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In 2014, Orioles might be better than last season's record-setting defense

There's little arguing that on paper, the Orioles don't appear to be better now than they were last season, but they can still lay claim to having the best defense in baseball.

ESPN’s Buster Olney points this out, naming the Orioles as the best defensive team in baseball in his Top 10 defensive rankings (an ESPN Insider subscription is needed for the full article). The Kansas City Royals, Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers round out the top five in Olney's rankings. The Tampa Bay Rays rank sixth.

In fact, the Orioles may have gotten better defensively this offseason.

The Orioles’ defensive accolades have been well documented. Third baseman Manny Machado won the American League Platinum Glove as the league’s top overall defender in his first full season in the majors.

In 2013, the Orioles won three Gold Glove awards, tied for the most in baseball, with Machado, shortstop J.J. Hardy and center fielder Adam Jones all winning. They recorded a major-league record 119 errorless games and committed just 54 errors, the fewest in a 162-game season.

Six Orioles were named Gold Glove finalists, with second base and left field being the only non-pitcher positions not to be nominated. All six of those players return, and a look at defensive metrics show that the Orioles are better in 2014 at the other two positions.

While former Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth did win a Gold Glove in 2008 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, new acquisition David Lough -- who will likely share time in left with Nolan Reimold and Steve Pearce, as well as possibly Francisco Peguero and Henry Urrutia -- is an upgrade defensively.

Taking a look at some defensive measures that grade out defensive ability over a replacement defender -- defensive wins above replacement -- and ones that evaluate range -- total zone runs, defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating -- Lough was superior defensively to McLouth, who signed a two-year deal with the Washington Nationals, in 2013.

Lough

Defensive WAR: 1.3

Total zone runs: 8

Defensive runs saved: 15

UZR/150: 27.3

UZR: 14.5

McLouth

Defensive WAR -0.5

Total zone runs: -9

Defensive runs saved: 0

UZR/150: 5.5

UZR: 4.0

Also, now that career Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts signed with the New York Yankees, Ryan Flaherty is the favorite to start at the position in 2014. He could share time with Jemile Weeks as well.

Even though he missed significant time with a hamstring injury, Roberts had one of the best defensive seasons of his career in 2013. His seven total zone runs were a career high. Still, if you compare Flaherty’s defensive stats at second base, Roberts graded out better in just one category.

Flaherty at 2B

Defensive WAR: 0.0

Total zone runs: 7

Defensive runs saved: 3

UZR/150: 14.1

UZR: 5.9

Roberts

Defensive WAR 0.1

Total zone runs 7

Defensive runs saved 0

UZR/150: 5.1

UZR: 2.0

Obviously, defense doesn’t score you runs. It only prevents them.

But there’s no secret of how much impact the Orioles defense had last season. It helped starting pitchers get deeper into games and helped relievers through late innings because of the ability to cover more ground and convert rally-killing double plays. And that same defense will be depended on to do more this season.

Machado's recovery from offseason knee surgery will impact the Orioles defense greatly.

Both Machado and the club hope he can return in time for Opening Day. Not only does Machado's presence on the field make the Orioles defense exponentially better, his timely return would also allow Flaherty to concentrate on being a regular at second base rather than a fill-in at third base.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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