Over the thump of batting practice bats in an empty ballpark before the Orioles wrapped their most recent homestand Wednesday at Camden Yards, third base coach Bobby Dickerson hollered instruction at his charges on the infield, jogging back and forth from the home plate area to their positions at times to take grounders himself.
Dickerson jumped into the group at shortstop with Jonathan Villar and Tim Beckham, with the latter working on simply fielding the ball squarely. Jace Peterson practiced short hops at third base. Everyone got his turn under Dickerson’s tutelage in a teaching session that almost felt out of place for August.
Yet as the season has gone on, such scenes have become more frequent with the Orioles. Their best infielders, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, were traded away, leaving an already-challenged position group in an even tougher spot.
Dickerson and manager Buck Showalter see restoring the Orioles infield to being one of the game’s best as one of the principal goals of the club’s rebuild, whether it’s with the current group or the next wave. And no one seems interested in waiting for that to start.
“I’m not pleased with where we are, where we’ve been the last few weeks defensively,” Dickerson said. “We have to be better than that. … I want to make sure these guys understand there’s some urgency to it. We’re not going to go through the motions here. We’re not going to finish out the season.
“We’re going to try to clean up some things and hopefully go into the offseason with a plan, and try to make sure that infield defense is a strength again. Because it was. In our good runs, we had strong infield defense. Ultimately, that’s what we’ve got to get back to.”
The gulf between where the Orioles are now and where they were — when Machado and J.J. Hardy were winning Gold Glove Awards on the left side and Schoop was using one of the game’s strongest infield arms at second base — is vast.
Through Friday, they ranked no higher than 21st in defensive runs saved at any of the four infield positions, with -5 DRS at first base, -6 at second base, -20 at shortstop, and -6 at third base. With 14 errors at second base, 18 at shortstop and 17 at third base, they rank 28th, 25th and 23rd in baseball in those respective categories. As a team, they rank last in defensive efficiency ratio (.670) as a team.
It doesn’t always show up in the error column, though. Of the 1,476 ground balls Orioles pitchers allowed entering Saturday, 29.3 percent have been hits or errors. The league average is 26.6 percent, and the league leader is the Arizona Diamondbacks at 22.8 percent. The difference is about one per game, but it clearly adds up.
“At this level, 27 outs is how you win,” Peterson said. “You can’t go through a game constantly giving teams 29, 30, 31 outs. That’s three, four, five extra outs throughout a game that’s going to come back and bite you.”
That’s where Dickerson’s instruction with the new infield, including Renato Núñez at third base and Villar at second base, is focused. Peterson said fundamentals defensively have been “stressed big time” in the past few weeks. Showalter said Dickerson is always animated and passionate, but players have seen a different level of late. Dickerson pointed out aspects that wouldn’t be counted as errors but jump out to him as the most particularly frustrating.
What the outside world remembers is balls off the end of infielders’ gloves or throws off the mark. He ticks off many other plays, including: throws from the catcher that weren’t caught and tags that weren’t applied, relay throws from the outfield bouncing around the infield, double plays not turned, infielders forcing balls to the wrong base, and base coverage, among other things.
“It’s planning before it happens and just cleaning everything up,” Dickerson said. “Just overall presentation of defense. I haven’t been very happy with where we’ve been the last month or so — really, all summer. I’ve felt like all summer, it’s something that’s been a great asset to us when we’ve made our runs. And we’ve got to get it back. We’ve got to get our edge back.”
As the Orioles made their playoff runs from 2012 to 2016, they did so by finding players who could defend and coaxing quality years out of their bats. Somewhere along the line, the front office philosophy seemed to forsake defense in favor of bat prowess, and the product on the field has suffered.
The 24-year-old Núñez, for instance, came to the Orioles as a waiver claim earlier this season with a reputation as a good hitter who didn’t have a position sorted out at the highest level. Villar, 27, came to the Orioles after largely filling platoon roles for the Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers. Beckham has struggled with consistency at shortstop and at third base, where he moved earlier this season to accommodate Machado.
Below them in the minors, the Orioles have struggled to build their own infield depth, which is paramount in an era when teams are putting a premium on defenders and hoarding them. They selected standout defender Cadyn Grenier between the first and second rounds of this year’s draft, but his defense at shortstop is far ahead of his bat at this point. Last year, they took shortstop Adam Hall in the second round, and last month’s trades brought Double-A infielder Rylan Bannon and Rookie-level shortstop Jean Carmona.
But absent developing the next Schoop and Machado for the Orioles’ infield, Dickerson sees it as a badge of pride that he’s entrusted with improving what they have.
“I believe that defense is improvable,” Dickerson said. “It’s harder to improve your hitting, in my opinion, than it is to improve your defense. Defense is about acknowledging your problems, having some kind of aptitude and an understanding of your failures, and applying what you learn and go out there and make a difference, doing the reps and doing the consistent work that it takes to improve your defense. If you continue to go through the motions — it’s not about taking 100 ground balls. It’s about taking the right 20 ground balls.”
That’s what the most intensive focus has been on with the Orioles’ infielders recently. Beckham said most of the work lately has been focusing on slowing the game down, which becomes more difficult when players have developed the reputation for requiring improvement the way some of the Orioles infielders have. Every play is magnified, and thus even the routine becomes more complicated.
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” Beckham said. “I’m not playing the most fundamentally sound baseball, so I’ve still got a long way to go.”
The good news for the Orioles is the players have bought in on the focused, specific work Dickerson is bringing to them, and they have six weeks of games left to show improvement.
“We need it, and we want to keep continuing to get better on the defensive side of the baseball,” Beckham said. “That’s something we can bring to the table every day. That shouldn’t be an excuse, and he’s a good infield coach. It’s good for us to get out and work with him.”
Said Showalter: “This opportunity is pretty special. They better run with it and make use of every game and every day and run with it. They’re going to have to make some decisions before the season is over. A lot of these guys are far from the finished product. It’s up to us to try to get them to what they’re capable of being.”