Bad defense in baseball’s infancy was less an anomaly worthy of attention than a ubiquitous part of gameplay. In 1874, teams in the National Association, a precursor to the National League, averaged more than eight errors apiece per game; the next year, perhaps in response to all those bobbles, first baseman Charles Waite became the first documented user of a baseball glove.
Fielding has improved continuously since that time but still took decades to approach a state resembling the glovework we see in the 21st century. Baseball-Reference counts the single-season error record for a player at 122, set by shortstops Herman Long and Billy Shindle in 1889 and 1890, respectively; in 2017, no team recorded that many errors. (Long is also the career errors leader, with 1,096; Adrián Beltré, at 308, is the only active player with more than 200.) Through 1946, teams averaged more than an error per game in every MLB season.
In 2018, though, the average team collects just one error every other game, and last year, only one fielder tallied more than 20 across the full season. The error is no longer a huge part of the sport’s quotidian rhythms—but that doesn’t mean defensive disparities across the majors have flattened, as the surprise 2008 Rays, who reached the World Series after transforming from a terrible to terrific defensive team, can attest. Here’s Orioles manager Buck Showalter, whose own 2014 division winner was an elite defensive squad, on defense two weeks ago: “Defense is still important. I actually think it’s magnified more in the big leagues now than it’s ever been. The good teams playing late into the season are good defensive clubs, with no exceptions. When the ball is put in play, you better catch that sonuvabitch.”
Unfortunately for Showalter’s decidedly not division-winning 2018 squad, these Orioles are mind-bogglingly bad at catching balls put in play. Orioles fielders have combined for negative-84 runs of defensive value compared with the average team, per the advanced stat defensive runs saved. That is already one of the 10 worst totals since 2003 (which is how far back DRS data extends), and because DRS is a counting stat and Baltimore’s season is just about half over, the O’s should blow by the current record. At their current pace, they will finish the season with negative-160 DRS—40 worse than the previous record holder, the 2005 Yankees.
Errors aren’t the issue; the Orioles aren’t bringing 19th-century defensive stylings to Camden Yards, ranking in the middle of the 2018 pack in both errors and fielding percentage. Patterns of poor defense now manifest in less visibly grotesque ways; they’ve become, in essence, professionalized. Outside the odd José Canseco goof or Raúl Ibañez spike, failing fielders no longer blow up the office microwave or fall down the stairs. Now, they take loud phone calls at their desks and accidentally reply-all and wear brown socks with a black suit the day of a big meeting. The offenses are mostly minor on their own, yet they grate, and they accumulate, and eventually the boss bemoans the SOBs that keep dropping for hits.
In 2014, writer Patrick Dubuque created a team of 25 Adam Dunn clones on a baseball computer game and noted that “the game translated each player’s poor defensive skill into terrible range, rather than hilarious gaffes,” a description that could largely double as a tagline for certain swaths of Baltimore’s lineup.
The problems start with the outfield, which isn’t too vast an improvement upon a hypothetical trio of Adam Dunn clones. Oriole outfielders rank last in DRS as a whole, DRS’s range factor specifically, and Statcast’s outs above average measure, which uses positioning and batted-ball data to compare how many plays a fielder should have made to how many he actually converted. Individually, among 241 outfielders this season, Trey Mancini ranks 237th in OAA, Adam Jones 236th, and Mark Trumbo—despite making only 13 outfield appearances—207th.
It’s a systemic issue, but not an unexpected one given those names. Mancini and Trumbo should play at first base or in the designated hitter slot, and Jones, while carrying a Gold Glove track record and still making the occasional highlight-reel grab, has been trending downward for years. His DRS results since his last Gold Glove, in 2014, have plummeted as follows: 4, minus-10, minus-12, minus-18 (so far).
For some visual evidence to support those paltry numbers, here is a compilation of the Orioles’ worst outfield misses of the season, with each hit’s catch probability ranging from 86 to 99 percent yet still going uncaught. (The plays in this video are ordered in descending probability, with the 99-percenter coming first and the 86-percenter last.)
They show a medley of reasons for Baltimore’s outfield troubles, from trudging movements to imprecise routes to a resulting lack of confidence in one’s ability to make a play (see: Trumbo’s cautious stutter steps when approaching Bryce Harper’s liner on the last play of that video). Sometimes, those issues blend and create interactional effects, such as in the third play in that video, when Jones crashes into the wall. That play had a 97 percent catch probability, but Jones took an indirect path to the ball and wasn’t able to compensate because of his subpar sprinting speed.
The other chief offender is the Orioles’ best player, Manny Machado, who while enjoying his best-ever season at the plate is also en route to the worst defensive season on record. Not just his own worst defensive season—the worst for any player, at any position (positional adjustments aside). Machado has already reached negative-20 DRS this year—that’s the second-worst total at any position in 2018, on a list that also includes Jones and Mancini in the bottom five—and is thus on pace to hit nearly negative-40 for the season. Since 2003, the worst single-season DRS total is negative-33, for Matt Kemp in 2010; only six players have gone even 30 runs under.
At his current pace, Machado will likely finish the season providing six-plus wins of offensive value while taking away two-plus wins on defense. The list of previous players who completed that dual feat includes notoriously bat-rich, glove-poor shortstops Hanley Ramírez and Michael Young and then a coterie of corner sluggers largely uninterested in the demands of defense. Machado might think he’s regular-season LeBron James now (in more ways than one).
Machado moved from third base to shortstop this year, but he didn’t bring his range with him. As Mark Simon from Sports Info Solutions, the parent company that oversees DRS, wrote last month, “Most shortstops who are bad at fielding the ball in one area are average or above at fielding balls in the other direction. But Machado is far below average in both,” routinely missing balls to both his left and right.
Machado’s switch also replaced a Gold Glove at third base with a group of leaden mitts. Danny Valencia (minus-7 DRS in just 37 games) has played the plurality of innings at the hot corner, and Showalter even tried Pedro Álvarez there for a brief spell. Overall, the Orioles have struggled at nearly every defensive position; only in right field, where part-time player Craig Gentry has been a plus fielder, does the team rank in the top half of the league. Even Baltimore’s pitchers, who are already doing enough damage with their primary job, have contributed to the teamwide trend by approaching the bottom of the leaderboard.
Orioles Defensive Rankings
All that negative value adds up to extraordinary effect. Orioles defenders are losing essentially a full run per game compared with the average unit, which represents a massive chunk of the 1.5 runs per game by which Baltimore has been outscored this season. Or, for another way to think about the Orioles’ odious defense, Baltimore has lost as many runs with its gloves as Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, and Andrew Benintendi have added with their bats—combined.
Those conclusions are all based on DRS data, so a few caveats arise. First, while the other main advanced defensive stat (UZR) pegs Baltimore with the worst 2018 defense, it doesn’t think the Orioles are anywhere near the all-time worst. Second, the DRS data on FanGraphs doesn’t account for shifting, which would improve the Orioles’ outlook—given Baltimore’s success with fielding balls hit into the shift—if only at the margins. And third, if Baltimore trades impending free agents Machado and Jones by the deadline, its defensive efforts might improve in the last few months—even if the team suffers overall—at least to the point that its historic pace might slow.
But even those asterisks don’t mask the extent of the Orioles’ defensive misfortunes. Comparing Baltimore’s defense with those from before 2003 is a trickier test because of the relative unreliability of prior defensive metrics, but one usable proxy is batting average on balls in play. It doesn’t capture the entirety of a defense’s contributions or demerits, but it works to recognize, as Showalter would want, who is best at that catching business.
A defense’s most basic goal is to prevent balls in play from becoming hits—and there, again, the Orioles are unsurprisingly abysmal. Baltimore’s current .319 opposing BABIP represents one of the highest marks in MLB history, and many of the teams ahead of them are infamous either because of their defensive struggles or because there were obvious causes for them: The 1930 Phillies played in the absurdly dimensioned Baker Bowl in the highest-BABIP era in league history; the 1999 and 2012 Rockies played in Coors Field, the former in the pre-humidor days; the 2007 Devil Rays were the lesser half of a worst-to-first turnaround.
Baltimore carries no such excuses, except for issues with roster construction even amid an ostensible organizational push to improve the defense after a worrisome 2017. Yet rather than see those improvements to fruition, the Orioles have bottomed out—and not even in a goofy, gaffey way, but in a manner most noticeable on yearlong leaderboards.
Rather than loud errors, Orioles games are marred by small paper cuts. A flare falls in front of Jones. A grounder skips past Machado the shortstop, the ghost of Machado the third baseman powerless to prevent the seeing-eye single. The permanent frown etched in Showalter’s face creases ever tighter, his team not only failing to mimic a good defensive club, but playing like maybe the worst defensive club we’ve ever seen.
Thanks to Mike Petriello of MLB Advanced Media for research assistance.