By Dave Lomonico
It's the bottom of the fifth in Arlington, Texas, and the Orioles are up, 4-0, honing in on a sweep of a prime American League West contender. But the hometown Rangers are threatening. Elvis Andrus has drilled a one-out single to right field, and David Murphy has followed with a base knock to left. A groundout pushes the runners to second and third with two outs, but the dangerous Ian Kinsler is coming to the dish.
After working the count, Kinsler delivers another single to right, plating Andrus. But right fielder Nick Markakis pounces and alertly fires to first baseman Chris Davis, catching Kinsler too far off the bag. With the runner hung up, Davis tosses the pill to second baseman Brian Roberts, who ignores Kinsler after noticing Murphy straying too far off third. Roberts then flips the ball across the diamond to third baseman Manny Machado, leaving Murphy in no-man's-land. Checkmate.
As Murphy breaks for home, Machado fires the ball to catcher Matt Wieters, who tags Murphy for the inning's final out. Just your classic 9-3-4-5-2 putout -- team defense at its finest.
Four frames later, the Orioles have a 4-2 victory and leave Arlington with a clean sweep.
"It's what we've been preaching since spring training," said Machado, a 21-year-old third baseman who is considered the best defensive player in baseball, according to FanGraphs.com's sabermetrics. "Defense wins games."
Baseball folks will tell you that outcomes can change on one play: one late-inning groundball that finds the 5.5 hole, one breaking ball that eludes the catcher with a runner on third, one missed cutoff man that allows a run to score, one misjudged fly ball that turns a single into a double.
Be on the right end of the majority of these plays, and more often than not, you're in the win column. Lose them? Well, take a look at what happened in Baltimore between 1998 and 2011, when the team had 14 consecutive losing seasons.
From 2002-11, the Orioles ranked in the bottom half of baseball in ultimate zone rating, an advanced statistic that measures how much better or worse a fielder performed compared with a league-average defender at a particular position. Like any statistic, UZR has flaws and is not considered the be-all and end-all for baseball gurus, but it does offer a better read of defensive skill than simply looking at errors and fielding percentage. For what it's worth, during that span of 10 years, the Orioles were No. 22 in UZR at minus-70.7, No. 25 in defensive range at minus-132.9 and No. 26 in defensive runs saved at minus-145.
"The biggest thing in the years past is we were put in tough situations and we had guys playing in positions that really didn't suit them," said Markakis, who has been with the team since 2006 and endured six of those losing campaigns. "Now we've got guys that are playing their primary position, and they're pretty damn good at it."
But that was then. Now it's 2013, manager Buck Showalter's third full season at the helm, and the Orioles have, if not mastered, zeroed in on said details. Namely, the team's defense has improved drastically, one reason the Birds went from 93 losses in 2011 to 93 wins in 2012, and are back in playoff contention again this season.
"I think after last year, when we came up short [in the playoffs], everybody just wanted to get better," Machado said. "We came in hungry, and we had another motive to do whatever we needed to do to get back to the same spot. A big part of that was focus on the defensive end."
Through 117 games in 2013, the Orioles had a UZR of 38.2, which was third best in baseball. They were also No. 9 in range (18.9) and No. 7 in runs saved (27). Not to mention the O's owned the traditional defensive statistics as well, ranking first with the fewest errors (34) and highest fielding percentage (.992) as of Aug. 11.
"The organization has put an emphasis [on defense]," Showalter said. "Every team does, and we don't have a corner on it, but our guys know if you don't defend, you're not coming up here. Offense comes and goes, but if you're driving in one and letting in two, that's not good.
"Defense is … the common denominator. There are so many byproducts of good defense. I think it's a given."
Former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey, a defensive specialist who was MVP of the 1983 World Series, said there's parity in starting rotations throughout baseball these days, mainly because starting pitchers aren't pushing into the eighth and ninth innings, as their counterparts of the 1960s and '70s did. But one area where today's starters can gain a leg up is if their defenses save some runs and don't make errors. In turn, pitchers keep their pitch counts down and wade deeper into games.
"How important is defense?" Dempsey said. "Probably the most important thing when it comes to saving your pitching staff."
Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman agreed with Dempsey. He said having fielders as good as the Orioles' behind him helped put his mind at ease on the mound.
"As a staff, we're always aggressive, but it does give you confidence knowing those guys are back there," Tillman said. "You know if you throw a certain pitch and it's put in play, the defense is going to take care of it. There's a lot to be said for what that does for [a rotation] and a team."
Fielding prowess alone may not win championships, proven by the 2012 Seattle Mariners club, which was exceptional defensively, but so weak at the dish that it finished last in the AL West with a 75-87 record. But that doesn't mean teams should eschew glove work altogether.
"The name of the game is pitching," said David Schwartz, a local infield coach, who has been studying and teaching the art of defense for 40-plus years. "There's no doubt about that. But along with pitching, pitching and more pitching, and some timely hitting, defense, without question, can help you win a lot of games -- and even lead you to a World Series."
Orioles players said they weren't doing many more defense drills than they had done during past years, but there was a noticeable increase in all-important intangibles such as drive, motivation and focus.
Infield coach Bobby Dickerson said that focus manifested itself in the team's everyday routine. He noted how each infielder had personalized practice methods, and had become increasingly comfortable during the course of the year.
"It's still a daily preparation though," Dickerson said. "By no means do any of our guys feel they have it figured out; they're not satisfied. It goes back to the old saying, 'If you're not getting better today, you're getting worse.' "
Machado, who has been a significant cog in Baltimore's defense since his call-up in August 2012, took those words to heart. It paid off as far as advanced metrics are concerned. Machado's 21.3 UZR as of Aug. 11 was the best in baseball. He also ranked first with a 19.3 range rating and was tied for second with 25 runs saved.
"Machado is on another level [defensively]," Dickerson said. "His talent is off the charts. He's an athletic defender with range, a long wingspan. He covers ground with his feet, and his reach is incredible."
Schwartz said the Orioles' infield as a whole had nimble footwork, and he called Machado's reaction skills unusual.
"When you see reaction skills that fast," Schwartz said, "it's like a tiger eating a piece of meat."
A "Web Gems" regular, Machado has earned national recognition for his handling of the hot corner. In fact, MLB Network's Harold Reynolds dubbed his foul-line scramble July 7 when he threw out the Yankees' Luis Cruz the play of the year.
"Fans see those great plays and they say, 'Wow,' " Dickerson said, "but I see the little things he does so well that he works on that allows him to make that play. You see a lot of skills out there, but I see him do 8-10 fundamental things right that allow those great plays to show up."
Although Machado may be the face of the Orioles' defense nationally, locally that honor might go to shortstop J.J. Hardy, a 2012 Gold Glover. Machado himself credited steady-hands Hardy for teaching him the importance of fundamentals such as proper positioning, how to catch the ball and how to read batters.
"J.J. Hardy," Machado said, "is like no other person out there."
Dickerson and Showalter concurred, both crediting Hardy for helping the Orioles' fielding get to its current level. Dickerson even called the shortstop the epitome of what the Baltimore defense stands for.
"It's not a flashy, look-at-me thing," Showalter said. "It's a lot of substance instead of style to it. The way J.J. will make a play look routine, other people will go behind their backs, between their legs. It's a blue-collar defense -- not particularly aesthetically pleasing, but they catch the baseball."
Hardy's UZR (7.4) was fourth among shortstops, and his nine runs saved were tied for fourth after 117 games. But the coaches said his value couldn't be measured in statistics alone.
"Hardy reminds me of Cal Ripken and how he played -- consistent, smart and focused," Dickerson said. "You have to be around J.J. every day to appreciate the level of professionalism he brings to the position."
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Issue 188: August 2013