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The Baltimore Orioles and winning with defense

The Baltimore Orioles are an excellent defensive team, but can they win a title on the merits of their gloves alone?


There's little doubt about the fact that the Baltimore Orioles boast the best defensive team, as a whole, anywhere in Major League Baseball. In fact, the O's 2013 performance ranked, collectively, as one of the best defensive seasons of all time, though it wasn't enough to help them grab a playoff spot in the American League. Such a strong defensive squad without a playoff appearance to show for it certainly begs the question as to how far the defensive game can actually take them.

A quick look at the numbers indicates that both collectively and individually the Orioles were a group of wizards with the leather in 2013. They ranked first in fielding percentage, at .991, and committed the fewest errors, with only 54. Their Defensive Efficiency Ratio (DER), which is a measure of balls put into play that are successfully converted into outs (while taking home runs out of the equation) was an even .700, good for sixth in the league.

The overall breakdown for the Orioles' potential starters in the field, as far as their 2013 performance in the field, is as follows. Keep in mind, Matt Wieters has had his name float out there in trade rumors, Ryan Flaherty may not start at second base, and the O's are looking for a left fielder, so Nolan Reimold may be relegated to designated hitter again, having played just 11 games in the field in 2013 (hence leaving his numbers out of the chart).

Name Fielding % Errors DRS RngR RZR UZR
Matt Wieters .997 3
Chris Davis .996 6 -7 -1.7 .799 -1.2
Ryan Flaherty .993 2 3 2.2 .837 5.9
J.J. Hardy .981 12 8 3.7 .804 6
Manny Machado .973 13 35 28.6 .818 31.2
Nolan Reimold 1.000 0
Adam Jones .995 2 -2 -13.2 .899 -6.8
Nick Markakis 1.000 0 -7 -11.5 .894 -6.6

Stats used include the obvious (fielding percentage and errors), in addition to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Range Runs (RngR), which give an indication of how many runs above or below average a player is in fielding balls hit into his zone, Revised Zone Rating (RZR), which illustrates how many balls hit into a players zone that he converts into outs, and, of course, Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).

A couple of observations here. First, Manny Machado is really, really good. His UZR is off the charts. Hardy is very good in his own right, and assuming Ryan Flaherty gets the job over the likes of Jonathan Schoop or Jemile Weeks (or another addition), he's solid enough defensively, albeit in a limited sample size. Chris Davis won't make plays out of his range, but he's also solid enough at first. Adam Jones and Nick Markakis each boast some deceiving figures, as the advanced metrics don't look great, but each demonstrated great range and fielding percentages.

The question isn't whether the Orioles can play defense. We all know they can, and they can do so at a historiclevel. The real question is whether or not specializing in defense, with a pitching staff that would be defined as average, can get them to where they want to be. As their roster stands right now, and without much of an indication of change on the horizon, that's what they'll have to do.

Can you win with great defense? Better yet, can you win with brilliant defense and mediocre pitching? In terms of fielding, this is how the last five World Series winners have fared during the regular season:

Team DER Errors Fielding %
2013 Red Sox .696 (13th) 80 (8th) .987 (9th)
2012 Giants .693 (16th) 115 (27th) .981 (27th)
2011 Cardinals .687 (24th) 116 (24th) .982 (23rd)
2010 Giants .708 (4th) 73 (4th) .988 (4th)
2009 Yankees .696 (7th) 86 (9th) .985 (10th)

Of those teams, the 2010 Giants had an elite defense, while the '09 Yankees and even the '13 Red Sox were also very good. However, that Giants club had dynamite pitching, with arguably the best staff in the league. The Yankees had a staff that was 11th in ERA and fourth in strikeouts, but they also scored over 30 more runs than any other team. A similar sentiment can be made about the 2013 Red Sox, who had a pitching staff in the top half of the league and an offense that scored almost 60 more runs than anyone else.

The Orioles have a defense that blows any of the five most recent World Series champs out of the water. When on their game, they boast a top five offensive group, which could be even more dynamic if they add another notable bat this offseason. When it comes down to it, though, it won't be enough. If we've learned anything from those last five champs, even if there isn't a clear pattern in as small a sample size as it is, it's that you need the pitching. Each of those clubs featured a staff that was middle of the road at worst. The Orioles don't currently have that. It's almost bottom five.

As good as the Orioles are defensively, and as many runs as the likes of Manny Machado and co. will save over a season, it simply is not enough to overcome their lackluster pitching. Until they address that, they'll be competing for a playoff spot, given their level of defense and ability to score runs, but won't be title contenders.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Randy Holt is a writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @RandallPnkFloyd.