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Is right field the position most in need of an upgrade for the Orioles?

Despite a much-maligned second base, advanced metrics deem right field the spot the O’s where got the least production. Is Anthony Santander still getting an unfair rap?

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Baltimore Orioles v San Francisco Giants
One of the few moments of defensive non-brilliance for the Orioles this year.
Photo by Brandon Vallance/Getty Images

Enough about the rotation; we’re all sick of talking about it. I mean, I’m sure something will happen before spring training: with their deep minor league system, the Orioles will swing a trade and not continue to hoard prospects the way Miss Havisham hoarded wedding cake. But it looks like that upgrade may have to wait awhile.

It’s true, a 101-win team doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. But is the focus on pitching upgrades (both rotation and bullpen) distracting the focus from other areas that need improvement?

Two of the most common stories about the Birds last season was 1) Is this team lucky or good? and 2) All those platoons! The two plotlines were related. The Orioles seized first place in the AL East on July 19, 95 games into the season, and although some outlets thought they were overperforming, they never gave the lead back. They lacked star power, minus Adley and Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson. They never led the American League in team hitting, for average or power. Their defense was good, not “wow,” and their starting pitching was average, at best.

Meanwhile, they were one of the most prolific teams in the league at using platoons to their advantage. They did it all over: Adam Frazier (130 G) and Jordan Westburg (50 G) splitting time at second with Ramón Urías (22 G) and Joey Ortiz (7 G). Adley Rutschman (110 G) getting spelled by James McCann (59 G). Team Ryan, lefty and righty, O’Hearn (70 G) and Mountcastle (90 G). They did it, too, in right field, where Anthony Santander played just 97 games, although he wasn’t hurt for any long stretch during the season.

All the platooning worked brilliantly for the Orioles a lot of the time, but sometimes it didn’t.

Consider this kind of funny chart. BaseballReference takes its Wins Above Replacement measure, adds it up for all players who played each position on the diamond, and ranks each team based on how much production they got at each spot.

Source: BaseballReference

Pound for pound, the Orioles’ “most valuable” positions were 3B, followed by DH, catcher, and… pinch-hitter? No surprises, actually: Gunnar is a stud, O’Hearn’s lefty bat came out of nowhere, Adley is Adley, and the Orioles’ depth allowed Brandon Hyde to flourish pushing late-innings buttons.

Then, comparatively speaking, there was right field. Not only did the Orioles did receive negative value at the position, it was their second-worst position in relative terms after starting pitching.

Is this a Santander problem? Let’s explore.

Santander played 97 games at the position, but also getting action in right field were Ryan McKenna (55 games), Ryan O’Hearn (23), Aaron Hicks (21), Terrin Vavra (13), Colton Cowser (12), and then, in single digits in games, Adam Frazier (him?), Kyle Stowers, Austin Hays, Josh Lester and Heston Kjerstad.

So, lots of interesting Orioles played in right field this field. There were a lot of bats to keep in the lineup this year, which was fortunate.

But was the revolving door in right field a sign of discontent? Santander, a talented switch-hitter, didn’t need a platoon at the plate.

So was it his defense? Nobody really has nice things to say about his defense. Fangraphs, for instance, considers him the fourth-worst fielder on the team. But polling the other major sources, it wasn’t really that bad. -3 Run Value, says BaseballSavant. -0.6 WAR was BRef’s verdict.

Besides, although McKenna spelled him a lot, it wasn’t for a lot of innings (McKenna played only a fifth of Tony Tater’s, usually just late, in close games).

Meanwhile, Santander himself DH’d 47 times because manager Brandon Hyde liked to keep his lefty bat in the lineup, too.

He finished, in fact, with the fifth-highest WAR (3.0) on the team, behind four of the team’s best players: Gunnar, Kyle Bradish, Adley, and Félix Bautista. Santander’s defense was a drag, but as an all-around baseball player, he certainly was not. He led the team in doubles, home runs and RBIs, and, with nearly identical lefty/righty OPS splits (.790/.798), made himself indispensable in the lineup.

In fact, you could make the argument that he should have been playing more this season. The book is yet to be written on Kyle Stowers, Colton Cowser and Terrin Vavra’s professional careers, but all of those experiments were of negative value in right field this year. McKenna was in there strictly for his defense. And Ryan O’Hearn’s games there were not a success.

In other words, value was sapped in the right corner by a little of Santander’s clumsiness, a lot of experimentation with the lineup, and brief auditions in the outfield not working out so great.

All of this is a long way of saying that the lineup looks pretty good, even at the positions you could point to as having sagged a bit in value. Will Santander be back to manning the corner next season, however gracelessly? Probably. Frankly, I hope so.

Back to biting our nails and waiting for rotation upgrades.