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The Orioles defense has flown under the radar—just like the team as a whole

From a dicey start in April/May, it’s now a strength of this unit.

Baltimore Orioles v Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Asked the other day by The Sun to name his preferred defensive alignment, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde demurred: “It’s like saying ‘Who do you like better?’ I got Gold Glovers all over the place.”

On Wednesday night, the Orioles’ defense didn’t inspire much confidence in a 5-2 loss to San Diego—especially not during a seventh inning where Fernando Tatis Jr. singled, took third on a failed pickoff throw by Cionel Pérez, and then stole home. It was a deflating sequence that reminded you how important defense is to winning games.

Fortunately, the Orioles haven’t forced their fans to deal with much similar incompetence this season. Among all MLB teams, Baltimore shakes out fourth in fielding percentage (.989) and either sixth in Defensive Runs Saved (Baseball Reference) or seventh (Fangraphs).

Interestingly, some defensive metrics love the Orioles a little less. Take outs above average (OAA), where the team comes in 22nd (Fangraphs) or 25th (Statcast). Measured in OAA, the Orioles have no Top 5 player at any position.

A team that’s saving runs but making few difficult plays? If the data speaks the truth, the picture that emerges is of a bunch of non-spectacular fielders who are playing tight and avoiding mistakes. That could be close to the truth.

Let’s break this down a bit. Here are the Orioles’ Top 5 fielders according to three major publications (Statcast, Baseball Reference and Fangraphs).

1. Jordan Westburg, 2. Adley Rutschman, 3. Austin Hays, 4. Jorge Mateo, 5. Cedric Mullins (Statcast OAA)

1. James McCann, 2. Jordan Westburg, 3. Gunnar Henderson, 4. Austin Hays, 5. Ramón Urías (Bref DRS)

1. Adley Rutschman, 2. Jorge Mateo, 3. James McCann, 4. Jordan Westburg, 5. Ramón Urías (Fangraphs Def/UZR)

A couple of obvious takeaways from these lists:

1. The Orioles can’t complain about their catchers.

2. Jordan Westburg has been a huge addition, Gunnar Henderson is emerging as a rock star, and we shouldn’t complain about Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo so much.

3. The outfield has been OK but not spectacular.

Start with the catching. Neither Rutschman nor James McCann get top billing among MLB backstops, but both are really good at what they do. Adley ranks above-average in pitch blocking, pop time to second, and pitch framing. The only category he’s “average” in is throwing. McCann is considered average-to-good in all but blocking, and he’s an excellent thrower. Only three AL teams have more runners caught stealing than the Orioles (24), and no team has fewer passed balls (1).

Besides these measurable outcomes, one of the pair’s more underrated aspects is how smart they are, both consistently getting kudos for calling great games. During Sunday’s series-clinching victory against Seattle, James McCann went out to the mound in the tenth inning to calm down Shintaro Fujinami. According to Fujinami himself after the game, it worked. How’s that for an intangible?

Turn to the infield. When it comes to defensive runs saved, here is where most of the credit goes (19 of the team’s 27 runs saved). No surprise, when you see that Jordan Westburg, Jorge Mateo, Ramón Urías and Gunnar Henderson are widely considered to be the O’s top defenders.

To show how important these fielders have been, let’s break down the Orioles’ fielding data chronologically. When you look at outs above average by month, you see a ton of variation.

Orioles Monthly Fielding (Statcast)

Month OAA MLB Rank
Month OAA MLB Rank
March/April -13 29
May -5 25
June 6 7
July -1 21
August 0 19

What explains a bad April/May and a good June/July?

One answer: Jordan Westburg. The rookie infielder debuted on June 26 and it’s no secret that he’s impressed at both second base and third. He currently ranks as the O’s leader in OAA at both positions, and is earning Hyde’s trust, with 12 starts already in August. He’s also taking away starts from Adam Frazier, whom, fairly or not, BaseballSavant absolutely hates as a fielder.

Another explanation: Gunnar Henderson.

The rookie looked erratic at the start of the year, mixing brilliant throws with boneheaded ones. Of nine errors he committed in 819.2 innings this season, over half were in April/May, with five errors in 77 chances. But he’s made just four errors in 188 chances since. According to Baseball Savant, Henderson has the third-strongest throwing arm of any infielder in the majors, too.

One more thing to add about the Orioles’ hapless May. Ryan Mountcastle is normally a very good fielder, but that month, he was struggling mightily with what turned out to be vertigo. He was put on the IL on June 13, and in his absence, Ryan O’Hearn did a great job, with just one error at 1B in 297 chances. While his range grades out less highly than Mounty’s, metrics between the two are split. So is their playing time. In 31 second-half games, O’Hearn has started 16 games at 1B to Mountcastle’s 14, with Santander also drawing one. We’re lucky to have such a 1B/DH platoon.

Meanwhile, Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo are both considered to be having down years compared to 2022, a year in which one won a Gold Glove and the other should have. But both continue to rank at the top of the team across several defensive categories.

Finally, there’s the outfield, which advanced metrics kind of treat like the black sheep of the family. The outfield is credited with only six of 27 DRS this season, and none of Fangraphs, BaseballSavant or Baseball Reference is kind to the range of Anthony Santander, Aaron Hicks or Austin Hays.

Are these guys getting an unfair rap? True, Santander is slow of foot, but according to Statcast, his success rate of 86% is only 1% below what you’d expect it to be. The Sun reports that over the past two seasons, the 2020 Gold Glove finalist rates positively in defensive runs saved and neutral in OAA. So far, Hicks has been rated exactly average to below-average in his time as an Oriole. But he’s been a much more serviceable replacement, especially at the plate, than any of us expected.

As for Hays, he has one of the highest fielding percentages of any outfielder, an above-average arm, plays in one of the biggest left fields in the game, and can make plays like this. So maybe it doesn’t matter what the data tells us.

Then there’s Cedric Mullins, who is either a very good fielder (not excellent, though) or, according to Fangraphs, similarly bad as Santander. This, to me, sounds nuts. Perhaps this reflects his two bouts with soft-tissue injuries this season? Other than that, there’s not much more to offer in response than this.

Brandon Hyde is not a manager known for day-in, day-out consistency when it comes to a lineup card, but that’s not for lack of options. In fact, quite the opposite. As this team has grown and solidified over the season, one factor to keep in mind to explain their winning ways is the defense.