With two Gold Glove finalists and two other snubs, defense was a strength for the Orioles this season.
As the finalists were announced for the Gold Glove award given to the best defender at each position in each league, there were two Orioles finalists, but they were not the two that many thought had the best chance to win the award in Baltimore. Cedric Mullins was named a finalist in centerfield and Ramon Urias at 3rd base. But the notable absences were Jorge Mateo, who had a career year at shortstop, and Adley Rutschman, who was elite in framing and pop time. All four of these players had great defensive seasons for the Orioles and there are also players such as Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle who flew a little bit under the radar but also gave the O’s productive defense. In a season full of surprises in Birdland, a strong defense helped the team win 83 games and stay alive for a Wild Card spot up until the last weekend.
The Gold Glove Finalists
As mentioned earlier, Mullins and Urias are finalists to win an American League Gold Glove at their respective positions. Mullins used his speed and athleticism to patrol the outfield on a nightly basis and Urias stayed strong at the hot corner despite not having a known position coming into the season with a lot of fluctuation in the infield. Both players used their defensive abilities to help the team and help themselves sustain a role on the team for the future.
Mullins ranked in the 94th percentile for Outs Above Average in MLB according to Baseball Savant, which means he was one of the best in the league at tracking down baseballs that most other outfielders would not catch up to. He also ranked in the 78th percentile in outfield jump and 58th percentile in arm strength. Arm strength has been an issue for Mullins in the past, but he has improved to be better than the league average in that category and he continues to have a knack for making the right plays in the outfield. Specifically, he improved his arm strength by adding 2.1 miles per hour to his average throw from the outfield since 2021 and 3.4 miles per hour since 2020.
Surprisingly, Mullins also did not get charged for a single error in 150 games and more than 1250 innings this season. This lack of errors certainly helped him earn Gold Glove votes and there certainly is value to having made every play that he should have without allowing any extra base runners or leaving outs on the field. He also had an impressive 3.0 Ultimate Zone Rating which improved by 8.7 runs from 2021 and he saved 7 runs above average.
For Urias, he moved around the infield at times but spent most of the season at third base defensively where he shined. He ranked in the 90th percentile for Outs Above Average in Major League Baseball and had a 10.9 UZR in 98 games at third. He was somewhat error-prone with a league average .969 fielding percentage but that is to be expected for infielders with good range. Arm strength was also a weakness for Urias as he ranked in the 29th percentile but ultimately had a successful season for the O’s and helped anchor the hot corner.
The Gold Glove Snubs
Mateo and Rutschman both had successful defensive seasons, and both could have an argument to win Gold Glove at their position, let alone being in the top three. Coming into the season, Mateo had played only 18 career games at Shortstop and yet he quickly became the O’s everyday player at a premium defensive position. He was arguably the best fielder on the Orioles as he ranked in the 97th percentile for Outs Above Average and had well above average arm strength. According to Fangraphs, he saved 14 runs over the course of the season- which is 8 runs above average. The one blemish on his record is that he recorded 17 errors which would be tied for most in the National League. However, he had a .972 fielding percentage which is better than Urias and made enough flashy plays that more than made up for the occasional blunder.
Rutschman was unique because he was a catcher who did not make his big league debut until May 21st but he was well-regarded in both aspects of Catcher defense that is easily quantifiable in pop time and framing. He ranked in the 79th percentile for pop time and 84th percentile for framing which made him a valuable defensive player as few catchers were above average in both aspects. According to Baseball Savant, he saved 4 runs during the season due to his framing abilities. He also had 18 Defensive Runs Saved and had a 13.1 defensive value according to Fangraphs. Once again, errors were a bit of a blemish as he had a below-average fielding percentage with 8 errors behind home plate. Regardless, it is hard to imagine that there were three better defensive catchers in the American League this season.
Collective Team Defense
Individually, these four players that I wrote about all had excellent seasons in the field, but it is hard to make a case that defense was a team strength without looking at how team defense fared against the rest of the league. To start, the O’s ranked ninth as a team in Defensive Runs Saved according to Baseball Reference, tied with the Mariners at 38 runs. According to Fangraphs, the O’s had the seventh-best team defense in MLB with a 15.7 defensive rating. They also ranked 5th as a team in Ultimate Zone Rating and saved the most runs in baseball through double plays.
All this is to say that the Orioles played well in aspects of the game that are not necessarily sexy, but they have played increasingly fundamentally sound baseball in the past year which helped them to a 31-win improvement. As I wrote earlier this month, the O’s have also had a much stronger presence on the basepaths under Brandon Hyde than they ever did when Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter ran the show. The future is bright in Birdland, and those bright lights should include some strong defense over the coming years.