11 August 2011

Adam Jones: the second best defensive outfielder in the AL or the second worst?

Each year Baseball America polls every manager in the Majors and asks them who they think has the best tools.  The Orioles were able to notch two mentions in the lists with Matt Wieters being named the best defensive catcher and Adam Jones noted as the second best defensive outfielder in the American League.  The former should not be surprising if you read this blog, check the numbers, or listen to scouts.  Matt Wieters had some questions and his future was thought to be a catcher with a heavy emphasis on the bat with an average glove.  Instead, the bat has been relatively average while his defensive work has been incredibly impressive.  Jones' mention, however, should be a surprise as we often refer to him as ideally a left fielder.

Even though Adam Jones was ranked the second best defensive outfielder by skilled professionals, the probably are not the best professionals to ask.  I would like to say first that I very much respect and value what managers do.  Truthfully, few of us could actually competently manage a ball club for an entire season.  I think many would be capable of telling someone skilled at managing how a ball club should be run day-to-day and inning-by-inning, but a lot of running a club has to do with working with players and being able to communicate well with them.  Skills that make a good manager are not always exactly the skills you need to scout and evaluate players.  You will find managers who are good scouts, but the two are not interchangeable. 

In light of that, I wonder why Baseball America does not do something perhaps a bit more interesting.  Compare the tools rankings when different groups assess the players.  What do General Managers think?  How does that compare to Major League scouts?  Ditto for managers.  All three of these professions have skills that overlap to some degree, but their jobs do not require the skills needed for each.  General managers need the ability to negotiate value, recognize good evaluation, and have vision.  Scouts need to be able to recognize skill sets, potential, and to some extent put that on a monetary scale.  Managers need to be able to reason with and motivate players.  A few can do all three, but many cannot.  So, if I was interested in knowing who had the best tools . . . I'd ask the scouts.

I certainly do not discuss much with professional scouts, but the general take I seem to hear is that Adam Jones very good speed and an above average arm for centerfield.  He has the potential in sheer ability to be a great center fielder, but that he does not position himself well and does not immediately recognize the trajectory of a ball in flight.  This is not a consensus opinion.  I get the feeling a minority think that Jones is a center fielder, but that most think his defensive skills are fully baked and suggest a better fit in left field.  Again, this is not a consensus opinion.  Sometimes the minority is correct.

As more of a numbers guy, I am interested in defensive metrics.  Defensive metrics are notorious for there inability to competently measure defense on a season by season basis.  The metrics require more data points than that to be dependable.  It is fairly obvious that dividing a career by seasons makes intuitive sense, but is actually somewhat arbitrary.  I think two years is typically what people suggest, but I prefer three.  The difference is better repeatability.  The idea being if a statistic repeats its value it is more likely representative for the value of a skill.

Anyway, Adam Jones right now ranks second to last in UZR/150 (-11.1 runs), fifth to last in RZR (.912), and second to last in DRS (-7).  Over two seasons, Jones is third to last in UZR/150, middle of the pack for RZR, and fourth to last in DRS.  Over three seasons, fourth to last in UZR/150, a shade below middle of the pack for RZR, and average for DRS.  The statistics generally show that Jones is likely to be average or below average as a center fielder.  These stats alone, though, should not be something that completely convinces you one way or another to decisively declare a player inept or stellar in the field.

I think the key here is looking at the balance of the evidence at hand.  You have managers clamoring for Jones to be considered one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball.  You have many scouts thinking he might fit better in left field.  You also have defensive metrics that rate him anywhere from very poor to average.  To me, logically and ignoring my own evaluation, he appears to be somewhere around a second or third tier outfielder in terms of defense.  This begs the question: how are the managers so wrong?  Jones makes flashy plays and it may be that managers do not exactly view players the way a scout would.  As such, you remember what Jones does as opposed to what he does not do.  I may be wrong.  Statistics, particularly defensive ones, sometimes measure the wrong things.  Statistics are surrogates for measuring skill, they are not skills.


Natty Boh Joe said...

Your's is not the first to challenge Jones ability in CF.
They should flip-flop him with Pie(giving Pie instructions in Spanish since they obviously are unsuccessful in English) and give both of them the rest of the season to play regularly at the new positions.

Anonymous said...

The newer defensive metrics are far from perfect, but the larger sample tends to indicate a deficiency. The explanation may be, as you suggested, that Jones makes spectacular plays, but fails to make too many of the routine ones.

Anonymous said...

If the Orioles could find a reliable center fielder, I wouldn't be opposed to moving Jones to left. With the Angels having a full outfield of Trout, Wells, and Hunter, maybe they would be willing to at least entertain offers for Peter Bourjos?

kgwill said...

I heard Jim Palmer speculate last night that Adam Jones' poor defensive numbers might be due in part to playing so many games at Camden Yards - meaning he catches less balls because there are so many home runs. Any validity to that argument?

Jon Shepherd said...

kgwill - Nope. Defensive metrics take into account only balls in play and robbed home runs. Any metrics that takes away from a player balls that he by definition can never get would be a horrible metric.

kgwill said...

Thanks - that makes sense. Although I still think Palmer might have a minor point. In Camden Yards, could Jones be losing opportunities to let his speed make up for poor jumps/route running? In other words, if the fence in left center moved back 20 feet, he might make a few more running catches that a center fielder with average speed wouldn't make. Just a thought - probably not enough to shift the numbers significantly.

Jon Shepherd said...

It is possible that there may be that he is really good at going to his back right, but one is left wondering why he has difficulty with range to the other areas. His arm and his hands are the only positives on him. His negative value is in not reaching balls in the air.

That said...you could argue, numerically, that he could be hurt because he positions himself poorly in the outfield.