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Another year, another plea for Adam Jones to play deeper in the outfield

For about as long as Adam Jones has been on the Orioles, people have been saying he should play deeper. It’s starting again this spring.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox
If Adam Jones played deeper, maybe he’d catch more balls - or so the refrain has been for years.
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The idea that Adam Jones needs to play deeper in center field dates back almost as long as he is in Baltimore. The Orioles kicked off spring training with this theme being revisited for the umpteenth time. All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

The Orioles had one of the worst outfield defenses in MLB last season, if not the worst, most people who don’t work for the Orioles agree. Even Orioles players and staff acknowledge there needs to be some improvement.

If you missed it, the genesis of this latest round of “Adam Jones should play deeper” is that at last month’s FanFest, Adam Jones said that the Orioles need to improve their outfield by adding more speed and athleticism on the corners. By late January, the chances of this changing by getting better personnel for defense onto the roster were slim.

Orioles GM Dan Duquette, as the architect of the roster that had that awful defense last season, was asked about the Jones comments. Duquette, being Duquette, cryptically suggested that Jones could help by playing deeper in the outfield, although he didn’t say so directly, instead relaying that he’d seen ESPN analyst and former MLB player Doug Glanville make the observation last month.

Why is Duquette pulling a “I’m not saying, I’m just saying” on his star player to start off spring training? Who knows? Although Duquette says he hadn’t spoken to Jones on the topic, I doubt Jones will be blind-sided whenever he hears about what Duquette said.

Jones is surely familiar enough with Duquette to not take it personally. But it’s still a weird fire for Duquette to stoke on day one of spring training. Not that he’s necessarily wrong, nor is he saying anything new.

What Glanville said in The Baltimore Sun last month is that he sees similarity between Jones and almost-Oriole Dexter Fowler. In the 2016 season, Fowler moved deeper into the outfield. This had a dramatic effect on Fowler’s Defensive Runs Saved number, which went from -12 runs in 2015 to a +1 in 2016. By Ultimate Zone Rating, the change was less drastic, from -1.7 to 1.0, but it’s something.

In Glanville’s mind, Jones could benefit from that change as well. By both UZR and DRS, Jones saw his numbers decline significantly from 2015 to 2016. His UZR went from a +7.1 to a -10.1. He was 17 runs worse, defensively, compared to 2015. DRS is about as bad, going from +4 to -10, or 14 runs worse.

An AP story of a loss last May begins like this:

Baltimore’s Adam Jones was playing shallow in center field when 5-foot-6 rookie Tony Kemp came to the plate with no outs in the 13th inning.

Kemp tripled over Jones’s head and eventually scored the winning run. Then again, maybe the pitcher, Dylan Bundy in that case, shouldn’t have let a jabroni like Tony Kemp, who ended the season with a .621 OPS, hit a ball over Jones’s head.

This is not a new problem. This has been happening, or at least talked about, for a number of years now. So it’s not like Jones changed anything with playing shallow to point to that as the cause of the big drop from 2015 to 2016.

Here’s fellow O’s bloggers Eutaw Street Report pointing out Jones positioning cost the O’s in a loss in 2015. Sabermetrics guru included Jones as one of the shallow-positioned players in a 2013 article about the benefit of playing deep rather than shallow. And here’s a Baltimore Sun headline from spring training 2010:

Orioles ask Gold Glover Jones to play deeper in CF

That last one is interesting because it comes on the heels of Jones rating a +10 in DRS in the 2009 season, when he won his first Gold Glove. Not that the two metrics agreed on Jones’s defense: UZR scored him at -7.3 that year. This is part of the problem with the publicly available metrics. They’re all we have, but they’re not perfect.

Manager Buck Showalter offered a reminder about those metrics:

“It kind of fluctuates with ballparks we play in and who’s pitching. There are a lot of things I can show you 100 times last year where positioning led to outs. It’s a pretty broad brush. But just to be led around by a system that’s not as accurate as it’s portrayed to be ...

He also said of the Orioles outfield situation last year, “A lot of that had to do just with ability as opposed to positioning.” Having watched a lot of Mark Trumbo’s lumbering, Joey Rickard’s bumbling, and Hyun Soo Kim’s well-meaning inadequacy in chasing down balls in the left field corner last season, I can certainly agree with Showalter about that.

If the Orioles are keeping up with what are believed to be the trends of MLB analytics, they probably have their own private, more-functional version of DRS and UZR. If it’s telling them that their outfield was good last year, I can’t say I would agree with that.

Orioles fans can hope that maybe there are some causes that the team is in more of a position to identify that they might be able to address even without adding the speed and athleticism that Jones was looking for them to add.

The Orioles need some outfielders who can run down balls in the gaps or in the corners, and they don’t have those guys. They won’t have those guys. So they’ll have to make do with what they’ve got.

Maybe they can make do a little better this year, because at least Seth Smith has a career outfielder’s instincts out there, even if, at 34, he probably lacks the speed he once had.

Maybe their pitchers will be pitching to the defense better, as well. That’s a chicken or the egg problem that fans can’t solve with public data. Did having Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson pitch the way they were pitching end up making the Orioles outfield look bad, or was it a lack of skill in the Orioles outfield that made Wright and Wilson look bad? It could always be some of both.

You never know, maybe the Orioles will actually get Jones to play a little deeper. It’s all connected. And if the past is any indication, we’ll be talking about it again next year.