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Is the Corner Outfield Profile Changing?

Posted By Mark Smith On February 15, 2013 @ 2:00 pm In Daily Graphings | 52 Comments

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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