Until this year, that is. While it's still early, Jones is one of 34 center fielders who have been on the field for at least 500 pitches in each of the past two seasons -- and no one who has been on the same team for both seasons has taken a bigger leap backwards than he has.
Biggest changes in center-field depth in 2016-17
17 feet -- Jones, Orioles
17 feet -- Carlos Gomez, Rangers
15 feet -- Rajai Davis, A's
11 feet -- Denard Span, Giants
11 feet -- Tyler Naquin, Indians
11 feet -- Lorenzo Cain, Royals
(minimum 500 pitches on field in both years, all data through Monday's games)
That's saying that Jones averaged 309 feet last year, and has now moved back to 324 feet, the 11th deepest of 38 center fielders with 500 tracked pitches in 2017. Here's what that looks like in visual form, with the dots representing the starting points for Jones on each pitch:
Gomez and Davis each spent at least part of 2016 with a different club than they're on now, and that's important to note, because we're looking just at raw depth from home plate without accounting for the depth of home ballpark, though that's on the roadmap for this year. Still, this looks like something of a small league-wide trend. In 2015, all Major League outfielders averaged 312 feet from home, which went to 316 feet in 2016 and 317 feet so far this year.
"The number guys are smarter than the players," Jones told MLB.com when asked about the change this week. "It's weird playing a little deeper, but that's the way our front office wants me to play. I'm not insubordinate. I will do what they ask and sacrifice in other areas. That's what they see in the data."
And this is mostly a Jones-specific change. While the Orioles' left fielders have moved back by one foot (from 298 to 299) and the right fielders have gone back three feet (295 to 298), neither corner has moved back nearly as far as their long-time center fielder has.
Now for all that, the question really comes down to this: Is it working? Does it make the O's outfield defense better? The answer to that, to be perfectly honest, is that it's too soon to say. This is more of an "early trend to watch" than it is a concrete statement of success or failure.
Still, we can at least point to some interesting early signs. Let's show you two videos of very similar batted balls, one from this year and one from last year, with extremely different results.
In one particular game last September, Jones was positioned 303 feet away from home plate with Richie Shaffer up to bat. Shaffer crushed the ball a projected 393 feet away to the warning track, and Jones was unable to track it down, allowing the Rays to break a 2-2 tie in what would become a 5-2 Tampa Bay victory.
Shaffer's RBI double TB@BAL: Shaffer doubles to the wall, knocks in MillerRichie Shaffer hits a line drive over the head of Adam Jones that bounces off the track for an RBI double, putting the Rays ahead 3-2
Now, let's see a play from earlier this month against the Blue Jays, when Kevin Pillar hit a similarly-angled ball a projected 398 feet away, also to the warning track. While the ball did have about a half-second more hang time, the big difference here is that Jones was positioned 330 feet deep. So instead of having to run 90 feet to try to track down the ball as he'd been unable to do against Shaffer, he needed to run only 68 feet for Pillar. Not only did Jones manage to get there, he made it look so easy that he blew a bubble while hauling it in.
Pillar flies out to deep center BAL@TOR: Jones runs down fly ball in deep centerOrioles outfielder Adam Jones makes a running grab on the warning track in the bottom of the 6th inning against the Blue Jays
When we look at the type of ball we've termed "Barrels," the high-value batted balls that generally fall for a hit more than 80 percent of the time with a slugging percentage near 3.000, we can see that in 2016, the Orioles allowed the eighth-highest slugging percentage last year, and now they're allowing the fifth-lowest slugging percentage this year. What that's saying is that at least in the early going, those extremely dangerous batted balls aren't hurting Baltimore as much as they did last year.
Of course, Catch Probability shows that the Orioles' outfield are getting to the seventh-fewest number of balls of any team, collecting just 80 percent of chances. And our brand-new "Sprint Speed" metric, which measures how fast an outfielder runs in feet per second over his fastest one-second window, suggests the same. Jones's sprint speed mark is 27.2 feet per second, almost exactly league average. Smith, Trumbo and Hyun Soo Kim all came in between 25-26 feet per second, well below average. As Jones said, this is not a particularly athletic outfield.
"I've always played to my comfort, my knowledge of hitters, my knowledge of the counts, my knowledge from being out there for a lot of innings, seeing a lot of hitters, a lot tendencies," said Jones. "But I understand data. They feel my defensive metrics will get better if I back up."
It worked for Fowler, another notoriously shallow center fielder. It doesn't work for everyone. Still, for Jones and the Orioles, this step back seems like a step forward, at least very early in the season.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.