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Upton, Gonzalez and McCutchen: Tier Two NL Outfielders

The top of the outfielder food chain is a crowded place. Between our first National League tier, the first American League tier, and these three talented dudes, we’ve already got nine excellent players. It seems to make sense to wait to pick your OF1 in mixed leagues, doesn’t it?

Tier One
Matt Kemp
Ryan Braun

Tier Two
Justin Upton
Little Brother did a lot of things right this year. He cut his strikeout rate to one that was better than league average for the first time (18.7% in 2011, 23.9% career). He hit a career high in home runs, runs, RBI, and stolen bases. His ISO was the best of his career, too (.240 in 2011, .211 career). In the end, only five outfielders in all of baseball outproduced Upton last year.

The fact that there’s no obvious outlier in his peripherals can only be considered a good thing. Sure, he hit all those career highs, but all of them were within hailing distance of his career numbers (other than, perhaps, strikeout rate). His BABIP (.319) was reasonable and below his career number (.337). His increase in power was tied to an increase in fly balls, but even that seems sustainable. he hit 44.8% fly balls last year, and his career number is 41%.

Here’s the only problem with Upton: Why do we think he’ll get better? The best ISO he ever showed was .247 in Double-A and he had a .240 ISO last year. His 70% success rate on the basepaths is not elite, and his power is ahead of his speed. It’s possible he’s about the same guy next year, strikes out more like he has in his career and less like he did in 2011, and doesn’t go .280+ 30/20 next season. On the other hand, he’s only 24. If he does get better, he could have a scary good year.

Carlos Gonzalez
It might be tempting to draw a corollary between Gonzalez heading into 2011 and Upton heading into next year, but a few key differences emerge. Gonzalez struck out more during his breakout 2010 and had a more extreme BABIP (.384) that season. His minor league power track record was also not as nice as Upton’s.

Those saying that Gonzalez was headed for regression in 2011 were correct. 25 years old for the entire season, the Rockies outfielder did not put in an even better season after he broke out the year before. But he did hit close to .300 and managed 26 home runs and 20 steals despite missing a couple weeks with a wrist injury. The best news is that, even in a ‘down’ year, CarGo ISO’ed over .230, cut his strikeout rate for the third consecutive season, and didn’t slow down a ton on the basepaths. If this is his peak-period baseline, he’s still an excellent outfielder.

Andrew McCutchen
A few National League outfielders outproduced the 25-year-old McCutchen last year according to Zach Sanders’ spreadsheet. But Michael Bourn can be a one-note guy, Hunter Pence had some balls bounce in his favor, and Lance Berkman is not a top-tier keeper if because of his age alone. McCutchen is the one with the all-everything upside in his favor, and he only finished three bucks short of the other trio.

Some of that three dollar difference just has to be blamed on BABIP. His .291 BABIP doesn’t seem deficient. But run his batted ball stats through the xBABIP machine and the result (.335) suggests that he could have had a better batting average than .259. His stolen base success rate (76%) also suggests that he could have had more than 23 stolen bases last year.

Add a better batting average and more steals to his developing power (.198 ISO in 2011, .182 career) and you’ve got a guy that deserves to be hanging out with the other guys in their mid-20s that could finish within a loogey of 30/30 next year. The scary thing is that McCutch has the best plate discipline of this trio. If only the lineup around him was any good, he could be a top-five mixed league outfielder as soon as next year.