Hot Stove U: Why Nyjer Morgan Rules the Outfield

The Setup

It took Nyjer Morgan just three games with the Washington Nationals to confirm to his new fans that the organization had made the right move in acquiring him. Although he recorded his first three hits as a National that day, the real attention would be paid toward his defensive efforts against the Braves.

It was July 5, to be exact, and young Washington starter Scott Olsen was struggling with his command. Nerves were high as Chipper Jones strode to the plate, following a lead-off walk to Martin Prado. Olsen made his first pitch to Jones and watched in horror as it caught far too much of the plate. Jones reacted swiftly and, just like that, a bullet was heading deep into straightaway center field.

On an ordinary day, Jones reaches second base easily, Prado scores, and the Braves have the tying run in scoring position with nobody out. However, this was no ordinary day, and Morgan is no ordinary centerfielder. Upon launch, a blaze of red set into motion, stampeding towards the wall and then suddenly extending a lone arm. The ball tucked firmly into his glove, Morgan twirled and fired it back into the infield.

Two groundouts later, the threat was over. Prado was stranded on the bases, the Nationals’ lead was secure, and Washington would hold on for a 5-3 win. It was then that fans in the nation’s capital realized that their new centerfielder might just be the best defensive player in the game.

The Proof

It isn’t just Nationals fans who think highly of his abilities. Ultimate Zone Rating, one of the most accessible advanced defensive metrics that baseball has today, is in love with the man who calls himself “Tony Plush”. Developed by Mitchel Lichtman, a statistical analyst who once served as a consultant for the Cardinals, UZR produces an above- or below-average rating, measured in runs saved, for each player drawn from multiple defensive aspects — including range, throwing arm, and errors. By this metric, the 29-year-old Morgan is off the charts.

Morgan started last season with Pittsburgh (where he played left field), but was traded to Washington (where he played center) on July 1. Over the course of the season, his total UZR was an absurd +27.8 runs above average. Many analysts agree that Franklin Gutierrez was the best full-time defensive centerfielder in baseball last season, with good reason: his centerfield UZR was +29.1, but in nearly 400 more innings than Morgan played in center. For cases like these, we can use UZR/150, a playing time-adjusted figure which calculates the player’s defensive contributions pro-rated to 150 games, and therefore gives a fairer outlook to players with disparities. Gutierrez’s UZR/150 of +27.1 is just fantastic, but doesn’t look quite as impressive when compared to Morgan’s absurd +40.5 UZR/150 in his half-season in center. A half-season’s worth of data is not enough to definitively judge a player, but Morgan’s career numbers tell a similar story. For his career, Morgan’s UZR/150 in center is 39 runs better than average.

Don’t trust UZR? No problem. Baseball analyst Tom Tango organizes the Fans Scouting Report on a yearly basis, getting input from those who watch the players on a daily basis. In 2009, fans voted Morgan as the best defensive left fielder in the game by a fair margin, and he earned an even higher rating than Gutierrez did in center. And in case you think that this was the result of playing for teams with rabid fan bases, remember that Morgan suited up for the Nats and Bucs.

Need more proof? Morgan made a substantial impact on both his current and former teams. Through the time he was traded, the Pirates had allowed 16 unearned runs and had a 4.24 ERA against. In the 82 games thereafter, they allowed 29 unearned runs scored and the team ERA bloated to 4.92. Conversely, Washington allowed 43 unearned runs and held a 5.21 ERA through its first 77 games. Those numbers shifted to 40 unearned runs and a 4.80 ERA after Morgan’s arrival.

If his UZR is to be believed, and Morgan is the best defensive player in the game, then he should be expected to take between 15 and 25 runs off the scoreboard per season compared to an average centerfielder. On the high end, that would be the pitching equivalent of going from Braden Looper’s 5.22 ERA down to Chad Billingsley’s 4.03 ERA.

The Conclusion

Whether you’re a fan of numbers, a casual observer or both, there’s no doubt Morgan is magnificent with the leather. After some brutally tough seasons, Nationals fans have found hope in phenom pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg, but they should not overlook another terrific player who has arrived in their town.

Nyjer Morgan, Tony Plush, no matter what you call him, he’s a defensive wizard beyond compare.

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