Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, is as good a venue as any to demonstrate how far Orioles outfielder Joey Rickard has advanced defensively since his rookie year — and how the perception of him has come along with him.
Last year at the Texas Rangers’ ballpark, Rickard was playing left field and shaded toward center field when a high but typically catchable fly ball fell near the foul line, with just too much ground to cover from where he was set up. Last weekend, he was manning that same left field spot and dove in the gap to take away extra bases and likely runs in the Orioles' 10-6 win Sunday.
Rickard, the former Rule 5 draft pick who has settled into a platoon role this year, has made plays like that all season for the Orioles, who appear to have a legitimate corner outfield defender. His defense is a big part of why the Orioles were so comfortable handing him his fifth straight start Thursday night as they try to manage life without slugger Mark Trumbo, who is out with a rib cage strain.
"Joey's been solid out there this year, very quietly," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He's actually throwing better than I've ever seen him throw. He works at it."
While defensive metrics are best considered over periods as long as three years, and year-by-year statistics are difficult to draw conclusions from, Rickard's numbers this year are among the best in baseball. By defensive runs saved, Rickard's 10 DRS entering Thursday were tied for ninth most among players with at least 400 innings in the outfield. [All stats according to FanGraphs.]
By UZR/150, which credits or debits a fielder for the expected run value of a batted ball hit in his direction and then extrapolates that value out to a full season, has Rickard at 21.4 — third best in baseball behind the Boston Red Sox’s Mookie Betts and Chicago Cubs’ Jason Heyward.
That company even surprises Rickard.
"I like to think that I'm up there," he said. "I work really hard at it, so I'd like to be up there near the top, but I know that I still have a long way to go. I have great guys ahead of me to learn from."
Orioles first base coach Wayne Kirby, who works with the outfielders, said there’s plenty that goes into Rickard’s improvement.
“You've got to start believing in yourself, No. 1,” Kirby said. “Believe he can do it. It's no different from the minor leagues to the big leagues. There's just a little more pressure up here and I think he overcame that. … We've been working. We've been working hard on his throwing, getting better jumps, and we talked about seeing the ball off the bat a lot earlier and getting ready a lot earlier. It's work.”
Rickard, 26, credits playing next to center fielder Adam Jones, whether he's in left or right field, with making things immeasurably easier for him. But he can't really explain the statistical bump. In instances like his differing performances in the field in Texas, he said a year of familiarity is making a difference.
"A big part of it is being there before," Rickard said. "Certain day games, you're not going to see the ball off the bat at certain times of the day. It's very specific reasons that could cause you to get a bad jump or miss a step, but I think being there once before helps a lot."
Said Kirby: “The third deck is the first year. And then, once you're in the stands and watch the ball hit off the bat, and get a better read on it, then it becomes second nature. Once it becomes second nature, you can just trust everything you see. That's big. I mean, a lot of people don't understand — when you don't watch the ball hit off the bat, you don't get the jumps you want to get. And when you don't get ready, you don't get the jumps you want to get. Now, he's putting everything in there and when the ball is hit, he's just reacting.”
As for that lofty company Rickard keeps, Kirby said it’s possible the rest of the game could perceive him as they do those players if he keeps on this path.
“Of course,” Kirby said. “He's more comfortable. It makes you more valuable, for sure.”
Rickard’s improvement in defensive statistics is a big part of him entering Thursday being worth 0.5 wins above replacement (WAR), as opposed to -0.7 last year. That's all with this year's .251/.287/.356 batting line being below last year's .268/.319/.377.
Rickard and right fielder Seth Smith are the only Orioles outfielders with a positive UZR/150, with Smith's at 1.0, though he had -6 DRS. Trey Mancini had two DRS, and Craig Gentry had one. Jones had a -16.6 UZR/150 and -6 DRS.
But overall, while the team's stated goal was to improve outfield defense this year, their -5.6 UZR/150 entering Thursday ranked 29th in baseball, though their -6 DRS was up to 20th overall. Last year, they were last in the game with -51 DRS and -11.2 UZR/150.
Showalter said the team’s outfield defense is better on certain days than others.
“It depends on who's playing out there. Like tonight, that’s a really good outfield defense that we run out there — really good,” Showalter said before the Thursday’s series opener against the Detroit Tigers. “It takes a lot of strain off of Adam, which is important. Having Joey and Craig out there really makes his job a lot easier, and also allows Kirb to do some different alignments that he can't do with some other matchups.”