The Baltimore Orioles are beating their projections -- again -- and it's late enough in the season where they are what their record says they are, more or less. Over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan wrote an article Friday exploring where things went right. His conclusion: the O's defense is great, especially their outfield. Baltimore's defense is first in baseball according to ultimate zone rating (UZR) and second in terms of defensive runs saved (DRS) this year.
The big improvement? Baltimore's outfield has improved their coverage of fly balls and line drives. Last year, the O's were 13th in the American League in BABIP on fly balls, and 10th in BABIP on line drives. This year, they have improved those ranks to 9th and 4th, respectively, an improvement which Sullivan can't explain:
Left unanswered is, why has the outfield been so effective?.... I don’t know what to say about this. Maybe the Orioles have just been presented with unusually easy opportunities. Maybe ordinary batted balls have just been hit unusually close to to outfielders. Maybe the outfielders have collectively gotten better, or maybe there’s been a change in how they’re all positioned at-bat to at-bat. The best I can do is give you some information. To fill in the inevitable gaps, I leave you to wonder and speculate.
Let's speculate, then. Using the Inside Edge fielding data available through the FanGraphs leaderboards, let's look at the types of balls the Baltimore outfielders have handled. (I've prorated the 2014 data to cover the same number of innings as 2013.)
Most of the totals are pretty consistent from year to year. But the number of impossible plays was nearly halved, falling from 336 to 182. Now some of those plays became "remote" plays (meaning they have a less than 10 percent chance of being made) but most of them disappeared.
Here's a rough estimate of how that translates into runs saved. Assume those 100 missing outfield plays were all singles, which is probably an underestimate. If a single is worth about half a run, then those 100 missing singles are worth 50 runs. And fifty runs is enough to turn a 90-win playoff participant into an 85-win also-ran.
If you buy this hypothesis, it's worth exploring possible explanations. The Orioles were first in the AL in BABIP allowed on ground balls last season, behind the defensive prowess of Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy; even with Machado's limited playing time this season, they're still second in that category in 2014. Certainly Buck Showalter's staff could have changed their strategy to coax more ground balls out of opposing hitters.
But even if that's the case, how to explain the lower percentage of impossible plays? Has Baltimore changed how they set their outfield defense? Let's ask resident Baltimore expert Jeff Long what he's noticed:
Adam Jones is playing deeper than in years past. He used to play super shallow, but seems to be lining up a little deeper this year getting to more of those longer fly balls and line drives. He's not playing a lot deeper, but just a little.
Nick Markakis is playing more in the right-center gap. He's said in interviews several times that he doesn't feel as comfortable going to his right as he does going to his left (towards the foul line) so he's positioning more in right-center to get to balls that would've been in the gap before.
When David Lough isn't playing LF, Jones tends to shade that way a bit to cover for Steve Pearce's and Nelson Cruz's limited range. This is helped by the fact that 'kakes plays in the right-center gap, so Jones isn't giving up too much by shading that way.
So maybe this explains why the Orioles' outfield defense has surprised this year. Even if Baltimore's sequencing magic fades down the stretch, this batted-ball success doesn't seem like the type of thing to regress away in a month.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs. Special thanks to Jeff Long for his contributions to this article.
Bryan Cole is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. He's not an Orioles fan, but he does like Camden Yards and Brooks Robinson. You can follow him on Twitter at @Doctor_Bryan.