One of the larger stories surrounding the 2013 Baltimore Orioles was their historically great fielding, at least as measured by traditional statistics. In their 162 games, they committed 54 errors, the fewest ever. Advanced statistics support this as well — they accrued the third-most Ultimate Zone Runs (UZR) in the majors. This year, they’ve maintained that trend to some extent: Their 34 errors rank sixth in baseball, while their 8.4 UZR ranks ninth. I’d like to discuss the latter statistic, because its measurement of Baltimore’s performance is rather intriguing, and possibly disturbing too.
Four categories make up UZR; their names, acronyms, and descriptions are as follows:
|RngR||Range Runs||Get to the ball.|
|ErrR||Error Runs||If you get to the ball, don’t mess up.|
|ARM||Outfield Arm Runs||If you get to the ball, and you’re an outfielder, throw it well.|
|DPR||Double Play Runs||If you get to the ball, and you’re an infielder, turn two.|
The latter three all come with the condition that the first has been met, which reinforces the critical concept about defense that will come up later: Range trumps all. Yes, errors hurt your team, and making a good throw or converting a double play will help your team, but the impacts of all of them pale in comparison to that of range.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the numbers. UZR goes back to 2002; with 13 seasons in between then and now, and 30 teams per season, our data set has a sample size of 390. If we look at R-squared values (the correlation coefficients) for those 390 team seasons, we see that RngR correlates to UZR with an R-squared value of .858, which indicates an incredibly strong correlation. By contrast, the correlations between UZR and ARM, DPR, and ErrR sit at .100, .034, and .077, respectively, which indicate very weak correlations. To make a long and convoluted story short: Range matters more for defense than good arms in the outfield, good double play-turners in the infield, or the absence of errors anywhere.
What does this have to do with the 2014 Orioles? Looking at their UZR breakdown, we can see that they fall short in one key category:
|Stat||Baltimore’s #||Baltimore’s Rank|
In the three less-important areas, they’ve excelled; in the most important area, they’ve been below-average. This doesn’t bode well for their defense as a whole — since RngR accounts for most of the variability in UZR, a team’s ranking in RngR will generally reflect their ranking overall.
But this isn’t a one-year fluke. Look at Baltimore’s rankings for the twelve seasons prior to 2014:
|Stat||Baltimore’s #||Baltimore’s Rank|
Again, the same trend emerges: Baltimore does well or decently in every category but range. Uncoincidentally, their UZR for this span as a whole comes in at -59.7, 20th in the majors — a ranking that’s much closer to their range proficiency than any other number.
No players better epitomize this sentiment than the core Oriole, right fielder Nick Markakis. He has received a good deal of praise for his work with the glove, perhaps because of his strong arm (20.4 ARM, second among 22 qualifiers) and clean fielding (10.5 ErrR, first among 22 qualifiers); however, he hasn’t earned the superlatives pundits have heaped upon him, as his putrid range (-35.7 RngR, 20th among 22 qualifiers) makes him the 16th-best-fielding right fielder in baseball.
This could indicate an unsettling mindset on the part of Baltimore’s front offices, which seems to have repeatedly targeted players with good hands, arms, and double play-turning ability, at the expense of range. When one realizes that Baltimore’s defensive success in these past two seasons is fairly unprecedented for them — in the four preceding seasons, they ranked 27th, 29th, 21st, and 23rd in UZR — one can easily see the Orioles learning the wrong lesson from this recent progress and continuing to collect players with poor range.
In baseball today, teams must have a grasp of all advanced statistics if they want to sustain their excellence. Sadly, Baltimore appears to be stuck in a bygone era, when fielding percentage, double plays, and outfield assists dictated who fielded well and who didn’t. Range overshadows everything else, and the fielding competence of the past year-and-a-half notwithstanding, the Orioles won’t win in the future if they don’t recognize this.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.