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The Orioles, the Blue Jays and the Value of Fielding

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The O's and Jays are remarkably similar teams, except when you look at the teams' defensive abilities.

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Jays aren't going to catch the Baltimore Orioles and win the AL East.

Generally speaking, definitive statements like that will get you killed in this business, but as predictions go that one seems pretty safe. Toronto is currently 10 games behind Baltimore with less than a month remaining, and it would take something absolutely extraordinary for the Jays to overtake the O's.

At this point the Blue Jays' slim playoff hopes rest on snagging the second wild card, hitting the road, and beating the second-place team in the AL West. A lot of things would have to break right for that to happen, and it's not really reasonable to expect that any of them will, let alone all of them.

So, at the point of the season when Blue Jays fans are looking forward to the debut of top prospects and reflecting on the year as a whole, it's worth examining how the Jays fell short of the Orioles to lose their grasp on a division that initially appeared winnable. After all, the teams are awfully similar.

Firstly, both squads field above-average lineups. There isn't a lot separating the two teams in terms of the production they've delivered at the plate.

Team

AVG

OBP

SLG

wRC+

Runs

Orioles

.257

.311

.422

103

591

Blue Jays

.259

.324

.416

105

598

The Jays have gotten on base more,  and created slightly more runs, but the difference here is negligible.

Moving over to pitching, a look at the fielding-independent numbers shows the two teams are once again virtually mirror images of each other.

Team

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

FIP

xFIP

WAR

Orioles

7.11

2.91

0.93

3.99

3.94

12.2

Blue Jays

7.46

3.23

0.94

4.02

4.10

11.7

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.

If the two teams hit the ball relatively similarly, and their pitchers produce similar numbers it seems unlikely that there would be a 10 game gap between them. However, by process of elimination (not including base running I suppose) the major factor separating the Jays and O's has to be contrast in their effectiveness fielding the ball. By the two main defensive metrics at FanGraphs, DRS and UZR, Baltimore is lapping Toronto in that regard this season.

Team

DRS

UZR

Orioles

50

48.2

Blue Jays

-39

-15.0

Although it's hard to take defensive metrics as gospel, these numbers are pretty compelling. It's apparent that not only are the Orioles an elite defensive team, but the Jays are a pretty bad one.

Even if you are reluctant to accept advanced defensive stats, a look at pitching numbers that include fielders' contributions shows how much glovework has played a role in the gap between the Jays and Orioles.

Team

Opp AVG

BABIP

ERA

Runs Allowed

RA9-WAR

Orioles

.245

.284

3.60

515

19.7

Blue Jays

.254

.299

4.13

600

9.8

When it comes to run prevention the Blue Jays are just miles behind the division leaders they are chasing.

It is easy to boil baseball down to a game of hitting and pitching alone, but the ability of fielders to turn balls in play into outs plays a huge factor over the course of a season. One need only look as far as the AL Central to see a team in the Kansas City Royals that is winning games with their gloves.

Based on some of the comparison between the Blue Jays and Orioles hitting and pitching numbers it would easy to conclude that the teams are two 25-man peas in what would have be an absolutely gargantuan pod. Clumsy and mildly disturbing metaphors aside, that conclusion would be wrong. In baseball, fielding can make a huge difference.

In the case of the Blue Jays and Orioles that difference is about 10 games.

. . .

All statistics current as of 09/02/2014