Stats say O's have number of problems

December 15, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

The addition of Rich Amaral would improve the Orioles' bench. The additions of Xavier Hernandez and Ricky Bones would fortify their bullpen. But as Price Club II continues to take shape, statistics point to a team that will play inferior defense and struggle against left-handed pitching.

The Orioles still might contend for the wild card, especially if they trade for another quality starting pitcher. But even if you discount chemistry -- something you can't do in a clubhouse with this many strong personalities and a weak manager -- the flaws already are apparent.

Let's start with the left-handed tilt of the lineup. It's a less serious concern than the day-to-day defense, especially because teams face left-handed starters only about once every four games. But it's troubling, for it could leave the Orioles susceptible to left-handed relief specialists in the late innings.

Lenny Webster, the Orioles' top hitter against left-handed pitching last season (.333), wants to be traded. The three players with the next highest averages -- Rafael Palmeiro (.317), Roberto Alomar (.311) and Eric Davis (.296) -- are already gone.

Who's on deck?

Two left-handed hitters (Delino DeShields and Brady Anderson) at the top of the order. Two more (Will Clark and Harold Baines) behind No. 3 hitter Albert Belle against right-handed pitching. And B. J. Surhoff, a player who hit lefties better than righties until last season, in the sixth or seventh spot.

The good news is, Clark should offer protection for Belle, even against lefties -- he batted .327 off them last season, compared with .297 off right-handers. The bad news is, Anderson (.179) and Mike Bordick (.184) were the two worst hitters against left-handed pitching in the American League last season.

The more you look at the lineup, the more two things become obvious: One, general manager Frank Wren likely will need to trade for a right-handed hitter (Davis would have fit nicely, and the excuse that he was too injury-prone seems all the more ridiculous now that Clark is an Oriole). Two, the much-maligned Chris Hoiles can still wind up a significant part of this team.

Hoiles hit only .257 against left-handers last season, but in the five seasons before that his average was .293. He will serve as a right-handed designated hitter and right-handed hitter off the bench. He also represents insurance for Clark at first base, and could remain Mike Mussina's personal catcher if Webster is traded -- Charles Johnson can't catch 150 games, and no one runs on Mussina, anyway.

Johnson alone will make a difference in the defense -- only Ivan Rodriguez and Jorge Posada threw out higher percentages of base stealers last season. But Bordick likely will be the only other above-average defender for a team that last season set the major-league record for fewest errors (81) in a season.

It is far more difficult to measure defense than offense -- almost every defensive statistic contains numerous qualifiers. STATS Inc., however, uses a formula known as "range factor" to compare fielders at every position but pitcher, catcher and first base. A player's RF equals his putouts plus assists per nine innings.

Except for Bordick, the Orioles' RFs aren't encouraging, but first consider the qualifiers. The Orioles' pitchers ranked fifth in the AL in strikeouts last season, meaning their fielders had fewer chances than most. The staff also tied for second in ground ball/fly ball ratio, meaning that the infielders should rank higher in RF, and the outfielders lower.

That holds for Bordick, an outstanding defender who ranked fourth among the 30 shortstops who played regularly last season. Ripken, however, ranked 27th among the 33 regular third basemen. He still catches almost everything he gets to -- he made only eight errors in 1,365 1/3 innings last season. But he gets to less than most third basemen.

As for the new right side of the infield, the Orioles appear weaker at both positions. Clark ranked 28th in fielding percentage among the 29 regular first basemen. DeShields ranked eighth of 30 in range factor -- five places ahead of Alomar -- but in his case, the statistic might be misleading.

DeShields should have had more chances -- only one NL team struck out fewer hitters than the St. Louis Cardinals, and only six teams had a higher ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. His range is indeed good, and he's capable of turning spectacular plays, but scouts consider his arm weak. He struggles to turn double plays and sometimes muffs routine grounders.

The outfield, you ask?

It doesn't figure to be much better.

Judging by RF alone, perhaps Belle should stay in left with Surhoff moving to right -- Belle's RF ranked seventh among 24 regular left fielders last season, Surhoff's 20th. The Chicago White Sox, however, had the fewest strikeouts in the AL and the fourth-lowest ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. That helps explain Belle's increased activity. And now, he must change positions.

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