Apr 5, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles teammates J.J. Hardy (left) , Adam Jones (center) and Matt Wieters (right) receive their Gold Glove awards prior to the game against the Minnesota Twins on opening day at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Orioles: The Value of Defense in the Game of Baseball

It is statistically verifiable that the 2013 Baltimore Orioles are among the greatest defensive teams in the history of baseball – especially in terms of the fewest errors committed. Let that sink in. That is amazing.

There is no doubt that the “ability to defend” (as Buck Showalter puts it) is a tremendous asset in the game of baseball. But in relation to other aspects of the game, particularly pitching and hitting, where does it rank in value and importance?

I understand that it could be combined with pitching as the components that happen in one-half of an inning, but for the sake of argument today, I am treating it as its own category of consideration. It is a truism that is stated in many sports, “Defense wins championships.” Combined with pitching as one-half of the game, that would be true also in baseball; but you can still have a dominant pitching staff even with a statistically poor group of fielders, and also a great defense with statistically poor pitchers (which some would argue is the definition of the 2013 Orioles).  All to say … I see defense as its own component of the game.

We are especially reminded of Orioles defense at this season when we have been recipients of the sad news of the passing of Paul Blair, who was certainly one of the all-time great defensive outfielders. In all of the writing about the Birds’ centerfielder, the phrase “The Oriole Way” has been frequently mentioned – referencing defense as a valued part of a great team and the legacy of the Orioles in that regard.

So how far can defense take you? Well, after watching 2013, apparently not far enough. What does that mean? Consider this: here we had one of the greatest defensive teams of all time with a powerful offense at the top of the sport in most hitting categories, and yet it netted a total of only 85 wins at the end of it all.

In case you missed it on your end, I just heard the pitching proponents stand up in the back of the room and yell, “Amen, preach it brother!”

OK… so… yes… pitching is huge. Like in real estate, where the slogan is “location, location, location,” it is not without merit when analyzing the great American game of baseball to say that it much revolves around pitching, pitching, pitching.

What was incredible and so unusual and rare about the 2012 Orioles? It was the bullpen and the combined season they all put together that kept the team in close one-run types of games until the offense could squeeze out a winning run – often in extra innings. My point?… Give me a rare bullpen over a rare defense. Strong defenders save runs here and there and are a huge asset, but they cannot stop balls that fly over fences or the screamers hit into the gaps.

So what are the Orioles to do?  Well, we can certainly take pleasure in the fact that the Birds’ defense is really amazing and that it is a great asset. You have gold glove winners in Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis. At first base, Chris Davis is a top-tier defender by any measure. If this new acquisition John Lough is to be the primary leftfielder, by all reports he is exceptionally good. And Ryan Flaherty or Jemile Weeks at second base will be very, very strong.

And the Orioles have powerful hitters, though an article for another day will be to talk about how no matter how great your offense is in statistical categories at the end of the day, if they do not perform well in the situational hitting categories, the high numbers are not that valuable.

Clearly the need is for pitching to improve in order for wins to improve; and this involves both starters and relievers. I don’t want anyone to hear me saying that understanding baseball as a sport is simply reducible to just pitching, but it is huge. And I’m not convinced that the Orioles’ only chance to have great pitching is to necessarily add arms from beyond the current roster. I am simply saying that of the areas of pitching, hitting, defense … the pitching needs to be the focus at this moment in time.

So, defense is great, but it cannot be the key factor in winning championships in baseball.

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