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Is the Orioles outfield playing too deep?

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Here’s a thought: positioning slow-footed and weak-throwing outfielders back by the warning track is costing this team runs.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles
D’oh.
Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Flare. Dying quail. Texas Leaguer. Blooper. Judging by how many good terms are reserved for these balls, it seems the bloop single is an inherently funny play. Whatever you call it, as a viewer, I’ve decided that we’re seeing way too many (catchable) fly balls drop in front of our outfielders for hits.

One the most distinctive signals of regime change in 2019 has been outfield positioning. Adam Jones was known for playing one of the shallowest center fields in the league, and outfield coach Wayne Kirby used to adjust his outfielders the old-fashioned way, with hand signals (I miss Wayne Kirby). The Orioles now play one of the deepest outfields in the league, a fact alluded to when, during Wednesday’s game against the Yankees, the YES team asked whether Hanser Alberto wasn’t lonely out there, with Stevie Wilkerson playing somewhere off in another state.

I know what you’re going to say, and I believe it has something to do with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or about low expectations when you’re playing three infielders in the outfield, like the Orioles did on Wednesday night. Well, I say there’s still no reason to give up free runs or make these guys run more than they have to, then!

In any case, there’s been way too many games this season where our fielding has made our pitching looks worse than it had to, often in situations that have turned the game, and in ways that made me suspect the problem was being out of position.

For instance, on June 13, the Blue Jays condemned the O’s to death by a thousand singles, including a blooper in front of Mancini for their second run and another one in front of Wilkerson for run No. 9 (yes, ouch) that would have been an out in the era of Jones and Kirby.

Then there was a loss to the Dbacks on July 24 where in the first, left fielder Tim Locastro robbed Jonathan Villar of a single with a nifty diving catch.

I know Dwight Smith, Jr. wouldn’t have made that catch. My point is, with Villar not a power threat to left field, Locastro was positioned relatively shallow.

Now look at a play from the bottom half of the inning.

What? Why?

In this week’s miserable series against the Yankees there were several more. On Wednesday night, a routine pop-up by Cameron Maybin turned into this:

Sure, miscommunications. But—with that hang time—eminently catchable.

The night before, DJ Stewart had to chug in on wet grass, lost his footing, and ended up with a concussion when the wayward ball bounced on his head. It was one of the saddest plays of the year. I’m honestly sorry to make you have to watch it again. But look, against the .209-hitting left-hander Mike Ford, where he’s positioned:

Look, there are a ton of factors determining where outfielders play. This includes the batter’s power and handedness; the pitcher’s handedness, stuff and velocity; the speed of the fielder; how many runners are on base; the speed of the runners; the count; the game situation; park dimensions, and wind. There’s probably a lot more I’m not thinking of.

And, as we know from a befuddled Alberto’s constantly checking the positioning card under his hat on Wednesday, outfield positions are now number-crunched by the likes of Sig Mejdal. With the reams of data they have and we don’t, who are we to Monday morning quarterback? Totally true, but positioning is probabilistic at best, and things don’t always play out on the field the way they’re predicted to.

No disrespect, either, to current outfield coach Arnie Beyeler (who as I said, probably isn’t mainly responsible for positioning, anyway). Beyeler has done a great job, especially with Trey Mancini and Stevie Wilkerson. Most major-league outfield coaches aren’t teaching their players the position from scratch, so hats off to him.

But you won’t be blown away, I’m sure, to find out that in terms of defensive runs saved, our corner outfielders rank among the worst in the league. (At center, we’re more middle-of-the-pack.) I’d argue that, with slow-footed and weak-throwing outfielders like Mancini and Dwight Smith Jr. (and God knows, Hanser Alberto, should this prove to be a thing) and a homer-prone pitching staff in a homer-friendly park, we should be cutting off the singles that can start rallies and preventing runners from taking the easy extra base, or scoring, on said singles.

A mellower option would be to keep our corner guys deep, while playing “Breeze” Wilkerson shallower. This is what the Orioles used to do with Jones and slow-footed fielders like Trumbo, and it makes sense for several reasons: more balls drop in center than go over the fielder’s head, balls travel to the corners faster, and besides, Wilkerson is a good athlete, even if lacking in experience, and has been able to make the drop-back play and range over to field balls in left and right.

There’s a lot more to dig into here. I think it’s pretty certain the Orioles play a deeper outfield than most, but you’d really want to crunch the numbers to see whether the team is giving up more runs on extra-base hits than singles. A 2013 study on Bill James Online did do something like that, finding that playing deep saved more runs than playing shallow. But I’d like to see these numbers run today, allowing for changes in the way the league is hitting, the specific characteristics of the pitching staff, and the abilities of the fielders. My strong hunch—hunch though it is—is that this team is losing more runs on misplayed bloopers and dying quails than they’re saving by catching deep fly balls at the track.

Your thoughts?