The best left-side defenses ever

Hardy and Machado comprise two-thirds of Baltimore's superb left-side defense. - Jamie Squire

Investigating an unusual assertion by an announcer, and finding a surprising amount of validity in it.

Last Thursday, the Orioles played a doubleheader against the Twins, due to the deluge of the preceding two days. The latter of these games wouldn't have been anything spectacular, in and of itself; however, the reappearance of a certain Manny Machado at the game elevated it to must-see status for the Orioles faithful.

Machado and J.J. Hardy won Gold Gloves for their work at third base and shortstop in 2013; the former's was entirely deserved (31.2 UZR, first out of 20 third basemen), and the latter's was defensible* (6.0 UZR, 7th out of 21 shortstops). In the offseason, they traded for Kansas City left fielder David Lough, who turned heads with the glove last year (14.5 UZR, 9th out of 81 outfielders).

*No pun intended.

When this triumvirate coalesced for the first time, nary an Orioles fan could contain his or her excitement. Mike Bordick, the play-by-play man, is passionately loyal to the birds; hence, when introducing the defensive alignments in the top of the first inning, he let his euphoria show thusly:

...[This is] probably the best left side [defensively] in the history of the game, at least the past couple years...

H/t to Jeff Long for the quote.

It's the job of the announcers to inject positivity into the viewership — depressing the fans generally won't bring them back for more — and pointless, unprovable, or just abjectly false assertions are often, unfortunately, the way they go about doing this. In this case, however, there's a little more to the statement.

Let's look at projections. ZiPS forecasts for the rest of the season, which is obviously a conservative estimate — such is the nature of projections, for better or for worse. FanGraphs builds off this by providing a handy feature: ZiPS Update (uzips), which amalgamates the rest-of-season projection and the current achievements of every player. Using this, we should be able to get a reasonable estimate of where the defense of Machado, Hardy, and Lough will rank at the season's end. Isolating the sample to players who are projected to qualify for the batting title (i.e. those with 505+ PAs), we get the following:

Player (3B) PA Fld Player (SS) PA Fld Player (LF) PA Fld
Nolan Arenado 636 13 Andrelton Simmons 592 15.9 Alex Gordon 686 18.2
Manny Machado 524 10.6 Troy Tulowitzki 555 12.7 Mike Trout 719 14.1
Josh Donaldson 658 10.2 Zack Cozart 588 10.4 Starling Marte 631 12.3
Evan Longoria 624 10.1 J.J. Hardy 577 10.3 David Lough 521 8.3
Chase Headley 527 6.4 Brian Dozier 667 6.2 Christian Yelich 583 2.7
Brett Lawrie 573 5.7 Erick Aybar 620 5.6 Charlie Blackmon 536 2.6
Todd Frazier 584 5.4 Jhonny Peralta 548 4 Justin Upton 657 2.4
Casey McGehee 555 2.3 Jimmy Rollins 608 2.3 Desmond Jennings 641 1.4
Matt Dominguez 599 2.3 Chris Owings 597 2 Martin Prado 658 -0.1
Mike Moustakas 583 1.4 Brad Miller 641 1 Ryan Braun 606 -0.9
Martin Prado 658 -0.1 Brandon Crawford 523 1 Alejandro De Aza 620 -1.4
Miguel Cabrera 665 -0.1 Alexei Ramirez 658 0.6 Alfonso Soriano 597 -1.5
Yangervis Solarte 562 -0.9 Elvis Andrus 700 -0.3 Michael Brantley 626 -2.3
Pablo Sandoval 571 -1 Jose Reyes 513 -1.7 Nick Castellanos 623 -2.7
Kyle Seager 667 -1.1 Yunel Escobar 591 -1.9 Adam Eaton 561 -2.8
Aramis Ramirez 507 -1.2 Dee Gordon 560 -2 Yoenis Cespedes 606 -2.8
Trevor Plouffe 595 -2.1 Starlin Castro 683 -2.7 Alex Presley 557 -3.2
David Wright 604 -2.5 Adeiny Hechavarria 632 -2.9 Bryce Harper 557 -3.3
Nick Castellanos 623 -2.7 Jean Segura 576 -3.1 Domonic Brown 545 -3.3
Adrian Beltre 532 -3.2 Everth Cabrera 536 -3.8 Michael Choice 552 -5.2
Alberto Callaspo 543 -3.7 Ruben Tejada 549 -4.3 Matt Holliday 611 -5.3
Matt Carpenter 648 -4.5 Xander Bogaerts 594 -4.4 Dayan Viciedo 570 -6
Marcus Semien 650 -4.7 Jed Lowrie 555 -5.3 Melky Cabrera 620 -6.3
Chris Johnson 570 -5 Asdrubal Cabrera 620 -5.4 Carlos Gonzalez 576 -6.5
Pedro Alvarez 629 -6.4 Jonathan Villar 549 -5.5 Mark Trumbo 559 -8
Anthony Rendon 554 -6.7 Alcides Escobar 620 -6.3 Robbie Grossman 516 -10
Hanley Ramirez 551 -8.3 Ian Desmond 653 -7.5 Lucas Duda 523 -11.7
Cody Asche 559 -8.8 Hanley Ramirez 551 -8.3

ZiPS foresees a second-place finish for Machado (out of 28 qualifiers), a fourth-place finish for Hardy (also out of 28 qualifiers), and a fourth-place finish for Lough (out of 27 qualifiers). Each of these impressive seasons would place these men within the 80th percentiles of their respective positions.

So how common is this — a top-20% finish for a team's third baseman, shortstop, and left fielder? Separate data for different fielders only goes back to 1954 (before that, it lumped all outfielders together); over the past sixty years, this has happened...

Twice.

Year Team Player Position TZ Rank (Qualifiers) Percentile
1985 Cardinals Ozzie Smith Shortstop 20 1st (19) 95th
Terry Pendleton Third Base 24 1st (19) 95th
Vince Coleman Left Field 11 1st (15) 93rd
1965 Twins Zoilo Versalles Shortstop 17 2nd (13) 85th
Rich Rollins Third Base 9 2nd (18) 89th
Bob Allison Left Field 13 1st (11) 91st

So really, Bordick wasn't being so hyperbolic (unlike, y'know, all those other times). Having three of your fielders finish in the 80th percentile is pretty phenomenal, but having them all be on the left side is all but impossible — and yet, the Orioles could do just that in 2014.

This probably has some analytic value — something about how the Orioles would do well to get batters to hit to the right side, by pitching lefties away and righties in...or something like that. On the other hand, this could all change by tomorrow. After all, projections are fluid —  they constantly shift with the many twists and turns of a 162-game season. But you never know. Perhaps, just this once, the unsubstantiated superlative spouted off by an announcer actually has a real, concrete basis in reality. Perhaps the Orioles can make history. And in the end, isn't that feasibility why we watch?

. . .

All data courtesy of FanGraphs, as of Tuesday, May 6th, 2014.

Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He's also written on the FanGraphs Community blog and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports and live tweeting about Veep, Sundays at 10:30/9:30c on HBO. Boldly running for president. Proudly standing for everything.

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