.52 ERA. But that’s OK when your walks/hits allowed per inning (WHIP) is 0.93—that’s superlative.)

So has the team been letting down their starters? Yes, but to be fair, team defensive statistics tell a tale of mediocrity, not badness. The team fielding percentage of .983 is 6th-best in the AL, and their 0.61 errors/game are about average in the league.

Again, these stats don’t paint the full picture, though. Go a little deeper, and you find that the Orioles’ fielding problems are not so much the result of screwing up routine plays as not making the slightly-harder-than-routine ones. In other words, the Orioles aren’t error-prone; but they do have very little range.

Fangraphs’s treasure trove of sabermetric fielding stats helps to shed light on the O’s doings in the field. ErrR, for instance, calculates how many runs are lost to errors. By this metric, the Orioles actually are the fourth-best team in the MLB. In other words, they’re not booting the ball and losing games. On the other hand, metrics like RZR measure the number of balls hit a fielder’s way that are successfully converted into outs. RngR is a general range factor for fielders. Based on RZR and RngR, the Orioles are a lowly 26th and 20th.

With one exception, it’s not the outfield that’s letting the team down. If you do exempt that one lanky righty in left field, the Orioles outfield has been worth 3.7 UZR. (With that lanky righty, that sinks to 1.0. Oof.) Based on arm strength and range, the Orioles outfielders are all performing at above-average levels, thanks to a team-leading DJ Stewart, Anthony Santander, and Ryan McKenna, in that order. Weirdly, Austin Hays is ranked just average in arm strength and range. But it’s a small sample size, and we know he can do better.

That leaves the infield. This is not the place saving the team runs right now, especially not the right side of it. The best defensive infielder out there right now, based on UZR and RZR (a good proxy for reliability), is Freddy Galvis. No cause for complaint with Galvis, especially since his bat has heated up lately. Next to him at third, Maikel Franco has been better in the field than advertised. He gets decent grades for range, in fact, and has made the occasional webgem. But he’s also error-prone and frequently screws up easy plays, according to an abysmal RZR of .571.

Unfortunately, the other side of the infield is really costing the team runs. The Rio Ruiz experiment at second base looks and feels nice, but his UZR at the position is -0.2 and at -0.4, his ErrR is a source of concern. Neither Ramón Urías nor Trey Mancini, meanwhile, have been error-prone, but they have negative range and pretty poor reliability.

That’s the overall picture of the defense—mostly the infield defense—at this point. There are definitely issues with small sample size, and there may be growing pains at second base, with two non-everyday players covering the position right now. For the rest, there’s not an enormous potential for growth. We’ve seen it plenty of times this season: a pitcher giving up weak contact but failing to get out of the inning. Unfortunately, given the infielders the Orioles have available right now, that’s a scenario fans might have to get used to this year.