10 May 2017

Adam Jones is Playing Deeper, but is it Helping?

This offseason, the Orioles somehow convinced Adam Jones to play deeper in center field. It's long been posited that Jones would net better defensive metrics, and therefore the Orioles would be improved, by his playing deeper in the outfield. The theory is that Jones, like most outfielders, is faster coming in on the ball than running away from home plate. Jones, for his part, has resisted this change for at least a little while and relied on his knowledge of hitters and counts before relenting.

Whether Jones' playing deeper has helped his cause is questionable, however. On average, Jones is playing 323 feet from home plate in 2017, compared to 300 feet in 2015 and 307 feet in 2016. According to Statcast, not one of the 65 balls in play to center field have gone for hits so far this season. In 2016, just two of the 402 balls in play to center field went for hits.

Jones' ultimate zone rating per 150 innings (UZR/150) in 2016, one of the stats that suffered in 2016, was -9.9. This followed two years of UZR/150 of over 8.0. Early returns in 2017 are less than ideal; Jones' UZR/150 this season is -7.5 - slightly better than last year but still worse than average.

The Orioles' outfield UZR/150 sits at -7.0 so far in 2017, another slight improvement from -11.2 in 2015. The UZR/150 of the outfield in 2015 was just -1.0. While outfield personnel changes, and the combination of Rickard/Mancini/Trumbo is not helping the overall ability of the outfield, that's not a marked improvement from year to year. At the same time, it's hard to know what would have happened but for Jones playing deeper. Perhaps his playing deeper has like Wayne Kirby told Jon Meoli, allowed for more flexibility in the positioning of the less capable outfielders on the roster and helped the team defense compared to what it would be if Jones played 15 feet in.

More important than any of the on-field outcomes is how this story has played out between Jones and the front office. Per Jon Meoli's excellent article on the rationale and early returns, the decision was less of a conversation and more of an edict. Jones claims to have wanted to further his understanding of the team's defensive metrics and voice his opinion as, you know, the guy who actually had to carry out the change, but was never given the opportunity.

The way this played out is less than ideal. I don't want to be the "never played the game" guy - I never played the game - but it's important for analysts in the front office to understand what such a change means for Jones, the man responsible for following their recommendations. I don't mean to assume that the professional analysts simplified the rationale into aggregates, but "playing deeper" means something different when speaking about averages compared to trusting a player's intuition on individual pitches. While recommendations may have been given for scenarios, Jones is certainly not receiving advice on his positioning in-game. Following general orders to "play deeper" takes away the experience Jones has accrued over years of playing decent outfield defense.

At the same time, trusting Jones to know exactly what's best not only for himself but for his partners in the outfield would be naive. The best situation would have been for the Orioles to have Jones and the analysts to sit and work together, to communicate, and to formulate a plan in a partnership between the subject matter expert and the consultant. Even if the result was identical, the fact that Jones was unhappy enough to say it to the press is less than ideal and instructive for the Orioles, other Major League teams, and all professional organizations in existence. It's important to understand and appreciate nuance, and involve the people carrying out the work in the decision-making process.


Roger said...

Patrick, you must be a very young guy. Never in any place of employment have I had the experience that management wants to work together in a "kumbaya" relationship with labor. We would all love that and we all think it would make the workplace better and make the job more efficient and effective (especially for labor that is highly trained like Jones). But it ain't gonna happen for the most part except for short stretches where management doesn't think the results are too important.

GRob78 said...

"At the same time, trusting Jones to know exactly what's best not only for himself but for his partners in the outfield would be naive. The best situation would have been for the Orioles to have Jones and the analysts to sit and work together, to communicate, and to formulate a plan in a partnership between the subject matter expert and the consultant."

The expert is Adam Jones.

Analysts and consultants who have never stepped onto a major league field or played in CF don't hold a candle to the insights, abilities, and comprehension of a perennial all star and team leader. The best thing the Orioles can do for Adam Jones is let him be Adam Jones. Let him lead the outfield, let him choose his positioning, and let him be the all star we've come to respect and cherish.

Mr. Diggz said...

I just don't trust defensive metrics all the way. Jones not only has incredible instincts in reading fly balls and line drives, he still has plus speed to track them down. His UZR rating suggests he doesn't, but we have already seen Jones make some terrific catches that could have easily resulted in base hits. A UZR well into the negatives suggest a player has very limited range. It simply doesn't show when you watch Jones on a game by game basis.

Mr. Diggz said...

I'm not sure how much advanced metrics I trust at all. Adam Jones currently has a negative Offensive WAR of -.06. Chris Davis has an offensive War of 2.0. Jones currently has 5HR, 17R, 14RBI and has a .263/.315/.406 line. Davis has 4HR, 14R, 8RBI and a .239/.351/.394 line.

Chris Davis's offensive production is really worth that high of a differential in terms of WAR? wow.

Jon Shepherd said...

You are citing offensive and defensive values from Fangraphs, right? That is not WAR. That is RAR. That should make a lot more sense to you now.

Jon Shepherd said...

Regarding defense, Inside Zone relies on scouting every ball in play to a fielder and it suggests that Jones has most trouble than most with moderate to far batted balls. Statcast shows Jones is plus going backwards to his left, but pretty unspectacular in other directions.

Jon Shepherd said...

One final note...Pirates have incorporated this kind of analysis in a very kumbaya way with their players. It is well understood by most people that different vantage points can identify different things. Jones' input is very valuable, but he also lacks the the information analysts have. They need to work together to fill in each other's weaknesses. This concept is not new or original and many organizations do this. The Orioles do not.

Matt P said...

Just to expand on what Jon said, there are roughly 10 RAR (runs above replacement) in each WAR (wins above replacement). Also, Fangraphs seems to think that Davis has done a better job base running than Jones this year. If you're looking at batting, the difference is even smaller.

In addition, not only do baseball organizations use analysts, but organizations in the real world do this. Data analysts don't necessarily have familiarity in the field where they're analyzing data. For example, data analysts for manufacturing companies may have never worked on the assembly line themselves. Outside consultants by definition have little connection to the company that hires them.

Roger states that management and labor don't work in a "kumbaya" relationship. That's certainly not my personal experience in the workforce. But I can promise you that if I had access to the baseball players and could discuss my ideas with them for this blog, that I'd definitely take what they had to say into account.

Roger said...

Matt, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying management are evil and dictatorial, but you'll find that your relationship with management is fabulous and very cooperative as long you're going in the direction they want you to go in. There are limits to every cooperative venture with management - different limits in different organizations. I think the changes in Jones's playing depth have been positive at least to the untrained eye. There really do seem to be fewer balls getting over his head. Not sure how it translates to overall performance but even if performance is the same and he's giving up singles instead of doubles, that's a good thing. I'm not an expert at reading baseball statistics numbers but I think the whole O's outfield defensive performance is improved and that has got to be part of the improvement in the pitchers' numbers. On a somewhat related note, I think Smith and Mancini are making Kim irrelevant even though he could be an on base machine. My guess is that the O's ultimately view Bourn as a better option than Kim and, when Bourn's ready, Kim may go on the block. I wonder what kind of return they could get for Kim.