If there's anything surprising about Joey Rickard so far, it's been that his bat has been decent but his glove has been underwhelming. At the very least, Rickard was supposed to provide a decent outfield glove as a fourth outfielder type. Instead, he's been installed as the team's everyday left fielder and leadoff hitter.
Right now, Rickard has a wRC+ of 99. The league average left fielder also has a wRC+ of 99. However, the average leadoff hitter has a wRC+ of 109. I've been critical of Rickard offensively and still don't quite understand why he's being used the way he is, but at the plate, he's been fine for now. Getting league average offensive output from Joey Rickard is perfectly acceptable. And it's not surprising or a knock on him at all that he's in the bottom half of leadoff hitters in terms of production. He has not been a disaster there by any means, but he hasn't been great. So it's a little strange that he has such a stranglehold on the leadoff spot in the lineup.
Still, in terms of wins above replacement, Rickard rates negatively. The driving force there by Fangraphs' and Baseball-Reference's versions of WAR (currently -0.3 in both) is his poor early defensive ratings (and a tiny slice is that he has done some bad things on the basepaths). Rickard has spent a decent amount of time in all three outfield positions, and he's amassed a UZR of -6.5 (UZR/150 of -33.9) and a DRS of -6. Now, it's tough to state definitively what exactly a full season's worth of defensive metrics actually means, let alone about 250 innings. So who's is to say that Rickard can't improve, or isn't at least close to average?
But I don't think it's unfair to say that while he's made a few nice plays in the field, Rickard has not come as advertised with the glove. In his time in the minors, Rickard logged more than 1,000 innings each in center field and right field. In left field, he logged more than 500. So he's had a lot of experience. Still, playing competent defense at the major league level is an entirely different animal.
All right, so let's get to some examples. Here's one of Rickard's first tough chances on the season. Take a look:
You'll notice a few things. First, it was a nice effort, so that's something. The ball was just out of his grasp, and it would have looked pretty nice were he to have made the play. You'll also notice that Rickard didn't take the best route to the ball, and that also it maybe wasn't the best decision to dive and take a chance. Yes, of course it's easy to say that after the fact. But that's what happens with split-second decisions. Flashy plays always look impressive, but sometimes just keeping the ball in front and avoiding mistakes is the job of an outfielder. We'll revisit Rickard's route-taking and decision making.
A day later, Rickard had a semi-tough chance on a ball in front of him:
I think even Rickard would tell you that he should have caught that ball. But wait, the play isn't over.
Rickard stayed with the play, gathered the ball, and rifled it home to nab the runner. Nice throw.
Here was a pivotal play in a tie game:
Rickard struggled with the transfer and ended up double-pumping before unleashing a throw too late to catch the runner at home. Maybe it's a bit unfair to be too harsh on this play; the weather was wet, and that didn't make things easy. But Adam Eaton was just rounding third when Rickard scooped up the ball, and it wasn't like the throw was coming from deep in the outfield.
Here was a decent play by Rickard on a line drive to right-center:
One thing to pay attention to on hits to the outfield is how quickly a fielder reacts to a ball, particularly a line drive. When the camera shifts to the outfield after a hit, you can tell if a fielder is slow to react and/or gets a bad read. If the fielder is already off and moving -- in the right direction -- then that's a great sign. In the play above, Rickard is already moving. The ball carries a bit more than Rickard anticipates, so he has to jump at the last second to snag the ball. Maybe he got a little lucky, but that ball was also roped.
In a late-game play against the Yankees, Rickard misplayed a carom off the wall in right field:
There's not much to say here, as it seems like he just missed the ball. But these little things add up.
Among the GIFs in this post, here is what I think is Rickard's second-best play:
He reacts to the ball off the bat relatively quickly, though he doesn't take a direct route to the ball. Again, line drives are tricky. But even though he hasn't had a bunch of difficult chances yet, less than ideal routes to the ball will make it hard for Rickard to truly utilize his speed and run down tough chances.
But here's my favorite play from Rickard so far:
Plays like that make me think there's still time for Rickard to show he can be a competent outfielder. Considering how he was described when the Orioles selected him in the Rule 5 draft, I expected Rickard to be a little more polished in terms of reads and routes. But he is a rookie, and he at least won't be asked to play center field unless Adam Jones gets hurt again. Besides, Rickard's arm is OK, but it plays much better in left field.
I think the Orioles are still trying to figure out what they have in Rickard. If I had to guess, I would say he'll regress a bit with the bat and improve with the glove. I'm more than happy to be wrong that he shouldn't be playing every day, especially as the team's leadoff hitter. Still, at 20-12, the O's are in no position to panic or really change anything. That's probably not what Hyun Soo Kim or Nolan Reimold want to hear.
Regarding Rickard's outfield defense, it's evident that speed is not everything. Clearly being fleet of foot helps an outfielder, but reading the ball off the bat and taking an efficient route to a fly ball or line drive is more important. It's also key to pick and choose the right spots to lay out for a ball. These are things a rookie may learn, but there's no guarantee of that, either.