Led by Machado, Orioles have been a different defensive team in second half

  • Calling up Manny Machado to play third base and moving Mark Reynolds to first have drastically changed the Orioles' defense in the second half of the season.
Calling up Manny Machado to play third base and moving Mark Reynolds… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
September 15, 2012|By Childs Walker | The Baltimore Sun

The play smacked of tremendous baseball guile, the way the Orioles' third baseman faked his throw to first with absolute conviction, all the while knowing that his real target was the unsuspecting runner rounding the bag behind him.

Add the fact that it came in the ninth inning of a tie game in the middle of a tense pennant race and you had something pretty great. The hardest thing to believe? The third baseman, Manny Machado, looks like he could still be in high school, with his smooth cheeks and lanky frame. Barely more than two years ago, he was in high school.

Machado, 20, got a lot of attention when he hit two home runs in his second major league game. But his greatest contribution over the ensuing five weeks has been more subtle. By playing an excellent third base, Machado has eliminated a weakness in the Orioles' defense. Meanwhile, Mark Reynolds, a disaster at third early in the season, has settled in as a capable glove man at first base.

These are the most obvious changes in a defense that has performed significantly better in the second half of the season after having the most errors in the league in the first half. Sharper defense — as exemplified by Machado's clever play Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Rays — has helped the Orioles increase their winning percentage at a time when many analysts expected them to collapse.

“Oh, it's definitely been better,” said Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters. “We've been playing really good defense over the last few months.”

Orioles pitchers say they feel more comfortable allowing batters to make contact, because the defense is more likely to back them up. The change has been especially significant for ground-ball pitchers like Zach Britton, whose best work of the season has coincided with the defensive renaissance.

“There's times when you can try to do a little bit too much, you know, trying to strike guys out,” said Britton, explaining his psychology. “That's not really my game, so it definitely helps me right now that we have good defense.”

Statistical analysts have long regarded defense as the trickiest aspect of the game to measure, because responsibilities are shared on many plays and because it's hard to account for a fielder's range. But the more sophisticated measures that have emerged in recent years agree that the Orioles played lousy defense in the first half and have improved substantially.

“They were on pace to be a very bad defensive team,” said Ben Jedlovec, co-author of “The Fielding Bible III,” a statistical tome about defense. “But they've really leveled off, even improved.”

Jedlovec's company, Baseball Info Solutions, studies every defensive play in every major league game and compares the performance on each one to leaguewide performance in similar situations. Teams are measured by a statistic called “defensive runs saved.”

The Orioles stood at negative-26 defensive runs saved when Machado took over third base. They're now at negative-17, still below average overall but trending in the right direction.

With Machado at third, Reynolds at first, Hardy at shortstop and Robert Andino at second base, Jedlovec said the Orioles now have one of the better defensive infields in baseball.

Reynolds is a particularly interesting case. He measured as a dreadful third baseman, but since he moved to first base in May, he has led the sport in what Baseball Info Solutions calls “good fielding plays.” Those are the types of plays — a lunging scoop of an errant throw, a leaping snare of a line drive — that catch a casual fan's eye.

Such plays mitigate the negative effects of Reynolds' limited range. Jedlovec said Reynolds is still a slightly below-average first baseman, but that's a significant upgrade on his damaging performance at third.

Orioles fans might be surprised to hear that center fielder Adam Jones and injured right fielder Nick Markakis, both former Gold Glove winners, rank as below-average fielders by defensive runs saved. Jones makes a lot of spectacular catches and saves runs with strong throws, Jedlovec said, but he and the team's other outfielders struggle on balls hit over their heads.

“They aren't reaching balls that other teams are getting,” he said.

Such flaws aside, Jedlovec said the Orioles' in-season improvement on defense has been “a good part of their turnaround this year.”

The club's players agree with the stats in pinpointing Machado and Reynolds as the key components.

“The addition of Manny Machado was huge,” Hardy said. “And Reynolds is a Gold Glover over there at first base. I don't know what it is, but when he puts that glove on over there, he's really good. I know he's saved us all a ton of errors, picking balls.”

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