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Trading range for offense to this point, Orioles hope new additions strengthen outfield defense

Trading range for offense to this point, Orioles hope new additions strengthen outfield defense
Mark Trumbo of the Baltimore Orioles drops a ball hit by Eduardo Nunez of the San Francisco Giants in the second inning during an interleague game at AT&T Park on Aug. 14, 2016 in San Francisco. (Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)

Now that they've made a couple of late-August moves to rectify it, everyone around the Orioles seems comfortable acknowledging it. In settling their revolving doors in the corner outfield spots this season, the standout offense the Orioles have gotten there has been paired with defensive limitations that partially negated the gains.

On either side of star center fielder Adam Jones, the midseason loss of speedy rookie Joey Rickard meant that the responsibilities of manning the corners fell on slugger Mark Trumbo, who entered Saturday leading the majors with 41 home runs, and Hyun Soo Kim, the team's most consistent contact hitter and on-base leader.

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They rate out by some measurements, however, as some of the more limited defenders in the game, a dichotomy Trumbo said everyone is conscious of, and creates an emphasison mistake-free, fundamental defense for the Orioles outfielders.

"I think that basically what we have here, unless I'm totally off base, we have an extremely gifted center fielder, and we have, as far as the guys taking the regular playing time, it's Kim and I," Trumbo said. "We probably grade out far more toward the average side of things. But I think both of us try to do all the fundamentals correctly. … I think that's one thing both of us have done really well, is giving our infielders a chance to make something special happen by playing sound baseball. Do a few balls probably fall in front that other teams might get to? Possibly. Probably. But I think we've also contributed some things with the bats that some of those other guys might not do."

That's the tradeoff the Orioles have made this year, after their 2015 season was torpedoed partially because of an endless cycle of corner outfielders that were among the league's worst offensively and defensively.

The efforts toward improving that area represented much of the Orioles' offseason business. The Trumbo trade with the Seattle Mariners was initially made for first base cover. But re-signing Chris Davis and adding Pedro Alvarez consigned Trumbo to the outfield. Kim was signed as their Opening Day left fielder, even if the Rule 5 pick Rickard pipped him for that spot in the spring.

Rickard was the only one of the three to do much for the team's stated goal of taking some stress off Jones, who is tasked with an incredible burden of playing center field in such a defense.

"If you look around the league, guys are fast," said first base coach Wayne Kirby, who handles the Orioles' outfield defense. "They're younger, they're faster, and our team is not built that way. Just because we're not younger and faster, we still get things done the right way. That's the way I look at it. Kim is getting better jumps. Mark is having a great year in right field, for playing every day. He's never done everyday outfield — there's bumps and bruises you go through. We realize that we can't get to every ball like some other team, but we make up by hitting the cutoff man and throwing people out."

In the Orioles clubhouse, the outfields of the Boston Red Sox — featuring Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. — Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals were cited as those with multiple players who can play center field making things easier in the corners.

Manager Buck Showalter said the corner outfielders the Orioles play regularly have surpassed their expectations, given they really didn't know what they'd get from others. He said Kim is a "very sure fielder" who only this week missed a cutoff man for the first time.

"It really hit home for me how good he's been at that and how many outs he's gotten because he got the ball to the cutoff man in a good spot — top of the chest. Guys really like it," Showalter said. "Trumb came here, and we all knew he had a chance to hit. That's where it fit for us in the outfield. He throws well, he's engaged in it and he wants to be as good as he's capable of being, and he's done some good things for us out there.

"Obviously, he's done some good things for us offensively. He's not going to try to make a case as a Gold Glover, but he's been adequate for us. Especially when you couple the offensive things he's done, I would have been real happy with it coming out of spring, because there was a lot of unknown there."

For Kirby, the personnel the Orioles have means accepting that they can't get to every ball and handling the ones that do find their gloves properly. He points to the fact that they entered Saturday with just eight outfield errors — second-fewest in the majors — as a point of pride. Several players and coaches have acknowledged Kim's improvement in cutting balls off in the corner and gap to save runs and extra bases. Trumbo has had a few moments of discredit in the outfield, but rare is the outfielder who hasn't fluffed his lines at one point or another in a full season.

"We've got to make something happen after [we field it], and we've got to be pretty much correct on that, hitting the cutoff man and let our infielders who have all plus arms do what they do best," Kirby said. "To me, I'm happy with our outfield play. I'm very happy with our outfield play."

All that belies the crux of their issues, and why the Orioles' 11th-hour additions were rangy defensive outfielders, Drew Stubbs and Michael Bourn. The Orioles can pride themselves on handling every ball they get to, but they don't get to or convert as many into outs as would be expected.

By measurement of ultimate zone runs (UZR), a metric that assigns a run value to each batted ball then either debits or credits a fielder for whether he converts that ball in his defensive zone into an out, the Orioles outfield went into Saturday ranked last in the majors. According to FanGraphs, their UZR/150, which measures how many runs are saved or cost over the course of 150 games, was minus-14.3. By defensive runs saved (DRS), they were last with minus-47.

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Some measurements are kinder to the Orioles. They made a total of 580 plays on 655 balls in their outfield zones, making for a revised zone rating (RZR) of .886 through Friday. The league average is .903, and the Orioles rank 28th in that category.

To hear those involved tell it, a lot goes into why that would be the case. Some of it, as Trumbo and Kirby acknowledged, is the simple issue of foot speed. The rest is related to that, too, in that the alignments Kirby sets them up in has to accommodate that and might shade more toward one gap or another.

Kirby sets those defenses with a number of factors in mind. He'll factor in his team's pitcher, the hitter's tendencies and the ball-strike count, then "secure the part of the field where we think they're going to hit the ball at."

That's led, at times, to frustrating moments where hitters break their profile and pop-ups down the line fall in for hits because the corner men can't chase them down. Part of shading one way or another means putting Jones in positions that might cause a ball to fall into his zone that a player of his speed and instincts might be expected to field.

"He's got a huge responsibility, and he's up for the task every day," Kirby said. "We talked about that. We've talked about that, your range is going to have to increase. Some balls you're not going to be able to get to because you're helping your teammate out, and Adam understands, 100 percent."

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Jones himself is something of a flash-point to the Orioles' distaste for quantitative defensive measurements. He's a four-time Gold Glove winner, but his URZ/150 of minus-11.9 through 124 games put him 27th among center fielders with at least 500 innings this season. Given the context of the defense he plays in and what's asked of him, it's clear his impact is much more positive than that.

"I've heard people saying my defensive metrics are declining, they're bad," Jones said. "To me personally, that doesn't really mean much. You've got to look at the body of work, you've got to look at the team."

In a way, he sees himself as something of an old-style player in the Orioles organization. He took his cues as a young player from right fielder Nick Markakis, who put just as much of an emphasis on his defense as his offense. He mentioned the likes of Nate McLouth and Alejandro De Aza, who were good at patrolling the outfield grass on his flanks.

He, like Showalter, praised the work Trumbo and Kim have done this year to the hilt. But he welcomes the additions of Stubbs and Bourn as players who can not only spell him late in games, but spell those on his flanks to change the dynamics of the Orioles' outfield defense in close games down the stretch.

"Two guys with great track records of terrific defense, stolen bases, something that I think we were lacking just a little bit," Jones said. "They're two guys who are veterans who can come in and help us out."

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