2009 Replacement Level: Center Field

As most of you know, the Win Values we present here on FanGraphs are wins above a replacement level player. Replacement level, essentially, is the expected performance you could get from a player who costs nothing to acquire and makes the league minimum. That’s the baseline that players add value over – performance over their no-cost substitute.

However, I know examples can be extremely helpful, so starting on Monday, we began looking at some players who currently personify replacement level, and what their respective organizations should expect from them in 2009. We’ve already covered catcher, first base, second base, shortstop, third base, and left field and we’ll move on through all of the positions the rest of this week.

Center Field

Unlike the LFs, these guys are mostly the same skillset – flycatchers with range and questionable bats.

Reggie Abercrombie, Houston, .301 wOBA
Corey Patterson, Washington, .304 wOBA
Chris Duffy, Milwaukee, .313 wOBA
Jason Ellison, Philadelphia, .298 wOBA
Ryan Langerhans, Washington, .330 wOBA
Scott Podsednik, Colorado, .305 wOBA
So Taguchi, Chicago (NL), .291 wOBA

Besides Langerhans, pretty similar projections for most of these guys, and the group gets a .306 average wOBA projection for 2009. That’s quite a bit better than the C/SS, just slightly better than 2B, and not that much worse than 3B. For a premium defensive position, this is a decent level of free offense.

((.306 – .330) / 1.2) * 600 = -12

This group is -12 offensively, and considering they’re mostly above average defenders, we might have our first deviation from the norm. With a +2.5 position adjustment for CF, these guys would have to be something like -10 defenders in center field to be two wins below average. But there’s no way to make that argument – Patterson, Abercrombie, Duffy, Ellison – these guys are good defenders. Using their historical UZRs, we’d conclude that they’re probably +5 with the gloves.

-12 offense, +5 defense, +2.5 position adjustment = -4.5 runs.

Half a win. The CHONE projections suggest that you could get a center fielder who is half a win worse than league average for free.

What’s going on here? Are teams really undervaluing this skillset? Is our position adjustment off? Is this just a banner crop of freely available center fielders? I don’t know, honestly. This is definitely an area that needs more research.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

25 Responses to “2009 Replacement Level: Center Field”

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  1. joser says:

    Interesting. The deviation is on the offensive side, not the defensive. My first thought was that teams are overvaluing defense in CF (while still undervaluing it in the corner OF spots) but a glance at the starting CFs suggests that’s (mostly) not the case. Still, you’d think some of these guys would get looked at as corner OFs.

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  2. fili says:

    Let’s see:
    Juan Pierre $10 million. wOBA .312
    Andruw Jones $5 milloin. wOBA .000


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  3. Rally says:

    I’m not sure that group is +5 runs above the average center fielder. Good defensive players among all outfielders, but +5 in center is a high standard.

    If true though then the composite freely available center fielder looks a lot like the stats of Coco Crisp. If true, why did the Royals give up anything for him?

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Jason Ellison – 670 innings in CF, +16.8 UZR/150
      Corey Patterson – 7,500 innings in CF, +8.6 UZR/150
      So Taguchi – 1,275 innings in CF, +6.8 UZR/150
      Chris Duffy – 1,450 innings in CF, +6.2 UZR/150
      Reggie Abercrombie – 792 innings in CF, +0.2 UZR/150
      Ryan Langerhans – 480 innings in CF, -3.7 UZR/150
      Scott Podsednik – 2,739 innings in CF, -7.6 UZR/150

      Ellison and Langerhans are small samples in CF, but both are off the charts awesome in their corner OF samples as well. I’d say Ellison and Patterson are probably both +7 to +12, Taguchi and Duffy are +4 to +9, Abercrombie and Langerhans are -2 to +3, and Podsednik is -7 to -12.

      That comes out to an average of +4. Maybe you want to knock it down a bit for aging, but how much lower can we go, really? Even if you put this group as average defensively (which is tough to argue, I’d say), that makes them -1 win, not -2.

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  4. Jacob Jackson says:

    I’d say that the league (in general, approximately 20 teams) still undervalues the CF skillset.

    The best I can give is this anecdotal example:

    *Rajai Davis was DFA’d by the Giants last year and passed through the entire NL last year before making it to the A’s. Davis is an absolutely phenomenal defensive centerfielder. Range, instincts, arm, effort – all are great. He’s also a great basestealer.

    As for Rally’s question – “why did the Royals give up anything for Coco Crisp?” (given the relatively high level of replacement CF performance):

    I think the best answer for this is that the Royals’ brain trust is among the five worst in baseball right now. The M’s and Orioles’ new regimes are making great decisions, while Kansas City’s FO remains woefully behind the curve.

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  5. Ouch, Jacob! Although I’m starting to agree. I was beating the Langerhans drum all winter after he passed through waivers, thanks to sites like this one.

    This makes me think of the “three CF OF” post from a week or two back. Could a team really get three 1.5 WAR CFers, put them all in the outfield, watch them not hit, but have a really, really good defense?

    The next step would be to throw in some mediocre flyball pitchers, watch their ERAs take off because of the defense, then trade them for prospects to dumb FOs who don’t pay enough attention to FIP…

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  6. My completely unsubstantiated gut response is that, as mentioned earlier, centerfielders are undervalued. I suspect clubs tend to think of OFs monolithically, at least a little, and don’t realize just *how much more* valuable a CF is than a corner OF

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      I could certainly believe this is true, but then, how do I explain the contracts recently handed out to Juan Pierre, Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, and Andruw Jones? These guys, for right or wrong, were seen as true center fielders with real offensive ability, and were paid handsomely for that appearance.

      So, teams apparently value center fielders if they can hit well. But as soon as a CF, even as a plus defender, shows that he’s not a great hitter, he gets discarded. It seems that there’s no linear valuation going on here, but instead a very exponential one.

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      • The Ancient Mariner says:

        I think that’s the nub of it–specifically, that the true CF with real power is seen as a rare talent, and if you think you have one, you pay big money. (Granted, that doesn’t cover Pierre, but I think the real answer there is temporary insanity.) The rest of the CF field is undervalued by comparison.

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      • Dave Cameron says:

        It’s interesting, however, that we didn’t see this at SS or 2B. There’s not a glut of premium defensive middle infielders available for nothing. So, defense up the middle is valued a lot more for IF than OF?

        Sounds plausible.

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      • Don’t forget Gary Mathews Jr. (I’m sure the Angels would like to though…)

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  7. Snapper says:

    I could imagine that since bad OF defense looks like it’s the pitcher’s fault more often, unsophisticated teams do value OF defense less than IF.

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    • Jacob Jackson says:

      Great point. It’s harder to see great outfield defense. For that matter, sometimes average outfield defense can LOOK spectacular, because a guy is slow, poorly positioned, or gets bad jumps.

      Nook Logan has the ability to catch a ball in stride that Jim Edmonds and Aaron Rowand have to dive for. But Edmonds and Rowand look more spectacular doing it.

      I feel like this scenario happens more in the outfield than it does at short or second.

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  8. CCW says:

    I suspect, too, that there are simply more good defensive CFs out there than there are good defensive Shortstops. I know this goes directly to the theory of linear weights, and might even suggest the positional adjustments are off, but the fact that there are players who are indisputably bad shortstops who are able to turn themselves into above average CFs (e.g. BJ Upton, Adam Jones) makes me think the pool of players who can play OF well is significantly larger than the pool of players who can play middle infield well.

    Agreed, too, that teams probably are not correctly valuing outfield defense. Some are, of course, but some obviously are not. Ahem, Texas, Hamilton, WTF, ahem.

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    • Texas is an interesting example on the OF/IF issue, in particular, since they were willing to move a bad glove/OK bat off of SS in favor of a very young prospect (Andrus) who looks like he might be the second coming of Adam Everett… with the bat, anyway.

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  9. Sky says:

    Quite intriguing!

    And yet, the offensive batting line for center fielders is right in line with the defensive positional adjustment.


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  10. philosofool says:

    The league average OBP last season in the AL was .336 and in the NL .331, so for an AL CF with a .306 wOBP, he’s actually -15 runs, not -12, runs below average.

    Another possible locus of explanation is that 2008/2009 off season is anomalous regarding CF, i.e. this year, it’s simply coincidence or accident. It would seem to me that in any given year, we can expect that the market is going to be a little in efficient. If several teams happen to have recently locked up an average or better CF, it’s going to be a bad time to be a free agent CF. (anyway, there’s a hypothesis for test: it’s not like that every year.)

    Another possibility is that the CF skill set is undervalued.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      We don’t care about last year. We’re dealing with the ’09 projections. The league average wOBA in the CHONE projections for 2009 is .330.

      As for the anomaly, I don’t know – these guys are minor league free agents every year. It’s not like this the first year that these seven guys have been freely available. They’ve kicked around from organization to organization.

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      • philosofool says:

        How are you calculating play time projections when you determine the average? Because the sum of all the at bats in CHONE almost is four times what actually occurred last year. This is standard for projection systems, which are supposed to capture something other than managerial decisions, like how a particular player would do if he were selected by his team to play his position out of spring training. You see where this is going: unless you correctly weight the CHONE projections to what players will actually be given in terms of play time, the worst players will be excessively weighed in the OBP average and hence the OBP average will be too low. I doubt that CHONE intends to project OBP to fall by much next season, though of course it’s hard to be sure.

        You’re right that those guys are annual minor league contract guys. That certainly favors the view according to which these guys are really undervalued.

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  11. Rally says:

    Yes, the projection includes many more players than will play in major leagues. This is the result of trying to estimate the available talent level from A+ to the majors. So it’s probably better to just use last year’s major league averages, unless you want to go through and weight them based on who should actually get MLB playing time.

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