Orioles' postseason hopes depend largely on defense
Limiting unearned runs can boost a team into a perennial World Series contender
You knew the Orioles were in trouble a year ago, right?
During their great season in 2012, when they'd come from the pack to reach the playoffs and almost take down the Yankees, they had gone 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra-inning games. There was no way they could duplicate that much odds-defying success, was there?
Of course there wasn't.
Last year, the O's were 20-31 in one-run games and 8-7 in extra-inning games, and their overall victory total dropped from 93 to 85. It would have dropped more except Baltimore did one thing extremely well.
The Orioles' pitchers and fielders worked together to allow only 31 unearned runs. That was 32 fewer than they had allowed in making the playoffs the year before and, notably, the fewest in the Major Leagues.
On the one hand, this is impressive, a nice feat for Buck Showalter and coaches Bobby Dickerson and Wayne Kirby, who worked with a group of fielders that included six Gold Glove finalists, including winners Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado. On the other, it is a bit like that one-run game record in 2012 -- a danger sign for the upcoming season.
Throwing out the peculiarities that come with official-scoring decisions, I think unearned run totals do a nice job showing the toughness of teams in regard to preventing runs. They speak both to a lack of mistakes in the field and the ability to get the big out on the mound, stopping an inning before things get ugly.
And, of course, there's a lot of luck -- or randomness, if you prefer -- that influences these results. If you did an especially good job preventing unearned runs one season, you will probably allow more of them the following year.
But how many more? That could be just a few more runs or it could be a whole big flood of season-turning runs, as happened to the White Sox last season and the Twins in 2011.
A six-time Gold Glove winner, Robin Ventura ordered up lots of extra fielding work for the 2012 White Sox in his first year as manager. They took infield the first day of most series throughout the season and, with pitcher Jake Peavy the only Gold Glove winner, allowed only 30 unearned runs, a very low total.
Tough-minded (or lucky, depending on your take) pitching probably had more to do with the total than fielding itself, as only shortstop Alexei Ramirez (plus-12 defensive runs saved) and right fielder Alex Rios (plus-7 defensive runs saved) were especially strong in terms of defensive metrics. But Ventura and his coaches thought they were overseeing a team that played well in the field, until they found out otherwise.
Last season, the White Sox allowed 70 unearned runs, more than all but the Astros, Brewers and Blue Jays. Their unraveling included a regression by Ramirez (plus-1 defensive run save) and Rios (minus-5) and horrific work by center fielder Alejandro de Aza (minus-18).
This was like Ron Gardenhire's Twins in their second season in Target Field. They won the American League Central when they moved over from the Metrodome in 2010, allowing only 33 unearned runs. But that total soared to 80 as Minnesota fell into disarray the following season, a trend the club continues to try to escape.
Among teams finishing in the top five in the Majors in fewest runs allowed every season since 2008, 19 of 25 have regressed the following year, which is probably not a surprise. Those 25 teams allowed an average of 12.2 more unearned runs the following season. That's likely the difference of a few wins a year, unless you're unlucky enough that the extra unearned runs come in those one-run games.
What you'd like to have, of course, is a team that is consistently strong in the field. The O's should qualify in that category, although there was a disconnect between the defensive metrics from 2013 and players' reputations. Catcher Matt Wieters was a minus-13 in calculations that somehow love the Cubs' Welington Castillo (best-in-baseball plus-19) and even Jones (minus-2) and right fielder Nick Markakis (minus-7), a Gold Glove finalist, were in negative territory.
The look at unearned run totals the last five seasons also told me this:
• No team is better at not giving away runs than the Reds. They've allowed only an average of 42.8 unearned runs the last five years, a tribute to Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.
• Teams that consistently don't allow a lot of unearned runs are among those who always seem to go to be in the playoff hunt and sometimes get termed overachievers. The teams that have been almost as stingy as the Reds over the last five years are the Giants, Rays, Braves, Red Sox and Yankees.
• The sloppiest teams over the last five years have been the Astros (an average of 71 unearned runs a year), Nationals, Indians, Cubs and Athletics.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.