There won't be many nights when the Orioles' outfield defense is as spectacular as it was Tuesday, with Trey Mancini going back to the warning track in right field for difficult catches to end the first and third innings to fittingly frame left fielder Dwight Smith Jr.'s home-run robbery to end the second.
The high-water mark, however, shouldn't obscure that the baseline performance in the outfield is much better through the first month of the season than the personnel would have led anyone to expect.
With Smith primarily in left field, Mancini bumped to right field late in spring training to accommodate Smith and center field manned by Cedric Mullins and now Joey Rickard, the Orioles outfield has been just as big a factor in the club’s overall defensive improvement as the new-look infield.
"We're playing great defense right now, and it's showing," Smith said, noting the infielders and the catchers, too. "We take pride in it, and we work on it every single day."
Smith's catch specifically shows how the Orioles have emphasized this improvement. He said there was a ball he had a chance of going over the wall for at Camden Yards earlier this season and misjudged it, so he worked with first base coach Arnie Beyeler on his timing with the shorter warning track at his new home stadium and made the adjustment.
"I didn't know how far it was going to go, and as soon as I saw it dropping down I had a chance on it," Smith said.
"That was a heck of a play," manager Brandon Hyde said. "Smitty has been playing great defense up to this point — really, really good defense."
Smith playing left field has pushed Mancini, a first baseman by trade, to right field after two seasons in left. For whatever reason, he's looked more comfortable in right field than in left, and even leaping for balls the way he did Tuesday lends credence to the idea that he doesn't care what his defense looks like. That wasn't always the case with Mancini in left field, though he still played with abandon.
"He's played really well in right field," Hyde said. "I think his arm plays up in right field, and Smitty is more comfortable in left. We're still going to use the ballpark a little bit, depending on the ballpark we'll readjust our outfielders. But I love how comfortable Trey is in right. I think he'll let you know how comfortable he is out there and he's making a lot of really nice plays. That's a tough play on a line-drive over your head. To be able to make that play was spectacular. Trey is a ballplayer."
Rickard has shown the ability to deputize well at both corner spots, both this year and in his three previous years with the Orioles, but it will be a challenge to live up to what Mullins did defensively before he was optioned to Triple-A on Monday. According to MLB's Statcast data, Mullins was worth three outs above average — showing particular skill at running in for balls — though Rickard is also in the top 10 in the league at two outs above average entering Tuesday.
Mullins also entered Tuesday with 23 out-of-zone catches, according to FanGraphs, which was tied for the most in baseball. Rickard had 15, and Mancini wasn't far behind with 13. As a team, the Orioles had the most out-of-zone catches in the league with 62.
A data-driven outfield positioning plan will do that, although it will also sometimes take fielders out of positions that would allow them to make plays that would be considered routine against straight-away outfield defenses.
While it’s generally early for some of the more widely-accepted defensive metrics to be applicable, it seems the Orioles outfielders are being dinged for their general lack of arm strength more than anything else. But they’re covering a lot of ground and making plays on balls they can get to, which especially in the corners is an improvement to recent Orioles teams.
"I think we're doing a really good job, our outfielders in general," Hyde said. "I think Arnie is doing a great job positioning our outfielders, and I think the numbers show that in how well we're playing in the outfield."