Orioles will need to shore up defense after a less-than-stellar season in the field

Behind a pitching staff whose 25,199 pitches this year were the most in baseball, the Orioles defense is plenty taxed by the sheer amount of work a rotation with a middling strikeout rate and some frustratingly long innings provided them.

And as the season wore down, manager Buck Showalter made it clear that the defense — in some cases individually, but mostly as a whole — wasn't up to the level that had helped the Orioles succeed in recent years.


"Obviously, we've got to improve on the starting pitching," Showalter said last month. "That falls under Captain Obvious, and I think we've taken a step back defensively, really, the last year or two at some places. I think we need to get that back in order — especially with a pitching staff that didn't strike out that many people. That's not going to change overnight. That's something we were really good at, and I thought it kept us from playing a home game in the playoffs last year.

"I think we've dropped our guard a bit defensively. I really do. We try to make a point of emphasis, and I think we've kind of lowered our standards in a couple of areas."

As a team, the Orioles tied for 20th in baseball with -17 defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs. While that's better than last year's -25, the majority of the Orioles' 2016 problems came in an outfield that dragged the whole operation down with a league-worst -51 DRS. This year, the outfield was responsible for -15 DRS, meaning everywhere else fell off rather significantly.

In the infield, first baseman Chris Davis went from eight DRS in 2016 to -5 in 2017. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop improved slightly from -1 to two DRS this year. But third baseman Manny Machado, who contributed 16 DRS last year between third base and shortstop, was down to six this season.

Where it was most noticeable in the infield, though, was shortstop, where veteran J.J. Hardy and Machado combined to save nine runs last season. Hardy had another long injury absence this year, and was replaced by Paul Janish, Rubén Tejada, and Tim Beckham. The position ended up with -5 DRS.

"I'm not talking about [individuals]," Showalter said. "I'm talking about us as a group. Understand that we have more balls put in play than other teams do. We have more opportunities to make miscues because there are more balls put in play against us. So there's constantly balls flying around."

While the opportunity for more balls is true with the league's most pitches, the Orioles actually had 4,421 balls in play this year, according to Statcast data from BaseballSavant.com. That was the sixth most in baseball, but their 17.54 percent of balls in play ranks 17th in the game.

Showalter made a point, however, of singling out the corner outfield spots, which got plenty of attention in spring training when center fielder Adam Jones called for more athleticism and speed there.


With Mark Trumbo shifting from a majority-right field role and being replaced primarily by Seth Smith and Joey Rickard, right field contributed only -1 DRS this year, while left field, manned by Trey Mancini and Rickard instead of Hyun Soo Kim and Rickard, also improved from -21 to -1.

Free agent pitchers Doug Fister and C.C. Sabathia are among the pending free agents the Orioles could target this offseason.

Jones ended up being poorly rated by most fielding metrics for a second straight year despite moving his starting position deeper into center field at the front office's request. He went from -10 to -12 DRS in the process.

Even with that, Jones believes his point still stands from the winter.

"Last offseason, I wanted more outfielders," Jones said. "Everybody was saying, 'We need pitching.' Well, you need to have speed in the outfield to be able to cover the pitching. I just wanted improvements in the outfield. I think we've played a really good outfield this year. Seth Smith has done a lot more than I could expect. Joey's been fine out there. Obviously, Trey's right behind Schoop on our team for MVP. He's been unbelievable with the defense, a first baseman by trade and then going to the outfield in the major leagues and learned on the fly. He's done a tremendous job.

"But what I was asking for was improvements in the defense. They want to say I'm doing this, I'm not good at this. Well, I think if you improve the people around me, I can improve myself. I don't know if we saw eye to eye early on that, but I think the message was across, I think the message was loud and clear once the season started and you see how play went."

Jones acknowledged that some reinforcements are on the way on that front, saying of rookie Austin Hays, who has the inside line toward next year's starting right field job, "I like what he does defensively." He also mentioned Double-A Bowie outfielder Cedric Mullins, whose season was derailed by two hamstring injuries, as another athletic young outfielder.


Even so, those positions improved naturally this year. There are bigger concerns that might not be trending upward.

Between the physical maturation of Machado and Schoop in the infield, the perceived defensive drop at shortstop, and the lack of emphasis on defense at the corner outfield spots in recent years, there's plenty to wonder just how much better the Orioles can get on that front next season.

"One of the things we talked about when we got here is we can make a difference by putting a real emphasis on defense in the corners of the outfield, and obviously everywhere else," Showalter said. "I just feel like we've gotten away from that a little bit. ... That's one of the things we talked about this spring, too. There's just so much some guys can do physically, so far you can take some of them. Some things, you have to come with. You have to bring it with you."

Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article.