Is the Corner Outfield Profile Changing?

The Indians outfield defense is going to be really good. As Jeff Sullivan noted, the addition of Michael Bourn makes the outfield defense very good as it pushes two good center fielders (Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs) to the corners. That last part is what really struck me about the move. Over my roughly 17 years of watching baseball, I’ve always been told that a corner outfielder is a guy who can hit and hit for a lot of power, indicating that it’s an offense-first position. But during the past five years or so, we’ve seen players like Brett Gardner, Carl Crawford, Ben Revere, Brantley, and now Stubbs moved to a corner, seemingly indicating that teams are more willing to accept less power in exchange for more OBP, speed, and defense. So I decided to do a little investigating.

The first step was to look at how the offensive production of corner outfielders has changed in the recent past.

Left field peaked a little higher than right field (probably with a little help from He Who Shall Not Be Named), but right field has done a better at keeping its hitting production up, remaining solidly above-average. Left field, on the other hand, has seen a pretty dramatic drop in production, though there was a modest rebound in 2012. I was curious about the component skills/tools of OBP and ISO, so …

LF v RF OBP

Looking at OBP, right field has declined along a similar pattern to the rest of the league. It has gotten worse, but it largely retains its advantage. Left field, however, has seen its advantage on the rest of the league slip away. What about ISO?

LF v RF ISO

We see a similar pattern. Right field declines, but it maintains a similar gap with the rest of the league. Left field, again, sees its gap dwindle, though it still has an advantage in the power department. One thing I hadn’t expected at this point was a difference between right fielders and left fielders. While it may simply be a fluctuation in the talent cycle, it makes me wonder if there’s a difference between left fielders and right fielders. Perhaps, the left field profile is changing while right fielders have stayed the same. Looking at the names above, Gardner, Crawford, and Brantley have spent most of their non-CF time in left. But are there other indications of a profile change?

If teams are starting to make up for the lost power, speed and defense are other areas we would expect to see an increase. Looking first at stolen bases …

We see another significant difference between left fielders and right fielders. Left fielders have increased their stolen base total by over 300 (or 10 per starting LF) in the past 9-10 years, and while right fielders have also increased their totals, it’s only by about 100 stolen bases (or ~3 per starting RF). But stolen bases are only part of the story. If speed is really coming back, we’d expect to also see a rise in overall baserunning …

LF v RF Baserunning

Which we do. And guess what? Yep, left fielders have made significantly more gains in the baserunning department than their corner outfield counterparts. It seems as though LF has been quite a bit speedier than it had been, and while right field appears to be a little faster, it hasn’t increased at the same pace. The last remaining piece of the puzzle is defense.

Defense, however, is the hardest part of the puzzle to solve. Defensive metrics like UZR, +/-, etc. are good for individuals because they compare against “the average”, but of course, “the average” can change. A +5 defender now may not be the same as a +5 defender 10 years ago. Another issue is how defense interrelates. Let’s use the Angels as an example. Mike Trout will make fewer plays in LF with Peter Bourjos in CF than Vernon Wells in CF. That doesn’t mean Trout is worse with Bourjos in center than with Wells. It means Bourjos covers more ground in center than Wells and gets to more balls, negating the need for Trout to get to as many. So we have issues. There isn’t a Defensive Efficiency for the outfield, and in all honesty, Defensive Efficiency works so well because it’s the entire team working together, not specific parts. And of course, we can’t simply assume that LF or RF defense has improved because their speed seems to have increased (bad routes, arms, etc.). I’m not sure I’ll be able to prove a whole lot here.

When I began this exercise, I expected to group left field and right field together because, superficially, they are very similar positions. Theoretically, it doesn’t require more range to play LF than RF unless park dimensions dictate such, and while one probably prefers a stronger arm in right field, it doesn’t seem like the two positions would require different defensive skill sets. And if they are similar defensive positions, then why the different offensive profiles? Is it simply talent fluctuation? Is it a conscious decision? Have teams decided that two good defensive outfielders are more necessary? While I expected the two corner OF spots to respond in a similar fashion, it appears they are different breeds instead of birds of a feather.



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byron
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byron
3 years 7 months ago

I’ve been wondering why LF was both the position that was the third-to-last resort (after DH and 1B) for the least athletic players (I feel like I’ve heard “might end up in left” as a bad thing on prospect reports) and also where teams stored their extra CF (Gardner, Trout). Now it seems like maybe the league is transitioning from one to the other.

Brian
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Brian
3 years 7 months ago

Well with Gardner and Trout, I think it’s pretty easy because each team already had an established right fielder (Hunter and Swisher, respectively). Perhaps there are more outfields with shallower fences in left, thus requiring a weaker arm than right (Fenway, Petco, and Minute Maid park come to mind)?

DavidCEisen
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DavidCEisen
3 years 7 months ago

As a rule of thumb, RF is where you put your strongest arm (Ichiro, Vlad, Francoeur, Harper, ect) as it helps deter runners from taking the extra base from 2nd to 3rd on a ball hit to right. This isn’t an issue in left as the throw is much shorter, though there are some exceptions (Prado in LF and Heyward in RF).

Also a misplayed ball in right can more easily be turned into a triple than one in left.

Kinanik
Member
Member
Kinanik
3 years 7 months ago

What is the number of defensive plays that each position makes? My gut says that LF should have more opportunities, since hitters tend to pull more than push, and there tend to be more righties than lefties.

Dave Cameron
Admin
Member
3 years 7 months ago

Actually, most fly balls tend to be hit to the opposite field. Ground balls are very pull heavy, but fly balls are the opposite. Last year, 60% of pulled balls were grounders, 20% were fly balls, and 20% were line drives. Meanwhile, the rates were 24% grounders, 53% fly balls, and 24% line drives for balls hit to the opposite field.

http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=0&type=2&season=2012&month=21&season1=2012&ind=0&team=0,ss&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0

Brian
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Brian
3 years 7 months ago

Dave –

First off, the split you linked blew my mind. Hard to believe there is such a disparity in GB/FB when you look at pull versus opposite.

However, those % numbers don’t necessarily indicate that more balls hit to the outfield go to right field rather than left, as there are more righties than lefties. I would have no idea how to figure this out.

Dave Cameron
Admin
Member
3 years 7 months ago

The PA split last year was 54/46 for RHBs, so it’s not that big of a deal.

46,000 PAs from RHBs, 39,000 from LHBs. Once you take out the BB/HBP/K/HRs, it’s more like 32,000/27,000. There just aren’t nearly enough extra RHB plate appearances to make up for the big difference in pull/opposite fly ball rate.

Cozar
Member
Cozar
3 years 7 months ago

You can’t look at percentages and claim it proves the whole. What your split shows us is that when a player hits the ball to the opposite field they tend to hit a fly ball. It doesn’t prove they hit more fly balls to the opposite field than they do when pulling it. If I hit 100 opposite-field balls and 90% are fly balls but I hit 1000 pull balls and 50% are fly balls, I still hit 410 more pull fly balls, even though that is a smaller percentage of the total.

To see the actual totals, I took your custom chart, added hits, then divided H/BABIP to determine the number of balls in play. Then I multiplied that by the percentage to see the total number of balls in play that were LD/GB/FB.

According to my calculations, there was actually about 600,000 more opposite-field fly balls than pull fly-balls. However, there was around 300,000 more pull line-drives than opposite filed line-drives. Honestly, when considering the defensive ability of an OF, you are worried more about the guy’s ability to run-down a hard line drive than his ability to catch a lazy opposite-field flyball. Thus, since your LF is more likely to see a hard-hit line drive to the gap, there is a defensive reason to have a faster and better fielder in LF.

David
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David
3 years 7 months ago

While I respect that it is certainly possible that most fly balls are hit to the opposite field, your evidence does not prove this. The result is easily obtainable by reducing the number of opposite field ground balls drastically, thus, while 53% of balls to the opposite field are fly balls and only 20% to the pull side, there are still a greater number of pulled fly balls because there are more than 2.something times more pulled balls than balls hit to the opposite field. Again, not disputing the original assertion, simply pointing out that the evidence is not sufficient.

Kinanik
Member
Member
Kinanik
3 years 7 months ago

I stand corrected. Thank you. Awesome data.

pitnick
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pitnick
3 years 7 months ago

Wow. This is one of my biggest “how could I not ever notice that” moments as baseball fan.

Baltar
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Baltar
3 years 7 months ago

I am so glad that you published those numbers, Dave. I had always assumed, with most other people, that left-fielders got more chances than right-fielders, so I looked team-by-team at primary LF’s and primary RF’s to see how many chances each got. I was stunned to see that they were virtually equal.
Now I know why.
Based on your numbers, the better COF should play right.

Jaack
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Jaack
3 years 7 months ago

Voldemort was pretty powerful, but I don’t think he was a very good left fielder.

Jake
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Jake
3 years 7 months ago

Couldn’t he just summon every ball hit to him?

JMonkey
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JMonkey
3 years 7 months ago

First PEDs, now this…

Jay29
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Jay29
3 years 7 months ago

Accio baseball.

Cory
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Cory
3 years 7 months ago

At least he was better looking than Bonds…

DD
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DD
3 years 7 months ago

These little, speed guys are playing left likely because of their weaker arm. Generally, RF and CF are for stronger armed fielders (RF especially). I would be curious to see how the Arm grades look. This should not be affected by other players around them like overall defense is, at least not as much.

Cus
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Cus
3 years 7 months ago

That’s what I was thinking, a lot of guys who would be in CF 10 years ago are in left now because more guys possess speed and arm-strength is sometimes determinant.

If you think about it, range plays anywhere, as OF coverage can simply be adjusted by moving the outfielders, but length of necessary throws remains constant.

Though the traditional move is putting the rangiest guy in center, there is really no reason a Bourn-type player couldn’t cover the left-most 45% of the outfield while CF takes 30% and RF 25% (those percentages for simplicity sake).

DD
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DD
3 years 7 months ago

That’s assuming batted balls are evenly distributed. If most fall between the LFer’s normal spot (middle of LF) and same for RF, then CF is where the rangiest guy should be.

Ben Hall
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Ben Hall
3 years 7 months ago

This is my instinct too. Speedy guys tend to be smaller, and thus tend to have weaker arms.

The one thing you could compare would be the Arm component of UZR, though that of course only goes back so far.

Cidron
Member
Cidron
3 years 7 months ago

small person does not mean weak arm. just ask the pitcher Billy Wagner, as he “tosses” you a fastball in the upper 90’s

David
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David
3 years 7 months ago

…With his non-dominant hand

scott
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scott
3 years 7 months ago

yeah, Kimbrel’s under 6 ft. but i imagine he could make whatever throw was necessary.

Baltar
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Baltar
3 years 7 months ago

The only time arm difference matters for COF’s is the throw to 3B. I would guess (can’t prove) that the number of close throws to 3B would not be significant enough to determine that the RF should have the stronger arm. Also, a faster OF can get to the ball quicker, negating the need for an arm advantage.
Probably the shape and dimensions of the outfield should be a major factor in determining COF assignment. (I realize I am now partly contradicting my comment above.)

Danmay
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Danmay
3 years 7 months ago

2013 Oakland Athletics Outfield:

Coco Crisp, Chris Young, Josh Reddick, and Yoenis Cespedes.

That is all.

Adrock
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Adrock
3 years 7 months ago

Well, any outfield would look great if you played 4 guys in it…

MajorDanby
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MajorDanby
3 years 7 months ago

not if that 4th guy is delmon young

brian
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brian
3 years 7 months ago

Jonny Gomes seiz haiii guiz wut abute mei

Cidron
Member
Cidron
3 years 7 months ago

perhaps not.. 1991 detroit tigers.. Pete Incaviglia, Rob Deer, Lloyd Moseby, Tony Phillips. Sure, great at the plate (generating a good breeze with the bats) but, I doubt you want them near a baseball glove, let alone running routes in the outfield to catch balls.

Cozar
Member
Cozar
3 years 7 months ago

I think Mike Scioscia is the person to ask about this article.

The Angles will have 3 CF next year. I believe the plan is to play Trout in LF and Hamilton in RF. So the question is, will Hamilton be in RF because he has the stronger arm (leaving LF for Trout), or will Trout be in LF because he is a better fielder (leaving RF for Hamilton)?

If Bourjos doesn’t hit and they end up playing Trumbo in the OF a lot

Cozar
Member
Cozar
3 years 7 months ago

ooops, didn’t finish that thought. If Trumbo is put in the OF long-term, would he be in LF with Hamilton in RF, or would Hamilton take LF?

Chris
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Chris
3 years 7 months ago

Trumbo would be in LF, Hamilton in RF. You have a shift of the OF to the left so Trout covers 35%, Hamilton 35% and Trumbo 30%

Cozar
Member
Cozar
3 years 7 months ago

Okay, but why? Josh Hamilton has 270 games in LF compared to 70 in RF, so why would he put in RF instead of Trumbo?

Blockhead
Member
Blockhead
3 years 7 months ago

Hamilton is not a CFer. He shouldn’t play a single out there as long as Trout and Bourjos are on the roster and healthy.

glib
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glib
3 years 7 months ago

A recent article here agonized over Greg Blanco in LF. Here is your explanation. Great defense and some OBP at $1.3.

Jon L.
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Jon L.
3 years 7 months ago

The Bill James Historical Abstract has a terrific little essay that addresses this topic. It starts with the following:

“Those who can throw but can’t run are right fielders,
Those who can run but can’t throw are left fielders,
Those who can do both are center fielders, and
Those who can’t do either are first basement.”

Basically, he claims that the fastest and slowest corner outfielders all end up in left field. Your worst/slowest outfielders end up in left because that’s where runners advance the least on them. If an outfielder moves okay and has an arm he goes to right, but if he’s blazing fast he can’t play right any more, because if he were blazing fast and could throw well enough to play right, he’d be playing center.

I don’t know if it’s true that every center fielder can throw, but I think the biggest change has been advances in defensive metrics, such that the extremely slow outfielders no longer play left, but are either stuck at DH or given non-roster invites to spring training.

Jon L.
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Jon L.
3 years 7 months ago

*first basemen, of course.

J
Guest
J
3 years 7 months ago

Johnny Damon had an arm like a limp noodle and he played solid CF defence for years

Snowman
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Snowman
3 years 7 months ago

What’d limp noodles ever do to you?

Jon L.
Guest
Jon L.
3 years 7 months ago

Yeah, I may have specifically been thinking of Damon when I said I don’t know whether every center fielder can throw. In fairness to Bill James, the abstract appears to have been mostly written after the ’99 season (then updated after 2000), and Damon had already been shifted to full-time left field in ’99 (and then split time again in ’00).

jason
Guest
jason
3 years 7 months ago

Exception to the rule? Also, as was pointed out; he shifted back to CF because well, Manny.

matt w
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matt w
3 years 7 months ago

Are big left fields more common than big right fields? It seems as though there are a lot of parks with big left fields or small right fields or both — PNC, Safeco, New Yankee Stadium — and not so many parks that are reversed. So it might make sense for teams to stick their rangiest fielders in left just because of the parks they play in.

Jesus Mejia
Guest
Jesus Mejia
3 years 7 months ago

guys my non-stat opinion is that the brains building mlb roster are making run prevention a priority so instead of having the traditional power in the corners structure they are thinking defense first and then obp/slugging. Either way i have always thought that you dont need obp or power in specific positions on the field you need those things in specific spots in the lineup.

If a have a 2b, a SS and a catcher who are plus middle of the line up producers i can have and speedy/highobp slap hitter in LF or RF and write his name at the top of the line up.

Got my point?

Sorry my english is not so good

Ben
Guest
Ben
3 years 7 months ago

Whitey Herzog had 3 CF’s in the OF for the Cards in a spacious park and won a WS with them.

RF defense has usually been a priority for teams, while they’re willing to hide bad defensive players in LF.

I’d suggest that these “trends” are more a matter of the ability of the player pool. The Indians fell into Bourne due to numerous circumstances that have been discussed. With their personnel it seemed logical to move Stubbs to RF, Swisher to 1B and Reynolds to DH. I doubt any of this was pre-conceived on their part. Right now in MLB thre is a srious lack of run producers, so teams tend to go with defense at 3B and RF as the hitters just aren’t there.

I’d suggest looking at the Mariners who just got off of a 2 year binge trying to emphasize defense, and it failed miserably. Rather then take a balanced approach to the situation, as say a fundmentalist like Branch Rickey would take, Zduriencik and Wedge have taken a totally reactionary approach and now have 3 or 4 DH’s in their starting line-up.

With so much pressure to win now, MLB teams will try anything rather then attempt to build a balanced team.

Ruki Motomiya
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Ruki Motomiya
3 years 7 months ago

Why is Michael Brantley advertised as a “good center fielder”? According to UZR he’s never had a + defensive season, he’s only had one + by TZ according to Baseball Reference and according to FanGraphs Brantley has been worth 3.2 WAR over 4 seasons(-0.5, -0.6, 1.5 and 2.7). So why is he a good center fielder?

jsp2014
Guest
jsp2014
3 years 7 months ago

you should have posted graphs for the league as a whole imo.

the ISO for the entire league has gone down and it’s likely baserunning has improved for the larger population.

jsp2014
Guest
jsp2014
3 years 7 months ago

I see this was included in the article though would have been interesting to see pretty visuals.

Herbalist
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Herbalist
3 years 7 months ago

Dave,

What percentage of balls are pulled versus hit the other way?

Thanks

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