31 December 2014
The Orioles Are Still Excellent Defensively
Posted by Matt Kremnitzer
The Orioles have not done much this offseason, though they still reportedly plan to sign or trade for an outfielder and maybe bring in another reliever. That's not the type of offseason that many fans are clamoring for. But as currently constructed, the Orioles still have a solid core of players and figure to be competitive in an improved American League East.
Regardless of this offseason's moves, Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette know that defense matters. They are proponents of defensive shifting; the O's are one of the most frequent shifting teams in the majors. The Orioles are projected to be a top defensive team again in 2015, along with the Royals and Rays. Last season, the O's ranked second in Ultimate Zone Rating and third in Defensive Runs Saved. In 2013, they finished third and 11th, respectively.
Baltimore's infield defense could be outstanding in 2015, if Manny Machado is able to stay on the field. The O's already have a very good combination up the middle in J.J. Hardy at shortstop and Jonathan Schoop at second base. Chris Davis is adequate at first base. Steve Pearce fares better statistically at first, though the O's may rely on him to log more outfield innings (where he is also decent). Matt Wieters, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, may not be ready for opening day (though Machado, recovering from knee surgery, should be). Fortunately, the Orioles have a pretty good defensive backup in Caleb Joseph. Wieters is the superior offensive option and is strong defensively, though he does not grade well as a pitch framer. Joseph's data sample is much smaller, but he appears to be a better pitch framer. He also controlled the running game well in his 78 games behind the plate last season. The hope is that Wieters rounds into form both offensively and defensively, but there's no guarantee of that. He also could serve as the designated hitter more often, especially in April and May.
Moving to the outfield, Adam Jones posted positive UZR and DRS numbers for the first time since 2008 and 2010, respectively, so it's possible that last season was a fluke of sorts. But even having him improve overall to the level of an average center fielder would be a nice upgrade. On the corners, the combination of Alejandro De Aza and Pearce could be an improvement on the Nelson Cruz/Nick Markakis duo. Markakis and particularly Cruz performed better in the field than expected last season, but they are both on downward trends and expecting anything better than average defense from them going forward would be a mistake. Bringing in a Colby Rasmus/Nori Aoki type would certainly help, as would an increase in playing time for David Lough, a superb corner outfielder. But the addition of Rasmus or Aoki would obviously make for a more crowded outfield.
Strong team defense the last couple seasons has been a tremendous help to O's pitching staffs. That's likely a large reason why O's starters have been so effective at stranding runners. A strong defense doesn't lead to great pitching, but it doesn't hurt. It certainly is one reason (along with good fortune, etc.) why a starting staff can pitch effectively while not striking out many batters or getting a bunch of grounders. The same goes for the Royals, another excellent defensive team (as the Orioles are well aware).
The O's offense will almost assuredly take a step back. They finished eighth in the majors in runs last season and sixth in wRC+. And a big bat addition is not likely. But outstanding defense, decent pitching, and a good but not great offense still may amount to a pretty good team. It's not a terrible formula, and the O's also haven't locked themselves into any potentially disastrous contracts this offseason. That doesn't mean they are done spending money, and they shouldn't be. But there does appear to be a method behind this team's relatively quiet offseason.
Photo via Keith Allison