One of the strange subplots of the recent Orioles offseason was the little back and forth between center fielder Adam Jones and general manager Dan Duquette about the state of the Orioles outfield. You might remember that Jones advocated for a more athletic outfield and Duquette offered one of his trademark seemingly-tactless replies suggesting that Jones could help by playing deeper.
The 2017 season is a mere 13 games old and the Orioles are not even 10% of the way through their full schedule. However, according to MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, one of the gatekeepers of MLB’s Statcast data, the early results are in and Jones is playing noticeably deeper compared to the recent past.
Specifically, Jones started out on average 309 feet from home plate over the course of last season. Thus far, according to Petriello, he’s starting out 324 feet from the plate in 2017. This is the biggest change of any of the center fielders in baseball from last season to this one.
Jones playing deeper with the Orioles was presaged, in a way, by the memorable catch that Jones made against O’s teammate Manny Machado in the World Baseball Classic. The guys who look at all the Statcast data, including Petriello, noted that Jones was 14 feet deeper than his typical 2016 positioning before making that catch.
About the positioning so far this season, Jones told MLB.com:
"I've always played to my comfort, my knowledge of hitters, my knowledge of the counts, my knowledge from being out there for a lot of innings, seeing a lot of hitters, a lot tendencies. But I understand data. They feel my defensive metrics will get better if I back up."
Jones also said that it’s “weird playing a little deeper,” but noted that he will do what it asked of him because he isn’t insubordinate - rogue pie delivery notwithstanding.
With this being a perennial topic for the team, it’s interesting that they’ve apparently finally succeeded in getting him to play deeper. This opens up an interesting question not answered in Petriello’s article: Why the change now?
One possibility is that it’s only this offseason that the Orioles finally spun up enough of an analytics operation to reach the conclusion for themselves that Jones should play a deeper position in center field. It’s one thing to have your eyes believe something and another thing to have reams of data to back it up. They could have been lagging behind in this area up until now.
The Jones quote above supports this idea, because that makes it sound like Jones only heard this stuff from the analytics people recently. Another possibility is that they’ve been telling him for a while and for whatever reason it only switched from friendly suggestion to command for this season.
It doesn’t have to involve some conflict, either. Maybe the Orioles just hired a new person, or an existing employee was able to persuade Jones in a way that hasn’t been done in the past.
With a general cliche about defensive data being that you need three years of information to make any definitive statements, it’s obviously far too early to make sweeping judgments after 13 games. There’s not much data to see. One of the two public metrics, Ultimate Zone Rating, hasn’t even been calculated yet.
Statcast does offer some early trends that will hopefully continue, though. They track a stat they call “Barrels” - that is, the hardest-hit balls. On those plays:
We can see that in 2016, the Orioles allowed the eighth-highest slugging percentage last year, and now they're allowing the fifth-lowest slugging percentage this year.
Another way of looking at that is that on those barreled balls, the Orioles ranked 23rd in MLB for slugging percentage allowed last year. Early this year - again, small sample size - they rank fifth. That’s a pretty big deal for as long as it continues.
It’s a good thing for the O’s if their outfield defense is offering improvement, because the same early returns on the infield defense aren’t so great:
Worst out rate on ground balls and bunts by defense— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) April 20, 2017
That is, players hitting ground balls against the Orioles have a .320 BABIP. That’s very high, which is why the O’s are coming in as the worst team in MLB in this regard. By contrast, according to ESPN’s Simon, the best team at converting outs on ground balls so far this year, the Cubs, has allowed just a .180 BABIP. Probably, the Cubs are getting lucky and the O’s are getting unlucky. Probably.
This is another trend worth keeping an eye on for the O’s, but that’s another story for another day. For now, hopefully Jones keeps playing deeper and this continues to provide benefits to the Orioles.