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...
|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.