BALTIMORE -- In many ways, the 2019 Orioles were a walking, talking recipe for allowing runs. They sported the game’s most volatile pitching staff, as well as a mistake-prone defense which was forced to endure long stretches without a true center fielder and to use inexperienced players at vital up-the-middle
BALTIMORE -- In many ways, the 2019 Orioles were a walking, talking recipe for allowing runs. They sported the game’s most volatile pitching staff, as well as a mistake-prone defense which was forced to endure long stretches without a true center fielder and to use inexperienced players at vital up-the-middle positions throughout the year. It all combined into 981 runs allowed, the most in the Majors.
There is no guarantee that things will get any easier on the mound this season, though they could if a few youngsters take steps forward. There is a good chance, though, the O's run prevention can improve in 2020 even if their pitching doesn’t. The reason is veteran shortstop José Iglesias, whom the club signed to a one-year, $3 million deal (with a 2021 club option) last week. He should transform a unit that ranked in the bottom third in ground-ball efficiency, errors and several other defensive metrics.
“We feel, in particular, his defensive capabilities will bring a tremendous amount of stability to our club,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said after the signing. “We expect a lot of young pitchers from our Minor League system to be graduating to the Major League club, and having his glove behind them is going to be a huge part of their development.”
That sounds plausible, but it can't be measured until (or if) it happens. What we can do is analyze the roster as it’s currently constructed. As it stands, the 2020 season should bring defensive improvement across the board, from more of Austin Hays in center field to potential improvement from Chance Sisco and Pedro Severino behind the plate. But let’s focus on the infield defense specifically for this exercise, given the outsized role Iglesias figures to play.
Here are a few reasons the Orioles’ defense should be better in 2020:
1. The Iglesias effect
We’d be remiss by not starting with the fact that Iglesias is just good, with more defensive pedigree than all but a handful of infielders throughout his career. That he hasn’t won a Gold Glove Award is as unreflective as it is shocking; over the past half-decade, Iglesias ranks third among shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating and seventh in Defensive Runs Saved and dWAR. His acrobatic style has long made him a fixture on highlight-reel compilations. That he’s routinely shared a league with the Angels’ Andrelton Simmons and the Indians’ Francisco Lindor hasn’t helped his trophy case.
Now, with Statcast’s new infield-defense metrics, we can get a clearer sense of the impact Iglesias makes with his glove. While more advanced than the metrics that came before, stats like DRS and UZR struggled to account for defensive shifting, which has exploded in frequency since their creation (The Orioles, in particular, employed a shift on 42.9 percent of pitches in 2019, third most in MLB). Statcast doesn’t come with such shortcomings, incorporating precise measurements of intercept point, opportunity time, opportunity distance and runner/batter speed into its cocktail for Outs Above Average.
So what do you learn when you put radar on Iglesias in the field? That he’s still really good. His +12 OAA last season put him in a tie for MLB’s seventh-best defender at any position and ranked him as the sixth-best shortstop. He also rated well in companion metrics: success rate (90 percent) and success rate added (three percent, tied with Lindor and 10 others for 12th in MLB). All were steps up from roughly league-average ratings from 2017-18 -- a testament to how well Iglesias can still pick it as he approaches his 30s.
2. Iglesias vs. Villar
No doubt about it, the Orioles are going to miss Jonathan Villar’s offensive production, given that he finished the 2019 season as the team leader in runs (111), hits (176), steals (40) and bWAR (4.0). He also added a career-high 24 homers and 291 total bases, far surpassing Iglesias’ best marks in either area. The Orioles are, without question, a worse hitting team without Villar, whom they traded to the Marlins in December.
But how about defensively? Villar’s value on that side of the ball was largely the product of durability: He appeared in all 162 games at either second or short for a team that absolutely needed him to. But he didn’t grade well at either position. Behold Villar’s numbers:
As a second baseman: -12 OAA, -11 DRS, -4.6 UZR As a shortstop: -4 OAA, 0 DRS, -1.4 UZR
Statcast tells us a similar story about when Villar moved around the field.
Shifted at SS: -3 OAA Shifted at 2B: -3 OAA
Iglesias as a SS: +12 OAA Iglesias shifted at SS: +1 OAA
So what are the takeaways here? Villar was below average defensively as both a shortstop and a second baseman, but especially at second base. He struggled in the shift at both spots, whether as a shortstop shifted to the right side of the bag or a second baseman shifted to the left side of the infield. Iglesias was above average when shifted to the right side of second base, and significantly so (+3 OAA) when shaded up the middle of toward second (but technically still on the left side of the bag). Eight of his 12 OAA came going to his glove side, second best among MLB shortstops.
3. What aboutRichie Martin?
Big picture, signing Iglesias allows the Orioles to operate with less urgency regarding Martin, who they sprung from Double-A into a starting role as a Rule 5 Draft pick last season. Though Martin made progress offensively as the season went on, he understandably struggled both at the plate (54 OPS+) and in the field (-8 DRS, -4.2 UZR) despite showing flashes of upside in both areas. Now, he can get seasoning in Triple-A or develop further in the Majors in a lower-stakes utility role.
The smart money is on both happening over the course of 2020. And exposing Martin to other positions at the big league level may not be the worst thing. Take a look at what digging into his Statcast metrics reveals:
As a SS: -5 OAA Shifted at SS: 0 OAA (Reminder: Iglesias while shifted at SS: +1 OAA)
What that shows is Martin was significantly better on the right side of second base, nearly as good as Iglesias was. The latter’s presence now allows the O’s to situate Martin there more often, especially if Hanser Alberto spells Rio Ruiz at third against left-handed pitching. Baltimore also might not have to shift as dramatically given Iglesias’ range to his left, potentially putting Martin and Alberto in more traditional spots.
In theory, though, Iglesias should make everyone around him better. Alberto was good at both second (4 OAA) and third (3 OAA); he’ll be relied on at second now that Villar is gone. Iglesias’ above-average ability to go back on popups (2 OAA, tied for third in MLB), likely helps mitigate Anthony Santander’s limited range in left. And Iglesias’ experience will make him a quarterback on the diamond for youngsters like Ruiz and Hays.
“I’m very excited about the challenge of making my teammates better,” Iglesias said. “There is a whole world behind numbers that matter, and I am willing to communicate with my pitchers and all my players. Being a leader on the field, it’s a big responsibility that I’m willing and excited to do.”
If the Orioles’ hurlers can keep the ball on the ground in 2020, they should be better off than they were a year ago.