Jim Palmer pitched most of his career in front of defenses replete with Gold Glovers.
Brooks Robinson, Paul Blair, Mark Belanger, Bobby Grich. Palmer benefited from them all. Yet the Hall of Famer turned television analyst barely hesitated recently when asked to put this year's Orioles defense in historical perspective.
"This is the best defense they've ever had," Palmer said. "It's pretty simple."
The 2013 Orioles are on pace to obliterate the all-time record for fewest team errors in a season. They're also on pace to set the mark for best fielding percentage. Manager Buck Showalter said five or six regulars should be strong candidates for Gold Glove Awards. Third baseman Manny Machado has quickly become one of baseball's signature defensive stars.
In an up-and-down season vexed by hitting slumps and bullpen struggles, defense has been the greatest constant for a club that's competing for a second-straight playoff berth after 14 consecutive losing seasons.
"Numbers can lie sometimes, and numbers don't lie sometimes," said second baseman Brian Roberts. "I don't think numbers lie with this one."
Bud Norris experienced the other extreme, pitching for the error-riddled Houston Astros until the non-waiver trade deadline. He grinned when asked how it feels to throw in front of these Orioles. "It's a special defense," he said. "These guys make Web Gems night in and night out. Every position on the field, you have a potential Gold Glover."
That's the point players make when asked to assess the club's defense. Most brush aside question about the error record, but they're eager to note the lack of vulnerable spots. From Matt Wieters' control of the running game to J.J. Hardy's steadiness at shortstop to Adam Jones' powerful arm in center field, strengths abound.
Several Orioles also made sure to praise first baseman Chris Davis, whose glovework is generally overshadowed by his home runs.
"It's easily probably the best defense that I've been on," said left fielder Nate McLouth, one of five former Gold Glovers among the regulars. "A lot of people look at spectacular plays, highlight plays, and certainly there have been some of those. But consistency on defense, making the routine plays, particularly in the infield, is way more important than the highlight plays. And that's something those guys have done relentlessly this year."
With only 43 errors through 149 games, the Orioles defense would have to collapse to exceed the previous record low of 65, set by the 2003 Seattle Mariners. Errors are down across baseball, depressed in part by a corresponding rise in strikeouts but also rarer than ever on a percentage basis. Even in that context, the Orioles' error total is an outlier, about 20 percent better than the second-ranked Tampa Bay Rays and 30 percent better than the third-ranked New York Yankees.
It took the Orioles only 48 games to make 43 errors last season.
As analysts and players quickly point out, errors don't tell the complete story of a team's defense. They don't measure how much ground defenders cover, and they're subject to the whims of official scorers. By some more complicated metrics, the Orioles defense rates as merely very good rather than historically great.
The analysts at Baseball Info Solutions study every defensive play of every game to produce measures that compare team and player performance to league norms. By the company's "defensive runs saved" statistic, the Orioles rank third in the American League, well behind the leading Kansas City Royals.
The Orioles don't have many defensive weaknesses, said Scott Spratt of Baseball Info Solutions, and they save an unusual amount of runs through aggressive shifting. But only Machado measures as an exceptional individual defender.
"You could argue that the Orioles would be an average defense if you replaced Machado with an average defender at third," Spratt wrote in an email.
By another widely cited metric, ultimate zone rating, the Orioles defense is the second best in baseball, again behind the Royals.
The one factor open to no argument is Machado's remarkable performance. Whether you go by ESPN's Web Gems, Spratt's metrics or awed statements from teammates and opponents, the 21-year-old third baseman is regarded as one of the best defenders in the sport, regardless of position.
"It's ridiculous," Roberts said of watching Machado. "On a daily basis, you just expect him to do something that makes you say 'Wow!' And most days, he doesn't disappoint."
The Orioles instantly went from poor to above average defensively after calling up Machado in August last year. That improvement was key to the club's excellent stretch run. He has been even better this year, drawing inevitable comparisons to the great Robinson.
Palmer said Robinson couldn't stop raving about Machado when the old teammates appeared together at a recent baseball card show. Last week, Palmer had breakfast with longtime scout Gordon Lakey, who said Machado has the best infield arm he's seen since Detroit Tigers Gold Glover Aurelio Rodriguez.
Palmer asked if Rodriguez had anything like Machado's range. Nope, the scout said.
"Machado," Palmer said, stopping to laugh in amazement. "You just can't even believe the things he does unless you see him every day."
The great plays are obvious. But teammates say an overlooked aspect of the Manny show is the latitude his arm strength gives the entire infield in positioning.
Analysts such as Spratt say smart, aggressive positioning has been a secret weapon for the Orioles. It's a sentiment shared within the clubhouse, where Showalter and the players point to infield coach Bobby Dickerson and outfield coach Wayne Kirby as unsung heroes.
Dickerson can be found at Camden Yards hours before many players arrive, scanning video to assemble charts depicting the tendencies of that night's opponent. His work ethic and results have convinced veteran players to trust his positioning calls.
Showalter said his eyes have told him the same thing as the numbers — his club's defense is excellent. He praises his players for taking it seriously, an attitude that he said has flowed down to the minors, where prospects know they must play sound defense to earn spots in Baltimore.
"I'm proud of how much emphasis our guys have put on it," Showalter said. "Sooner or later, it's got to be about whether they want to. It creates a culture."
If the players put any stock in the error record, it's as a historical bookmark on an oft-overlooked area of the game.
"I think our defense goes far beyond a lack of errors," McLouth said. "I don't think that does it justice. But it's kind of a neat thing. When you say the word 'ever,' that's pretty cool."
The defense doesn't rest
Fewest errors in baseball (through Sunday)
Best ultimate zone rating (through Sunday)
(Source: fangraphs.com)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun