The play smacked of tremendous baseball guile, the way the Orioles' third baseman faked his throw to first with absolute conviction, all the while knowing that his real target was the unsuspecting runner rounding the bag behind him.
Add the fact that it came in the ninth inning of a tie game in the middle of a tense pennant race and you had something pretty great. The hardest thing to believe? The third baseman, Manny Machado, looks like he could still be in high school, with his smooth cheeks and lanky frame. Barely more than two years ago, he was in high school.
Machado, 20, got a lot of attention when he hit two home runs in his second major league game. But his greatest contribution over the ensuing five weeks has been more subtle. By playing an excellent third base, Machado has eliminated a weakness in the Orioles' defense. Meanwhile, Mark Reynolds, a disaster at third early in the season, has settled in as a capable glove man at first base.
These are the most obvious changes in a defense that has performed significantly better in the second half of the season after having the most errors in the league in the first half. Sharper defense — as exemplified by Machado's clever play Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Rays — has helped the Orioles increase their winning percentage at a time when many analysts expected them to collapse.
“Oh, it's definitely been better,” said Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters. “We've been playing really good defense over the last few months.”
Orioles pitchers say they feel more comfortable allowing batters to make contact, because the defense is more likely to back them up. The change has been especially significant for ground-ball pitchers like Zach Britton, whose best work of the season has coincided with the defensive renaissance.
“There's times when you can try to do a little bit too much, you know, trying to strike guys out,” said Britton, explaining his psychology. “That's not really my game, so it definitely helps me right now that we have good defense.”
Statistical analysts have long regarded defense as the trickiest aspect of the game to measure, because responsibilities are shared on many plays and because it's hard to account for a fielder's range. But the more sophisticated measures that have emerged in recent years agree that the Orioles played lousy defense in the first half and have improved substantially.
“They were on pace to be a very bad defensive team,” said Ben Jedlovec, co-author of “The Fielding Bible III,” a statistical tome about defense. “But they've really leveled off, even improved.”
Jedlovec's company, Baseball Info Solutions, studies every defensive play in every major league game and compares the performance on each one to leaguewide performance in similar situations. Teams are measured by a statistic called “defensive runs saved.”
The Orioles stood at negative-26 defensive runs saved when Machado took over third base. They're now at negative-17, still below average overall but trending in the right direction.
With Machado at third, Reynolds at first, Hardy at shortstop and Robert Andino at second base, Jedlovec said the Orioles now have one of the better defensive infields in baseball.
Reynolds is a particularly interesting case. He measured as a dreadful third baseman, but since he moved to first base in May, he has led the sport in what Baseball Info Solutions calls “good fielding plays.” Those are the types of plays — a lunging scoop of an errant throw, a leaping snare of a line drive — that catch a casual fan's eye.
Such plays mitigate the negative effects of Reynolds' limited range. Jedlovec said Reynolds is still a slightly below-average first baseman, but that's a significant upgrade on his damaging performance at third.
Orioles fans might be surprised to hear that center fielder Adam Jones and injured right fielder Nick Markakis, both former Gold Glove winners, rank as below-average fielders by defensive runs saved. Jones makes a lot of spectacular catches and saves runs with strong throws, Jedlovec said, but he and the team's other outfielders struggle on balls hit over their heads.
“They aren't reaching balls that other teams are getting,” he said.
Such flaws aside, Jedlovec said the Orioles' in-season improvement on defense has been “a good part of their turnaround this year.”
The club's players agree with the stats in pinpointing Machado and Reynolds as the key components.
“The addition of Manny Machado was huge,” Hardy said. “And Reynolds is a Gold Glover over there at first base. I don't know what it is, but when he puts that glove on over there, he's really good. I know he's saved us all a ton of errors, picking balls.”
Few defenders in baseball have taken more abuse than Reynolds in recent seasons. He led the American League with 31 errors last year and began this season with several misplays at third base. But teammates and manager Buck Showalter have gone out of their way to praise his play at first base, noting the way he works at it every day during batting practice.
“Mark impacts our club over there,” Showalter said.
Teammates agree that Reynolds, who has hit seven home runs in September, has been a better all-around player since achieving some measure of peace with his glove work.
“He looks more relaxed, like he's not just focusing on his defense,” Britton said. “He looks more relaxed at the plate, too, because his defense is solid and he doesn't have that added pressure of everyone always talking about him at third. He plays a great first base.”
Reynolds' shift would have been less impactful, however, if Machado had not arrived to wipe away the club's struggles at third base.
Machado was a shortstop in high school and in the minor leagues, and he hopes to return to the more glamorous defensive position one day. But Hardy, the smooth-fielding veteran who's blocking him, said he's been amazed at how easily the kid has adapted to an unfamiliar position.
“He came up here and looked comfortable, like he fits right in,” Hardy said. “Obviously, he's real good defensively. He fields balls cleanly, and he has a strong arm. That didn't surprise me, but the fact that he can adjust to third base and be as comfortable as he is and be as aware of everything around him, that's really impressed me. It's very different. That position, you don't have a chance to read the hops. You're just reacting, so it's totally different.”
Machado has said he, too, is surprised with the ease of his transition. But talent is talent, as he alluded to in explaining his great fake-out play against the Rays.
“It just comes out,” Machado told reporters after the game. “That's one thing about having good instincts for the game. Things come out that you don't ever plan or you don't even practice.”
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