07 May 2015

A Conversation With Former MLB Outfielder Doug Glanville

Being a contributor to Camden Depot allows the writers at this site to do many things. First and foremost, it allows us to research and analyze interesting topics about the Baltimore Orioles and baseball in general, while providing a medium to share that information with readers. It also provides a forum to have thoughtful conversation and discuss those ideas, which in turn helps us to become better writers and analysts. Every once in a while, an opportunity arises that allows us to get a different perspective from someone who has first-hand experience. One of those opportunities occurred yesterday, when I had the chance to talk with former MLB outfielder and current ESPN MLB Analyst Doug Glanville, prior to the ESPN Wednesday Night Baseball telecast of the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Mets.

Our conversation mostly centered on defense, which was fitting, as Glanville was a skilled defender in the outfield during his playing days. Glanville hasn’t been out of the clubhouse that long (he retired in 2005), but since then, the use and public availability of advanced defensive metrics such as Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating has exploded. As a former outfielder with a strong defensive reputation, I was curious as to what defensive metrics were used while he was playing. Long story short, “there was nowhere near what they have available today.” Glanville stated that they mainly made use of charts and traditional information from the scouting department. Those methods helped, but so did the familiarity that resulted by playing alongside (and against) the same players day after day, helping him know exactly where he needed to position himself (and sometimes his teammates). However, even though there is much more data available now, there still can be a significant challenge making sure players are comfortable using that data.

Glanville spent most of his professional career manning center field, so fittingly, our conversation shifted to Baltimore’s own center fielder, Adam Jones (“he’s an MVP candidate right now who is crushing any pitch thrown near the zone”). I asked about his thoughts on Jones as a defensive center fielder, and what he believed was the reason for the disconnect between Jones’ defensive reputation and the way he has been graded by advanced defensive metrics. Glanville responded that when it comes to defense, a “vast majority of outfielders have a strength and a weakness." He mentioned that besides Jones’ arm, his strength as a defender is running in on balls hit in front of him. However, Glanville continued that even though Jones will make some great plays at the wall, going back on balls over his head is his weakness, and that specific weakness is the reason defensive metrics have portrayed Adam Jones as a below average center fielder. Glanville explained further, stating that balls hit over an outfielder’s head are more likely to become doubles and triples, whereas a ball that lands in front of an outfielder will most likely result in a single. Essentially, Jones ends up getting penalized by advanced metrics for his weakness more than he ultimately gets credit for his strengths due to the resulting run expectancy of the likely outcome if he doesn’t catch the ball.

This logic makes sense, and seems to be a very reasonable explanation as to why defensive metrics have disliked Jones in the past, despite the four gold gloves. However, since 2014, both DRS and UZR have rated him as a plus defender (shoutout to the small sample size of 2015). I asked Glanville what he thought may be the reason for the change, and he believed it was likely a result of Jones having a better idea of where to position himself (i.e., shifting), not only based on who the batter is, but also who is currently pitching. He credits the growth in Adam Jones as a baseball player for this improvement, and stated that he’s “a smart player who is getting smarter.” But Glanville also gives credit to the front office and the coaching staff for being able to use the available data to put the defense in a better position through shifts, to more efficiently turn batted balls into outs.

The increased use of infield shifts has gotten a lot of press over the last several years. I asked Glanville if he thinks we’ll start to see more shifting in the outfield. He believes that it’s likely already happening, but shifting in the outfield is a much more subtle process, as “the factors that come into playing the outfield are less dramatic.” In other words, he explains, “outfielders have much more time to react to a ball hit their way than infielders do.” Additionally, batted ball tendencies for hitters aren’t typically as pronounced in the outfield as they are in the infield. However, Glanville believes that defense is becoming more of a collaborative effort than it was in the past, with the focus moving from individual defenders to overall team defense. As Glanville explains, employing the shift “helps make the defense more of a single unit.”

As for this year's version of the Orioles, Glanville picked them to win the AL East before the season began and fans should be happy to hear that he’s sticking with his pick. He sees a lot of similarities to the 2014 team -- an “offense that packs a lot of power and can deliver a big punch,” combined with a dominant bullpen. While the starting pitching has been a challenge so far, Glanville thinks the team can afford shorter starts due to the bullpen’s ability to provide a bridge to the end of the game. That formula worked last year, and Orioles fans are hoping it can work again in 2015.

Thanks to Doug Glanville for taking the time to chat with Camden Depot and provide his unique perspective on defense, Adam Jones, and the Orioles. You can follow him on Twitter at @dougglanville

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