Heading into Monday night's game between the Blue Jays and Orioles, Baltimore has an 11.5 game lead over Toronto in the AL East and is poised to make a legitimate run at the World Series. The Jays are four games back in the wild-card race and barring a minor miracle over the next two weeks, will miss the playoffs for the 21st consecutive season.
Nick Ashbourne examined the differences between the two teams earlier this month at Bluebird Banter and explained where Baltimore's roster has a substantial edge over Toronto's:
"The Jays have gotten on base more, and created slightly more runs, but the difference here is negligible. The Orioles pitchers have been slightly more effective due to their ability to limit walks, but once again there is relatively little to differentiate them from the Jays hurlers. It's apparent that not only are the Orioles an elite defensive team, but the Jays are a pretty bad one. When it comes to run prevention the Blue Jays are just miles behind the division leaders they are chasing."
It's thanks to their play in the field that the Orioles are running away with the division.
By FIP, which uses strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed to isolate a pitcher's performance, Toronto and Baltimore's pitching production has been very similar. In fact, the Jays' staff has a slightly better FIP, but their combined ERA is slightly worse than predicted, while the Orioles have outperformed their team FIP by nearly half a run.
That's where team defence comes into play. Defensive metrics are far from perfect but they do give a good idea of the impact a player has with the glove, and at least they take into account more information than say, fielding percentage. According to Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, the Orioles have been the second best defensive team in baseball, only behind Kansas City. The Blue Jays rank 23rd in UZR.
Here's a side-by-side comparison of the two teams' defensive numbers by their innings leader at each position, except catcher. The UZR number is designed to quantify how many runs a player saves or costs his team compared to a league average player at that position.
Blue Jays (UZR, ML rank)
Orioles (UZR, ML rank)
Edwin Encarnacion (-3.6, 147)
Chris Davis (2.3, 15)
Munenori Kawasaki (-2.7, 129)
Jonathan Schoop (7.1, 4)
Jose Reyes (-9.1, 119)
J.J. Hardy (13.1, 2)
Juan Francisco (-4.3, 129)
Manny Machado (6.1, 7)
Melky Cabrera (-2.7, 167)
David Lough (8.8, 4)
Colby Rasmus (-8.5, 122)
Adam Jones (8.4, 8)
Jose Bautista (0.1, 75)
Nick Markakis (3.0, 21)
Toronto's two top defensive players this season, Anthony Gose (4.7 UZR) and Ryan Goins (4.2), aren't full-time players because their offence has been so far below league average. Brett Lawrie, another plus defender, has been limited to 70 games because of injuries and his absence affects two positions in the infield as Lawrie's range at third has helped hide Jose Reyes' declining shortstop skills.
While having Lawrie's defence for a full season would help, it wouldn't fix everything in Toronto. Baltimore has been able to get good to great defensive production from every position and they've had to deal with significant injuries of their own.
The Orioles have played most of the season without starting catcher Matt Wieters. Third baseman Manny Machado missed the first month recovering from a left knee injury and has been out of the lineup again since mid-August when he hurt his right knee. Both Machado and Wieters are considered excellent defensive players at their positions and even without them Baltimore has been a top defensive team.
Both offences are among the league's best, but the Orioles have been able to give their run prevention a boost because of their excellent play in the field.
Baltimore is headed to the postseason, Toronto is almost certainly not, and the difference is in the defence.
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