Where the All-Star and Gold Glove center fielder would set up in his regular domain had become an oddly big story considering its scope. Jones wanted the team to add better defenders in the corner outfield spots. Executive vice president Dan Duquette said Jones should abandon his philosophy of playing shallow in favor of an analytically supported deeper positioning.
Jones is following that new philosophy this year, and in a 10-minute interview Friday, described how the process played out to him. Our Sunday story features Jones, Duquette and first base coach Wayne Kirby on what has gone into the transition.
Jones' comments, however, deserve full airing for the glimpse they provide at data's influence on the game, a veteran player's understanding of that, and the divide that still exists between the two disparate camps.
So it seems like you’re playing deeper this year, and talking to Wayne and Dan, they said it’s something you realized benefits the Orioles as a whole and makes everyone around you and yourself [better] and puts you all in a better position. I know there was a lot of public back-and-forth between you and Dan, via us, about doing this in spring training. What were some of the conversations like to get to where you guys are?
I think they were able to break down the numbers and let me know what certain balls, if they landed — I finally got to understand what defensive runs saved is. But say you allow a double. From a double, it takes one single to score. If you play back, you take away the doubles and they don’t mind if you allow three singles for them to score. I’m not the brightest person in the world, but I understand baseball and I understand that logic. It takes away a little bit of my feel, but I still add my feel.
It was just an agreement that Dan understood that if I play back and the pitcher makes a good pitch and he hits it off the end and I’m unable to get it coming in, he understands that it’s OK for that to be a hit. It won’t be OK for me morally, due to the fact that that’s just my style of play. But understanding the story that they want these numbers to tell, I’m not an insubordinate person. I do anything for my team to win. This is one of the steppingstones and one of the adjustments that has to be made throughout the team in order to help us win. I just have to get on board with it and do what I have to do to help these guys win the game.
It seems like it boils down to you feeling comfortable in the setup versus your pride in wanting to get to all these balls, but is it a matter of the longer you do it out there, the more comfortable you’ll be?
I’m comfortable out there no matter what. I feel that I’m a little further — I feel that I’m further back. Throwing guys out at the plate, I’ve had a couple opportunities and I know if I was 10-15 feet closer to where I normally play, I would have a better shot and probably would have gotten the guys, but being a little deeper, it makes the throws a little bit longer. Everything is just a little bit longer. These guys can run. They run bases well in the major leagues. I see that some guys might be scoring more often on routine singles, but if they want me to move back, that’s the call they made. I can say what I want — ‘I want to do this, do that.’ But if the people up there that are making the decisions want me to play deeper — my only thing is, I try to tell them, show me. Everyone in this game is [saying] ‘Do this, do that.’ Here’s my glove — go out and show me what to do. That has still yet to transpire.
Is it just a communication thing when the conversation happened earlier? You said they showed you the data and helped you understand a bit.
Data tells you a story, and if you want it to tell you that story, it’ll tell you that story. I can 100 percent combat their claims and all that stuff, but then I’d be throwing people under the bus and that’s not my style. I just said, ‘All right, whatever can make this team better, whatever I can do to help, I don’t care.’ I’ll sacrifice anything in this game besides my decency and my spirit to win a game. That’s one thing about me, I’ve always been a guy who will do anything just for that 'W' that night. That’s how I am right now.
Is that the next frontier as all of these numbers are publicly available, and all these numbers are being generated in front offices that you don’t get to see, let alone us, the communication? Meshing that? Wayne has been doing this his whole life and setting people up based on the things he knows. You’ve been doing this your whole life.
I think that’s the biggest problem right now, the communication. You’ve got very intelligent people reading numbers but not understanding the physical. Numbers tell a great story, but they tell the story you want them to tell. Especially when you’re the one that’s offering the contracts, and you’re the one who’s paying. When you’re paying, you can have the numbers tell you the numbers whatever they want to tell you. I look at it like Wayne Kirby is 53 years old. He’s been in professional baseball since 18 years old. He’s played on World Series teams, he’s been to the playoffs, he’s played with some Hall of Famers. I would take his input when it comes to reading a swing, reading the pitcher’s velocity, reading how the balls are coming off the bat. I would take his expertise. But in today’s society, that right there has gone away. It’s, ‘Play right here. The ball is supposed to be hit right here.’ Well, I don’t know if you think the pitcher is going to put the ball exactly right in that exact spot. In today’s game, it doesn’t happen like that.
But I always say, are we here for the same thing? If we are, I think the information that we have should be sent down to us. Because I understand that if your metrics are down, your WAR is down, all these numbers that they quantify in order to justify paying your salary or your free agency. If they just brought us all together and let us know, this is the data we’ve got, this is the data we’ve got, so we can bring a championship. At the end of the day, if we win on the field, everybody in that Warehouse and everybody in this organization gets a ring. I think that’s what we’re ultimately here for. If we’re not, I don’t know what the hell we’re here for.
I’m not going to make this into a thing, but I want to make clear how this was communicated to you. There obviously was a conversation. There was a conversation about this between, I don’t know if was you, and the numbers people?
It was a conversation between me and Dan. I tried to have a conversation with all the analytical people. That didn’t matriculate. I spoke with my agent, through my agent, to get that meeting to happen. I think [manager] Buck [Showalter] knew about it. I know Kirby knew about it. But I never got that chance to express myself to them, and them express themselves to me. They’re the ones that read the data. I’m out there trying to do whatever I can to catch that ball at any given opportunity. I think if they have the data, share it. If we’re here for the same thing, share it.
I told Dan that I wasn’t too thrilled on the way that happened, because I’m a professional and it’s not like I’m in my first or second year. I’ve earned the respect of front offices throughout baseball, other players throughout baseball, fans. I think that it’s in my ability, or in my realm to be able to field such a meeting, just so we’re all on the same page. It wasn’t to air anybody out, or them [to] say I can’t do this. It wasn’t like an arbitration hearing. It was more to say, ‘Look, let’s get on the same page. Let’s formulate a plan and execute a plan’ But not just blow me off. That right there didn’t make me too happy, as you being around me can see.
And I keep asking these follow-ups so we’re on the same page, because I don’t want to misconstrue you on anything. This is all just kind of happening and now you’re playing the way it’s been dictated? Were you basically told, this is what we’re doing?
They’re not going to just tell me what to do. That’s the beautiful part about this. No one, not many people are just going to tell somebody what to do, especially someone who has been around and accomplished some things in this game. But like I said, I am a person who will do anything to win. If this, in their eyes, helps us win, then OK. The corner outfielders, have, I think, adapted to it also. You can just talk about me, but everything’s a big picture when it comes to the whole outfield. It’s not just the center fielder. Me and Kirb figured out we’ll do anything for this team to win, because at the end of the day, we like high-fiving. We’re not selfish individuals. We like to win, and if this is how they see the outfield getting better and helping us win, I’d be a fool not to at least try it.
And just the brass tacks, Kirby said seven to 10 steps back? Was there a foot number, or general ballpark?
The data that they got — first off, the data they got, they put just a dot. It was very bleak on the actual positioning but I understood what they were saying. They want me to go 15 feet further. I tried to say, ‘That’s very far back,’ and tried to find a happy medium. At the end of the day, I’m going to do what I can to help this team win in any capacity. But at the same time, I’m going to use my God-given ability and mentality of playing this game in the big leagues for 10 years to my advantage, and obviously put that to use also. I’m not just going to say, these guys, just tell me what to do. I’m not going to just buy into what they’re saying, because at the end of the day, they can't physically go out there and show me, so I’m going to have to take over some of the physical element involved with it.