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J Hairston, CF?

My "coming-real-soon-now" research articles on the Orioles are in a perpetual state of construction, reconstruction, and redaction, so to keep this blog from sinking into total paralysis I'll add my thoughts on Jerry Hairston's move into center field yesterday.

This was a surprisingly bold and creative move for manager Lee Mazzilli and rest of the Oriole braintrust. It was spurred in part by the injury of Luis Matos, which led to Karim García, Larry Bigbie, Tim Raines Jr., and Darnell McDonald taking turns in center for the Birds over the last two weeks, with none showing the ability to handle the position both offensively and defensively.

Look at me; I can be center field

Hairston, meanwhile, has made the adjustment to the outfield with aplomb, despite continuing reservations about being moved off the second-base job. Playing mostly right field and a little bit in left, he has made some highlight-reel catches over the last month, including a sparkling, diving grab Friday that led to a catch-and-throw double play. Although he has not looked like a natural outfielder in his jumps and paths to the ball, he has not looked completely uncomfortable out there either. The gifts that make him an above-average infielder serve him well in the outfield; he has used his foot speed to run down balls that Jay Gibbons probably would not have caught, and he has used a quick release on his throws to compensate for the lack of oomph in his arm. Meanwhile, he has made virtually all the routine plays and relatively few negative ones, and all the while he has wielded a potent bat (for an Oriole outfielder), posting a line of .316/.381/.422 BA/OBP/SLG after Saturday's game.

The shift of Hairston to center field, however, is one that was not made without deliberation and discussion. Center field, as Mazzilli well knows from his playing experience, is more challenging than either of the corner outfield positions for several reasons. One is that the center fielder's ability is tested more severely and more often; more balls are hit to his vicinity than to the other outfielders, and at the same time, he has to cover more territory than the other outfielders both laterally and in the forward and backward directions. He also has to act as the field general and call off other fielders on balls in areas of overlapping responsibilities. And while a strong, accurate arm is not emphasized as part of the center fielder's job description, a weak arm there will be routinely exploited by runners trying to score from second base on hits. Hence, the ideal player to put in center field is one who possesses above-average speed, gets great jumps on fly balls, has a fine arm, and exercises sound, quick judgment on balls hit to difficult areas of the field.

Hairston, as a novice outfielder, is a risky choice to play the middle flycatcher's role, but he has the speed to play there and has exhibited enough ball-tracking instincts to make him an adequate temporary replacement. However, I would like to see more improvement out of him defensively before giving him the center-field job for a longer term (Mazzilli has not ruled out the possibility of Hairston continuing to play in center even after Matos returns to active duty). I think Hairston's talents are best suited for second base, but the Orioles' current roster composition (relatively well-stocked infield, weak-hitting and oft-injured outfield) has forced Hairston to become an outfielder, and he has responded as well as could be expected. But center field is one of the most important positions on a team's defense, so putting a subpar fielder there every day would be inadvisable, not to mention unaesthetic.

It is worth mentioning, even though no one seems to like talking about such a delicate subject, that Hairston is the only African-American on the active roster (by "African-American" I mean born in the U.S.; I'm not counting Latino players of African descent). Moreover, he has been one of the most active and visible team members in the Baltimore community during his tenure with the team. He is a classy individual and a team player who has kept his complaints about his position-shifting to a minimum. Those personal aspects, in addition to his improving performance on the field, may help his case for staying with the Birds past this year, despite his current lack of a fixed position.

The decline and fall of Luis Matos

Matos was in danger of losing his job even before he was injured because of his putrid performance at the plate this year. Today, it appears that Matos's strong 2003 offensive output (.303/.353/.458) was an aberration. His 2004 stats (.224/.275/.333), though, probably underrate his true ability, which I estimate lies somewhere on the order of .270/.320/.420. That line would fall slightly below average for a center fielder these days, but Matos has a reputation for being an above-average fielder.

I'm not convinced that reputation is deserved; his Davenport Fielding Translation rating was four runs above average per 100 games last season, but this year has been a most unimpressive ten runs below average per 100 games. Matos takes smooth routes to the ball and has made his share of difficult catches, but the stats don't put him in the same elite class as Mike Cameron and Andruw Jones. Cameron and Jones, both multiple Gold Glove winners, play notoriously shallow in center and exhibit a prodigious ability to go back on balls over their heads. An article in the New York Times this past spring delineated the skills that make Cameron so exceptional. Matos, on the other hand, plays a more conservative depth and has good but not breathtaking ball-tracking ability.

What is wrong with Matos's hitting this year? To my untrained eye, Matos has become too pull-conscious, leaving him prone to flail harmlessly at outside pitches. His lack of plate discipline also works against him; he has a tendency to swing at too many pitches out of the strike zone. However, Matos's walk and strikeout rates are essentially unchanged from last year, so that can't be the whole story. I don't have statistics on bunt hits, but to my knowledge Matos has not used the bunt as frequently to reach base this year. His reduction in home runs can be explained in part by his increased ground/fly ratio (1.27 compared to 1.03 last year). But the simple fact is that Matos has not stung the ball with anywhere near the regularity that he did last year. Perhaps he harbored an injury prior to his current DL stint that was hampering him at the plate and in the field. Another likely explanation is that pitchers have been throwing him fewer strikes, and Matos has not adjusted accordingly.

The view from here

With experiments like moving Hairston to center field, the Orioles have shown a hint of artfulness in their roster usage. Taken alone, it's not the kind of innovation that would markedly distinguish Baltimore from other teams, but it's a start.

The current Oriole front office has expressed fidelity to (or nostalgia for) many of the practices of Earl Weaver, who spearheaded the Oriole dynasty of the '70s. One of Weaver's strengths was roster management; he deployed players in a way that exploited the strengths of everyone on the roster while keeping players' weaknesses from being major liabilities. As a result, Weaver was able to squeeze more out of his talent than perhaps any other manager of his time—or any time, for that matter. For example, he started defensive specialist Mark Belanger at shortstop to help his starting pitchers go deep into games, but would be quick to pinch-hit for Belanger at the first sign of a rally in the middle or late innings, drawing from his deep and variegated bench of hitters.

Weaver was bold enough to stick with a four-man rotation for years after most other teams had gone to five starters. Until the current Orioles do something nonconformist on that level of magnitude, they will be trapped in the MLB-wide groupthink that keeps them writhing in mediocrity behind the more talented Yankees and Red Sox and makes them uncompelling to watch and follow. VP Mike Flanagan has expressed more than a passing interest in reviving the four-man rotation. The return of Ray Miller, Weaver's right-hand man in the late '70s and early '80s, as pitching coach loudens the call for change; Miller has long been an advocate of using four starters. But the Birds have shown no tangible sign of action on that front, in part because they have not had even three consistent starters for most of this year.

As this season proceeds to its conclusion, the Orioles will continue to monitor their roster and make decisions about which players are worth keeping. At the same time, they will need to determine how best to deploy those players to assemble a winner. Is Melvin Mora best at third base, where he has struggled, or should he return to the outfield, which he handled well in the past? Which of the original starting outfield of Bigbie, Matos, and Gibbons should be benched or let go? Will Hairston stick around in the future, and will it be at second base or elsewhere? Ditto for Roberts. Should the team retain Rafael Palmeiro or go in another direction at first base? Is David Newhan a flash in the pan, or does he have the ability to play full-time over the long term? Will the team ever find a place for a player with the undeniable offensive abilities (and weaknesses) of Jack Cust (.265/.389/.506 at Ottawa)?

Of course, I haven't even mentioned the pitching staff, which is no easier to gauge. And then there is the irksome matter of MLB's looming decision on the future of the Expos, which will have a greater impact on the Orioles' future than anything else that happens this year. For all those reasons, the Orioles should continue to be interesting in the last two months of the season, even though they long ago dropped out of the playoff picture.

Comments (2)

David Spedden:

There are no position players on the team (permformance-wise) that a fan or manager should just wish to see gone. Pitchers... well that's another story. We do need to make immediate changes. There is no time to wait to see what NY and Boston are going to do, while standing around with our hands out waiting for what ever is left after they finish taking all the players who help win championships. The time is now. I don't believe that the Expos will play in D.C. So the line up has to look like this next year just in order to have hopes of even possibly making a run for the wild card. One factor being that Boston does lose some of it's pending free agents.

2B Brian Roberts Eric Milton
3B Melvin Mora Brad Radke
SS Miguel Tejada Rodrigo Lopez
CF Carlos Beltran Sidney Ponson
1B Carlos Delgado Daniel Cabrera
RF Magglio Ordonez
C Javier Lopez
DH B.J. Surhoff
LF David Newhan
PH/DH David Segui ($1,000,000/yr)

Trades: Let Go:
J. Hairston R. Palmeiro
L. Matos
J. Cust
J. Gibbons
M. Riley

David Spedden:

That Line-up I just posted would get us to the wild card race. Assuming the Red Sox Lose Pedro to free agency. We can not wait for them to get even better. We must act immediately and find ways to shave the budget after they have been acquired. Yes after. We'd then be pretty good up the middle and outfield wouldn't be at the bottom of the barrel of the AL in hits and production. Just 3 position players and two pitchers, 5 total players to get into the wild card race. Or a third pitcher (Like Pedro) and one closer (Like Armando Benitez) to make a run for the division title.
I'd guarantee that I could get at least half these players to sign without completely breaking the bank. We don't have a communicator. No one to sell the organization. I give anything to take that job for one year.


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