Entering his sixth season as Orioles' executive vice president, Dan Duquette has built the team into an annual playoff contender by combining rare power with a pitching staff that allows its defense to make plays behind it. But building on the club's third trip to the postseason in his five years in Baltimore, Duquette makes no secrets that the Orioles must improve their outfield defense from last season if they are to shrink the gap from being a playoff team to becoming a World Series champion.
"Nobody is satisfied that that's enough," Duquette about the Orioles recent success as pitchers and catchers reported to the Ed Smith Stadium complex Monday for the beginning of spring training. "And if the club is going to take that step — we've been knocking on the door a few times — there's some things we need to address to take that step from a playoff contender to a championship team.
"First of all it's keeping the ball in the ballpark, that's the No. 1 criteria for run prevention. ... After that, it's turning the balls in play into outs, and when you have good outfield defense, it makes all of your pitchers better. You need all those things to win, right? But if you look at the analytical evaluation of our team last year, we were short on outfield defense of a pennant-winning team."
The Orioles' outfield defense rated as the worst in baseball in terms of range last year, according to multiple defensive metrics. And veteran leader Adam Jones, the Orioles' cornerstone center fielder, said last month at the team's annual FanFest event that he needed to be flanked by more athletic players at the corner outfield spots to improve defensively.
Asked about Jones' comments, Duquette carefully responded by indicating that Jones — who has won four Gold Gloves despite inconsistent defensive metrics — could do his part by positioning himself deeper in the outfield to compensate for less range at the corners. Duquette cited a comment from former major league center fielder turned ESPN baseball analyst Doug Glanville, saying that Jones could benefit from not playing so shallow.
"No, he didn't talk to me about [his comments]," Duquette said Monday. "I noticed Doug Glanville recommended Adam could play a little bit deeper...to improve the Orioles' outfield defense. I don't know if Adam saw that column or not. Doug Glanville is a former center fielder who takes a really close look at the metrics of players, right? And he studies them as an analyst for ESPN, and he thought it was important … how the Oriole outfield defense could start to improve as soon as Adam moved back 10 feet."
Last year, the Orioles' outfield defense was rated the worst in baseball, with a minus-11.2 cumulative ultimate zone runs per 150 games (UZR/150), according to FanGraphs. The statistic rates a defender's value based on the plays he makes on batted balls in his vicinity.
The Orioles' outfield also had a major league-worst minus-51 defensive runs saved (DRS) last season.
Glanville — who played nine years in the majors, including 53 games with the Texas Rangers in 2003 under Orioles manager Buck Showalter — told The Sun last month that the Orioles' outfield defense could benefit from Jones taking different positioning, citing center fielder Dexter Fowler's deeper positioning as a way the Chicago Cubs improved their defense last year en route to a World Series title.
Glanville also told The Sun that Jones playing deeper could allow him to take away more extra-base hits that might otherwise go over his head. It could also benefit a pitching staff that includes its share of fly-ball pitchers in Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez.
"I love Adam Jones," Glanville told The Sun. "Adam Jones has a really aggressive style because he plays so shallow — I think he's the shallowest in baseball, him and Dexter Fowler were close, and then Fowler, metrics-wise, they decided they were going to move him deeper. I think Jones, that's one thing you can do, shift just to see what happens. What would happen if Jones was deeper? I think that would be just a different look.
"It might be something they can consider," Glanville added, "because their outfield metrics were really down, even though Jones is still one of the best on Earth on the plays that are shallow, where he's coming in on balls. … Jones, he has a lot of responsibility. But in the park that they're in, generally, it's favorable to hitting, and the walls are shallow. These are small changes they can make, but Fowler is a great example. Just from the metrics alone, just moving him back 15 feet went from a below-average outfielder metrics-wise to above-average just like that, even though his skills didn't change, right?"
Showalter, who noted that Glanville played very shallow when he played for him in Texas, cautioned against getting too stuck on sabermetrics.
"Adam's very approachable about that stuff," Showalter said. "But I also can show you a bunch of balls that he catches in front of him that no other center fielder does. The analytics is that balls over your head are doubles and triples and balls in front of you are singles. I got the math of it. But there's an add and subtract to that, too. … There's a lot of things, it's very easy to sit up on an ivory tower and say, 'This is this and that, whatever.' There's a lot of practicality of it on the field. But you're always trying to mesh those things."
Mark Trumbo, Hyun Soo Kim and Seth Smith — all of whom will help man the corner spots — are more known for their bats than their defense, but Duquette is optimistic that the Orioles can gain better range from doing little things more efficiently.
"I think we can add value," Duquette said. "It's really about how many balls you can turn into outs that are hit in the air, and it's a game of real estate, right? … It's positioning. It's count. It's knowing the hitters. It's foot speed. It's reaction time. I think if we take a look at all of those things, there's things we can do in each of those areas to improve the overall capability. And the first line of defense is on the mound. If you keep the ball in the ballpark, you do well."
Joey Rickard provided the Orioles with a speed element in the outfield last before a thumb injury ended his season, and Rule 5 pick Aneury Tavarez is also quick enough to play all three outfield spots, though is unproven in terms of instincts. And even though fellow Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander is a bat first, Duquette is intrigued to see how he handles the corner outfield spots this spring.
"It will be interesting to see how these young outfielders we've brought in will do," said Duquette, who added he will continue to monitor the trade and free-agent markets for other opportunities to improve the outfield defense.
Showalter said the idea of having Jones playing deeper is nothing new, but added that Jones makes plays on balls in front of him so well that it's not necessarily an easy fix.
"He's also one of the better center fielders in the game," Showalter said. "He does a lot of things for us that other people can't do. Also, the arm comes into play a lot more when he's a little shallower. There's a lot of ways to look at it. We'll sit down and talk. I want to get his input, his feelings about it and the respect I have for him, and we'll see if there's a way we can improve at every place. But he's not saying anything that we haven't talked about in detail since I've been here for five years."
Sun staff writer Jon Meoli contributed to this report.