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Back, back, back: In nod to Orioles and data, Adam Jones positioning himself deeper

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

There was nothing ambiguous about this offseason's public conversation between Adam Jones and Dan Duquette.

Jones, the team's All-Star center fielder and franchise face, said the team needed better defenders to fix the team's glaring weakness on the outfield grass. Duquette, supported by data, said the Orioles could improve if Jones simply shifted his positioning and lined up deeper.

Each man's desire was simple, and while some minor additions were made to satisfy Jones' wishes in the form of Craig Gentry and Michael Bourn, Duquette's arrangement won out.

Jones, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner, has joined an increasing number of center fielders who are altering their positioning based on run-prevention data and lining up deeper in the field. It's a move he has made in the interest of the team, even if this particular situation seems to highlight the uneasy marriage that still exists between baseball traditionalists and the analytics that are increasingly driving the game.

"Data tells you a story, and if you want it to tell you that story, it'll tell you that story," Jones said. "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."

Major League Baseball's Statcast program has been a boon for public data, though some statistics aren't fully public yet. This week, MLB.com highlighted in an article that Jones was lining up, on average, 17 feet deeper in 2017 than in 2016. Jones said the team's recommendation was 15 feet.

"He's playing, I think, about seven to 10 steps deeper," said first base coach Wayne Kirby, who also coaches the Orioles outfielders. "It depends on the hitter. Actually, it helps him with his legs a little bit. He's still able to get to a lot of balls."

Advanced statistics and past performance by comparable players motivated the change. In 2016, Chicago Cubs center fielder Dexter Folwer moved back in center field and improved his defensive metrics, especially in ultimate zone runs per 150 games (UZR/150), significantly. (UZR credits or debits a fielder with the expected runs off a particular batted ball, depending on whether it is caught or not. UZR/150 is a rate statistic that makes it easier to compare differing sample sizes.)

Though Jones' reputation paints him as one of the game's best defenders, and some numbers back that up, they weren't kind to him in 2016.

Jones had a -9.9 UZR/150 in 2016, down from 8.7 and 8.1 in 2014 and 2015, respectively. That ranked 14th out of 17 qualifying center fielders. His defensive runs saved (DRS) fell from four in 2015 to -10 in 2016, which was 15th best.

His skills, his mindset and those around him previously dictated his positioning. Jones is loath to give up bloop singles, and is supremely talented tracking back on balls toward the wall, which explains his shallow positioning but still sometimes allowed the hardest-hit balls to land over his head. Additionally, the Orioles often ask Jones to cover one direction or another for some of the more limited defenders in the corners, and the statistical brunt of an outfield that rated overall as the worst in both UZR/150 and DRS fell on Jones.

The comparison to Fowler isn't completely fair, as the Cubs defense and pitching staff are better than the Orioles' overall. But a conversation with Duquette laid out the reasoning for this year's change to him in spring training.

"He made an adjustment, and it makes sense," Duquette said. "You're just playing percentage baseball, right? If the ball gets over your head but stays in the ballpark and you don't catch it, it's extra bases. The value of the extra bases in terms of the other team scoring runs is greater than the singles that might fall in in front of you. So, it helps everybody."

Said Jones: "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 only 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 that logic. It takes away a little bit of my feel, but I still add my feel."

There's little public data to back up whether it's working out so far this year. FanGraphs hasn't posted this year's UZR data yet. Jones has been credited with one DRS this year, and the outfield as a whole is at -1, which is middle of the pack. Kirby said Jones playing deeper allows him to maneuver the whole defense a lot more, while improving Jones' lateral range from side to side.

"The numbers reflect that we're playing better defense," Duquette said. "It's a small sample, but the early returns are good. It's good for the team, good for Adam, good for our pitchers, good for our won-loss record, good for our fans."

Jones said there have been "a couple [throwing] 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."

But he's soldiering on in his new deep station, with his only real gripe being how the whole process came about. Duquette was asked at FanFest about adding defenders in the outfield, and offered up moving Jones in as a solution. Jones said that wouldn't work, and the story lingered into spring training.

There, the two parties met, and Duquette explained the reasoning behind it.

"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," Jones said. "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 a game."

Jones wanted to further his understanding of the numbers — and perhaps, he admits, push back a little — but that was never afforded.

"They're the ones that read the data," Jones said. "I'm out there trying to do whatever I can to catch that ball at any given opportunity. If they have the data, share it. We're here for the same thing. 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. …

"It wasn't to air anybody out, or them 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 don't just blow me off. That right there didn't make me too happy."

In the end, Jones falls back on the same thing he has throughout his 10 years in Baltimore — he wants to win a championship, even if that means melding the experience and insights on positioning that he and Kirby have gleaned over decades in the game with new-wave numbers.

"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," Jones said. "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."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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