This post can be called the first of a two-part series, focusing on some defensive details and specifically Manny Machado’s impact on the improvement of team defense this season.
So for the first half of the season the Orioles played TERRIBLE defense, no position more glaring a hole than at 3B. They have allowed 58 unearned runs on the season and at the time of Machado’s promotion led the league in errors by a wide margin. Despite all of this they were in the thick of the race, but popular consensus was that statistics say that they can’t keep this up and they will fall to earth soon enough. Common sense said that no team that bad defensively had made the playoffs in more than 20 years. The trading deadline came and fans were begging for a solution at 3B, some even ready to cut Mark Reynolds due to the awful defense and a down year at the plate. Some fans may say that a poorly constructed roster had too many DH only players and not enough 3B or LF. Chase Headley has been having an MVP type season on top of great defense, and O’s fans were dreaming of his bat taking off in cozy Camden Yards, however the Padres with a brand new ownership group in place were thinking of building around Chase and trying to get back in the hunt next season, so they were asking for the moon and a couple other planets in return. The O’s wouldn’t meet that price, and it was a smart move.
Enter Manny Machado, one of the top prospects in baseball. The comparisons to Alex Rodriguez, who was also from Miami, have been a bit of a reach, but have been around anyway. For me, the similarity was that ARod grew up idolizing Cal Ripken, a big SS that was athletic enough to play the position well and helped redefine the offensive expectations of the position. In turn, Manny grew up idolizing ARod, who took that torch from Cal and kept it burning until moving to 3B, a speculation many scouts had made about Manny himself. Manny, who just turned 20 this summer, is listed at 6’3 and 185lbs, which many think will grow once he settles in at the big league level and adds some more muscle to his frame, this is the big reason why many experts feared a move to 3B, simply outgrowing the position. Seeing him a few times in the minors, including one of the two games he played at 3B during Brian Roberts rehab stint, I had a slightly different take on his defensive potential.
Defensively, not all players are made the same, which is why some can play certain positions, some can play multiple positions, and some play positions better than others. For this conversation, we’ll stick to the infielder side of the equation. What makes for a good defensive SS for instance? Great hands are a must for any infielder as the ball comes hard and fast at the ML level, and funny hops are part of the game, so being able to adjust and make the play, away from the body, in close in a handcuff situation, on the backhand or out of the air are all important at all four infield positions. Where the differences arrive are in the position specific requirements, which is what keeps any corner infielder from being able to play both 1B and 3B and what keeps middle infielders from being able to play 2B/SS/3B interchangeably. For instance, a 1B needs to have better hands than arm strength, as playing hops and scooping throws are the most important need there, having good range which ties into both lateral speed and footwork is nice, but many 1B get by as long as they can field the ball. At 3B, since there are more RHB which pull the ball more often, not only are good hands important, but a quick first step and fast reflexes are extremely important there, as well as great arm strength to make the throws across the diamond. At SS, good hands, and arm strength are still important like 3B, but because there is much more ground to cover, lateral range, and good footwork are important since there are exchanges and throws made around the bag. This carries over to 2B who have to have that same footwork and range to cover the bag and infield range (especially to make up for 1B with little range) but arm strength isn’t as important at this spot.
Manny has exceptional arm strength, a great first step, and good hands, but his weaknesses defensively are that he strides forward better than moves side to side, where he has some trouble playing the ball when moving laterally. This puts him more in the mold of a 3B than a SS, although while he may be able to play average to slightly below average defense at SS, he looks to be better than average at 3B. Manny has made quite a few spectacular plays at 3B in his 41 games played, and only made 3 errors, two of which were throwing errors and one fielding error where one got through his legs on Sunday. In the minors, Manny made 19 errors at in 94 games, and then 23 errors in 106 games his first two professional seasons. Compared to the 6 errors Reynolds made at 3B in 15 games or the 26 errors he had there last season, and the 13 errors Betemit made in 69 games there this season, it is leaps and bounds better than the early part of the year.
By inserting Manny defensively at 3B, not only did it improve the defense there, but it moved Reynolds into the full time starter at 1B where he has proved to be slightly above average at the position. That moved Chris Davis into a split between RF where he has made 0 errors in 19 games filling in for Markakis and DH where it’s pretty darn hard to make an error. Coupled with bringing up Nate McLouth who has made 1 error in 45 games in LF this season between the O’s and Pirates, the defense has been significantly improved around the extremely solid up the middle trio of Wieters, Hardy and Jones. The debate has been sparked for next season on how to improve this team for ongoing contention, is it better to create a hole to fill at 3B by trading Hardy and moving Manny to SS? With other questions to be answered such as: Is Reynolds the answer at 1B? What FA will be signed in the offseason that will adjust the current roster? Will McLouth be resigned? Plenty of things need to be answered this offseason to know for sure, but one thing has already been solved, team defense cannot simply be an afterthought going forward.