One Center Fielder, Two Center Fielder…

One of the truisms in sports is that whenever an organization emerges as a new success story by doing things unconventionally, other teams often try to copy the pattern. In football, we’ve seen this with the rise of the west coast offense after the 49′ers rose to power in the 1980s, and in basketball, we’ve seen teams get away from big line-ups after the Phoenix Suns won a lot of games with their seven seconds or less philosophy. Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays were the new success story, one of the foundations of that success was their outfield defense.

Carl Crawford is, for all intents and purposes, a center fielder. He’s just been assigned to left field for the Rays. B.J. Upton is the prototypical center fielder with long strides and blazing speed. And, while Gabe Gross might not look like a center fielder, he’s performed like one during his major league career. These three spent the majority of the time in the outfield for the Rays last year, and were the reason why Tampa racked up a +45 UZR from their outfield in 2008.

Based on what we’re seeing in Baltimore and Seattle, it appears that the Three CF model of outfields that Tampa made en vogue is catching on in other cities as well.

The Orioles just completed a trade for Felix Pie, an outstanding defensive outfielder who has struggled to hit major league pitching so far in his career. Those struggles haven’t carried over to the outfield, though, where Pie’s UZR/150 in limited playing time is +11.2. Based on the scouting reports, his physical skills, and even the limited data we have, there’s significant evidence to suggest that Pie is a well above average defensive center fielder. The Orioles, however, have tapped him to play left field, where he’ll roam alongside Adam Jones (+4.6 UZR/150 as a CF last year) and Nick Markakis (+3.6 UZR/150 as an RF last year).

With Pie and Jones, the O’s have two above average center fielders. Markakis, the least rangy of the three, is still above average for a corner OF and is better defensively than some players masquerading as center fielders (Josh Hamilton, I’m looking at you). With an outfield of Pie/Jones/Markakis, the Orioles should expect something like a +15 to +25 UZR from that trio, which would almost certainly give them one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.

However, depending on how Jack Zduriencik fills out his roster in Seattle, it probably won’t be the best. Right now, the Mariners are looking at a potential outfield of Endy Chavez in LF, Franklin Gutierrez in CF, and Ichiro Suzuki in RF.

Chavez is, without question, an outstanding defensive outfielder. In nearly 3,000 innings in CF, he’s racked up a +2.8 UZR/150, but that doesn’t even compare to his staggering +20.2 UZR/150 in 1,600 innings in LF/RF. The scouting reports agree – his defense is off the charts good.

He might not even be the best defensive outfielder in Seattle, though. Franklin Gutierrez has drawn raves from scouts for years for his jumps, range, and arm strength, and his defensive performances in Cleveland back up all the superlatives you could throw at him. He only got 159 innings in CF for the Indians due to some guy named Sizemore, so you have to take his +17.7 UZR/150 in center with a lot of salt due to the small sample size. However, it becomes a little easier to ingest when you see his +21.9 UZR/150 in LF/RF. Gutierrez is just a defensive monster.

That leaves Ichiro, the forgotten guy over in RF. For his career, he’s been +7 UZR/150 in right, making him a well above average corner outfielder. He’s been basically average while playing CF as well, confirming the belief that he’s going to look very good when compared to less rangy right fielders.

If they go with a regular OF of Chavez, Gutierrez, and Ichiro, it’s not hard to project the M’s as a +30 to +40 outfield in 2008. No one else in baseball – not even the Rays with newly added Matt Joyce in the mix – project to have that kind of outfield defense in 2009.

It will be interesting to see how these Three CF outfields turn out. All of them lack the traditional slugging corner outfielder, but if you see the Orioles, Mariners, and Rays once again exceeding national expectations, don’t be surprised if even more teams start copying the Three CF model.




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


27 Responses to “One Center Fielder, Two Center Fielder…”

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  1. mymrbig says:

    How much improvement do you think the Orioles would actually see by replacing Luke Scott with Pie? Scott’s career UZR/150 are 9.9 in LF and 9.0 in RF, so Pie would have to be pretty tremendous to make a significant improvement.

    Being an Astros fan, I think its pretty funny that one of the front office’s big complaints with Luke Scott was his supposedly poor outfield defense. Doh!

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  2. Benne says:

    “don’t be surprised if even more teams start copying the Three CF model.”

    I’m surprised that more teams didn’t start copying it after 2001, when the M’s won 116 games with essentially the same philosophy (Ichiro, Cameron, Winn).

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    • Isaac A says:

      Benne, I don’t think WInn was with the M’s in 2001, but the 2-centerfielder thing was still good.

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      • Bodhizefa says:

        Winn certainly was with the M’s then. They also had plenty of other defensive stalwarts including Bret Boone, John Olerud, and David Bell. Really, the only person who wasn’t a very good defender on that team was Carlos Guillen, who was likely just merely average. Talk about a fantastic defensive squad!

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      • Benne says:

        Yep, Winn was there. That defense was a beauty to behold.

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      • jackb says:

        No, Winn was recieved after the 2002 season in a trade for Piniella and Antonio Perez. In 2001 left field was split between Stan Javier (very good) and Al Martin (averageish?).

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  3. Bodhizefa says:

    Oops, no he wasn’t. You’re right. Gay Buhner (what my friends used to call Mr. Buhner when we were kids, lol) was there as was Al Martin and Mark McLemore. Man, I miss McLemore!

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    • Buhner was hurt almost the entire year. Martin, McLemore and Stan Javier split most of the time in left.

      The Ichiro-Cameron-Win outfield of 2003 was pretty incredible though. When Ryan Franklin and Joel Pineiro post ERAs under 4, you’re doing something right. I too am surprised that more teams didn’t follow that model earlier (and even more baffled that the M’s got away from it).

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    • Benne says:

      Well, disregard my previous comment, then. Could’ve sworn we had Winn in ’01. Regardless, when Paul Abbott manages to get 18 wins, you must be doing something right on defense.

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      • joser says:

        Lou Piniella memorably coached the 2001 M’s, and Winn was what the Rays paid the M’s to get him as their coach in the winter of 2002 (technically, Winn was traded for Antonio Perez because you can’t trade a player for a manager, but considering Winn was TB’s only all-star and Perez was an AAAA guy who barely got a cup of coffee, we all know what was really going on. Though that may not even be the most interesting trade he was involved in, considering he was a throw-in in the Milton Bradley-for-Andre Ethier trade between the A’s and the Dodgers).

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      • Trenchtown says:

        Antonio Perez was ranked 16th overall by Baseball America in 2001 and 52nd in 2002. Lou Pinella was a part of it but Perez was not a throw in

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  4. Paul Thomas says:

    The problem with that idea for the Mariners is that Endy is a hopelessly inadequate hitter for a corner OF and Gutierrez doesn’t project particularly well himself. I know defense is important and whatnot, but that outfield seems like it will struggle to be average overall.

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    • Terminator X says:

      Endy posted a WAR of .9 last year in ~300 PA, and a WAR of .7 in 165 PA in 2007. In a full season it’s safe to assume he’s pretty close to average. Gutz posted a 1.9 WAR in 440 PA last year, and a 2.0 WAR in 301 PA in 2007, mostly out of right field. Ichiro has posted WARs of 3.3, 4.9, and 4.4 in 2008/2007/2006, mostly in CF (splitting time between RF/CF last year). Given that average is 2 WAR, it appears that if these 3 continue to perform as they have in the past (Gutz’s bat likely isn’t done developing) they should be something 1-4 wins above an average outfield, with Chavez picking up 1.5-2.5 WAR, Gutz getting 1.5-3.0, and Ichiro getting 3.0-5.0. They’d have to flounder majorly to be a significantly below average outfield.

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  5. tangotiger says:

    “Endy is a hopelessly inadequate hitter for a corner OF ”

    What does this mean exactly? And, what if I say “Ibanez is a hopelessly inadequate fielder for a corner OF”?

    Both statements are invalid. The question is how many runs does his bat produced compared to what an average player you can put out there, and how many runs does his glove save. If he’s -20 and +25, respectively, or +15 and -10, respectively, it’s the same thing. (I’m not saying he’s +5, but simply saying that both give you the same result.)

    If you want to argue that it’s not, then go ahead.

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    • Benne says:

      I’d be perfectly fine with watching Endy in LF, considering that we had to endure Raul commit multiple .gif worthy gaffes in LF.

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  6. Is Matt Joyce or Gross going to be the starter in RF for the D-Rays?

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  7. Christopher Taylor says:

    The Jays were employing a 3 CF OF for years and nobody noticed with Johnson, Wells and Rios…and a two CF OF when Wells wasn’t hurt in 2008 (for one sad game in 2008, Brad Wilkerson played CF. Ick.) So it doesn’t always work out THAT well (although the Jays OF has hardly been the problem the past few years).

    I don’t particularly think the 3 CF OF is that new, really and if the choice is between a 3 CF OF and Bell, Moseby and Barfield (as prototypical a LF, CF and RF as the Jays have ever had in the OF; which is why I list them) – I don’t think there is much of one. Give me the hitter in LF, the speedster solid defender in CF and the guy with a gun for an arm in RF. Now if only that trio could put up OBPs north of .320… but I digress.

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    • Kincaid says:

      The Jays have averaged about 9 games over .500 over the last 3 years without any offense to speak of in a very tough division. Obviously you need a bit more offense than they have to compete for the crown in the AL East (where the Sox and Rays also have excellent defenses), but their defense has done them very well and kept them a competitive team.

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  8. B says:

    Don’t forget about the Giants with Lewis/Rowand/Winn. If Rowand plays an average to above-average CF next year, like he’s done every year except 2008, they could be looking at a +40 outfield. Worst case they should at least be at +20-25 or so.

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  9. Nick says:

    The Cardinals could start an outfield of Ludwick, Rasmus and Ankiel Left to Right which would be very good not only at tracking down fly balls but would have three very good arms as well.

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    • Kincaid says:

      When you start with an outfield with no legitimate centerfielders and add one centerfielder to the mix, that really only leaves you with one centerfielder.

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  10. Joe says:

    I am almost positive that I posted a comment here and that it went through a few days ago. But it hasn’t appeared yet. Is there a reason for that?

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  11. Joe says:

    Well, that one went through. :)

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  12. Kellah says:

    I wish the Yankees had a 3 CF outfield. At the moment, we have a former CF in left, with no arm at all, Brett Gardner, an honest-to-god burner of an outfielder, and… Xavier Nady. Better than Abreu I guess, but that’s not saying a whole lot. Save for Gardner, that’s about as average as you can get I guess.

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