Even though the experiment to test first base prospect Trey Mancini in the outfield this spring training was done to ensure the Orioles could get his bat in the lineup — and the position switch was made without knowing how the rookie would handle the change — he has found a comfortable home in left field.
While Mancini's spectacular rookie season has centered around his bat, his glove is starting to garner notice.
On the team's recently completed West Coast trip, Mancini didn't look like a player in his fifth month patrolling a position he had never played. In Wednesday's loss to the Seattle Mariners, Mancini made three impressive plays on defense. Consider it Mancini's outfield highlight film: He made a running catch down the line, dove into the gap to snag a tailing line drive, and also doubled up a runner off first with a pinpoint throw. The previous night, he made another running catch near the warning track.
"He's been solid," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said in Seattle. "I watch him every day in batting practice. He's taking balls off the bat like the World Series and that's how you get better, and it's been fun to watch. Very quietly this whole trip, he's played about as good an outfield as you want to see played for a big guy."
Mancini's improvement might be a surprise considering how new he is to the position, but it's a product of a profusion of hard work behind the scenes. At 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds, Mancini is not fleet-footed. So positioning and instincts are crucial, but more important has been practice.
Before most games, the 25-year-old will shag balls in the outfield during early batting practice — especially on the road to get used to the backdrops in different stadiums — and then continue taking them in regular batting practice sessions as outfield coach Wayne Kirby tests his range by making him race to the fly balls. It's something Mancini takes as seriously as his daily swings in the batting cage.
"Just getting used to your surroundings, and I'd say wanting the ball to come to you, is really important," Mancini said. "[Vice president of baseball operations] Brady [Anderson] and Kirby told me this in spring training, that there's a tendency to zone out a little bit because there are times when you can go several innings without getting any action. You've got to be ready every pitch, and think the ball is coming to you every time and want to make a play. I wouldn't say that I didn't do that in April, but I would definitely say I was a little more tentative out there, a little more nervous. And now I want the ball to come to me every time and want to make a play."
Coming into the season, improving the corner outfield defense was a priority for the Orioles. But as spring training progressed, it became obvious that the team needed to carry Mancini because of his offensive potential. He had nowhere to play with Chris Davis at first base and Mark Trumbo at designated hitter, so an experiment in the outfield was born.
As could be expected, Mancini's inexperience in the outfield was clear. He struggled to get to balls during the spring, but his arm was stronger than expected. Once the season started, and Mancini went from a platoon player to earning an everyday job in early May because of his hot start offensively, the importance of getting better in the outfield became more critical.
"Playing a new position at a different level is tough," Kirby said. "No. 1, he's been power shagging a lot and working on his routes, working on his throwing, plus learning how to get better reads off the bat, and that's transforming into what he believes he can be. … He's always asking questions — there's a learning curve on how to attack ground balls, how to attack fly balls and a whole lot of things like that.
"But he's 100 percent better. His jumps are getting a lot better and we're trying to put him in a position where he can catch balls he's supposed to catch. He's got a little more range than everybody thought he had because he is getting there and reading the ball off the bat and trusting what he sees."
Mancini said he's learning to be more economical with his steps. Kirby and center fielder Adam Jones help him position himself before every pitch. He's worked with Kirby to refine his throwing mechanics, and he said getting early looks at road ballparks has helped him get comfortable with his surroundings.
"I still like getting a feel for it," Mancini said. "That kind of gives me more confidence going into the games a lot, because the stadiums are a lot different the way you see it. Like in Oakland, I thought I saw the ball really well there because the stands are kind of low so the ball is easier to pick up. … I'd say just mentally before the game in BP, I'm really focused, just as focused as I am on hitting with my swing, getting the first step and reading the ball. I put just as much focus on that in BP. I think that's a big reason. If you do your reps like during a game, it's going to be more effective for you."
What the numbers say
It's difficult to qualify Mancini's improvement statistically, especially since he has played fewer than 400 innings in left field. He also has made 34 starts at first base, mostly while Davis was out a month with an oblique injury. But in left field this season, according to FanGraphs, Mancini has plus-2 defensive runs saved, a statistic that measures how many runs a player is better or worse than an average fielder at his position. Mancini's DRS tabulation credits him with one run on rARM (outfield arm runs saves, based on an outfielder's ability to limit runners from advancing with his arm or throwing out runners) and another run on rGFP (good fielding plays).
Another well-known defensive statistic that measures range isn't as friendly to Mancini. His UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating) — which assigns value on batted-ball and game-situation numbers, crediting or docking players for plays made in relation to those values — projected to an entire season is a minus-14.8 in left field, which ranks 30th out of 32 left fielders with at least 350 innings at the position entering Saturday.
One statistic that might be more telling in the short term is using Inside Edge fielding metrics, which break down plays into five different categories bases on the percentage of times they are made. According to FanGraphs, Mancini has made 91 of his first 92 plays in left field that would be made 60 percent of the time or higher.
Taking a deeper look into the less likely plays to be made, Mancini has made three of 14 sub-60-percent plays in left field this season. But since the All-Star break, he has made two of seven (28.6 percent). The league average in those categories is 22 percent.
Among those plays was one Mancini made Wednesday, when he went into the left-center-field gap and made a diving catch on Ben Gamel's sinking line drive with a man on third and two outs in the seventh inning, a play that saved at least one run. It was categorized as a 40-60 percent play.
Also, Mancini's best play in left field, according to the Inside Edge stats, came in the second half of the season when he ran across left field to make a sliding catch on Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo's opposite-field fly ball on July 14. That play was categorized as a 10-40 percent play, or one that is "unlikely" to be made.
Stats aside, Kirby applauds the dedication Mancini has put in to growing as an outfielder, saying he believes the rookie will continue to get better with time.
"He wants to do it," Kirby said. "He wants it. That's the only intangible he [needs]. You either want to do it or don't want to do it. And I think he found out that it was a way to get himself into the lineup every day and give him the opportunity to stay in the game a long time.
"He's able to play [first base], even though Chris is there for a while, but he also understands he can be a pretty good, above-average left fielder if he works. Adam Jones did it from shortstop to center, and he was willing to do it. He put in the time. Trey put in the time and this is just the first year. This is the first four months. Imagine when he gets another year under his belt and he understands more about his arm strength, knowing what he's capable of doing."
Mancini could eventually shift to right field — he made two starts there this season — especially if the Orioles see up-and-coming prospects like Cedric Mullins or Austin Hays fit better in left field. Showalter often says that left is the more difficult of the two corner outfield positions, especially at Camden Yards. But for now, Mancini is content with the progress he's made in left, focused on continuing to grow there.
"I'm pretty happy with how I've been playing out there and I want to continue to get better because there's always room for improvement," Mancini said. "There's still work to be done, but I'd say I'm pretty pleased with the work I've put in and the results; those are a huge testament to Kirby."
Mancini said he couldn't have pictured himself making strides like these back in spring training. He's pleased with where he's at, but still knows there's much to learn, especially with his routes and his first step. But he can be satisfied with the fact that he's turned heads playing a new position.
"I guess that's the rewarding aspect of this," Mancini said. "I've been playing baseball my whole life to get here and I've played one position the whole time and a lot of people didn't think I could play another position in the field, that I was kind of stuck at first. So that you break through and make the club at another position is pretty special for me and something that I always had in the back of my mind."