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The Orioles are playing sneaky-good defense

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Silver linings, people. Good glovework might not compensate for the bad pitching right now, but it could during the rest of the season.

Baltimore Orioles v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The other day, first baseman Trey Mancini backhanded a sharp grounder on the short hop and I thought to myself, “You know, he doesn’t look half-bad out there.” A monster at the plate this season, Mancini has never been in the lineup for his glove, but I wondered: if he’s suddenly playing solid defense, is it possible that the Orioles are actually a good fielding team?

The answer, which may surprise you, is yes. According to a bunch of advanced metrics (UZR, UZR/150, and Def, which I’ll talk about in a sec), the Orioles have the sixth- to the tenth-best defense in MLB. I kid you not.

One month ago, I argued that Orioles infielders plus people named Ryan Mountcastle were costing the team runs. Río Ruiz and Pat Valaika were playing out of position, Maikel Franco and Mancini were liabilities in their natural positions, and Freddy Galvis, the best glove out there, was far from awesome, with a persistent groin injury and limited range.

A month later … well, forget the win-loss record for a second; the Orioles defense is much better. Ryan Mountcastle is an above-average first baseman, and wisely, Brandon Hyde has played him more there than in the outfield in May. Ryan McKenna has been an excellent fourth outfielder: if you extrapolate from his nine games to a whole season, he’d be the Orioles’ single best defender, with 31.9 runs saved. At second base, it’s soon to say if Stevie Wilkerson, with just 40 innings under his belt, is an upgrade over Río Ruiz and Ramón Urías, but signs point to yes. As for Maikel Franco, the jury is out—FanGraphs likes him, BRef hates him, and BaseballSavant is tepid—but defensively, this is better than what the Orioles thought they were getting in him. (The bat, though… eh, let’s not talk about the bat.) Meanwhile, Mancini, while not exactly knocking on the door for a Gold Glove, is not hurting his team much (with -1 DRS). And Freddy Galvis continues to rank at the top of Orioles defenders in WAR.

It’s not all good news—if you’re thinking of the catching position, you’re right. Pedro Severino is having his worst defensive season in years, and Chance Sisco is not much better, except at throwing out runners, where his 67% caught-stealing percentage shines. Still, when it comes to pitch framing (FRM), the Orioles are dead-last in the league. That will cost you.

Even so, overall, the Orioles are top performers as a defensive unit. They have a .986 fielding percentage, the third-best in MLB, and are top-10 in several other advanced fielding metrics. One is UZR, which translates a player’s entire performance into runs saved, and in which the Orioles are seventh in the majors, behind only Chicago, Colorado, San Francisco, Milwaukee, the Nationals, and the Twins. UZR/150, i.e. extended to almost a full season, puts them tenth. And Def, or defensive runs above average, a stat FanGraphs cooked up to measure a player’s value relative to other positions and across the league, has the Orioles defense ranked sixth-best overall.

Now, it is possible you’re less than impressed with this news, with the Orioles carrying a ten-game slump on their backs and the worst record in baseball. But you should be, for a few reasons.

First, our pitchers don’t exactly need help giving up runs, so this team needs to be as stingy as possible in the field. At one point, all of the Orioles starters’ stats were suffering from the bad defense around them. Now, respectively, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann’s ERAs of around 6.00 and 5.15 match their FIPs, so the two have to own their mistakes for now. On the other hand, Jorge López and Matt Harvey are both pitching better than their ERA suggests, given large gaps between their ERA and FIPs. The D has more work to do in lifting up these two, and in protecting John Means’s stellar season.

Second, this team is not a well-oiled machine, but it can play better than it has been of late. The pitching was good in April, but the bats were cold and the defense sucked. In May, that’s flipped: the offense has heated up as the pitching tanked and the glovework improved. Could June be the month the three finally sync up? Crazier things have happened. The point is, there’s no need to suddenly start losing games on stupid errors.

Finally, if you’re still not convinced that good defense should give fans any peace of mind during a protracted losing streak, just remember how awful it is to watch bad defense. Ask the Pirates, whose boneheaded play in Thursday’s game against the Cubs turned a routine groundout into a run-scoring double. All in all, it made for one of the saddest bloopers I’ve ever seen.

Given the Orioles’ recent stretch of wretched baseball, the fact that the team is playing good defense may seem like the tiniest of silver linings. Rebuilding Sucks might as well be the team slogan right now, as Mike Elias implied this week while preaching patience to the fanbase. But hey, fundamentals, right? There are many ways to lose games, and there’s no need to lose them on errors if we can help it. If the team has a turnaround of sorts brewing in June, steady hands will be a big help.

Besides, we could always be the Pirates.