The Blue Jays and Phillies Try the One-Man Outfield

While it’s technically true that both the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies are Major League Baseball teams, their 2015 seasons were different in a number of non-superficial ways. Yes, they both employed Ben Revere last season, but it’s difficult to find other substantive similarities between the 93-69 AL East champion Blue Jays and the 63-99 cellar-dwelling Phillies.

The Blue Jays had a 117 wRC+, while the Phillies registered a meager 86. The Blue Jays had an average, or slightly better, pitching staff (93 ERA-, 100 FIP-) and the Phillies were among the worst (120 ERA-, 111 FIP-) in the league. On defense, the Blue Jays sported a +15 DRS and +1 UZR while the Phillies delivered a -92 DRS and -31.1 UZR. The Blue Jays were good and the Phillies were not. That comes as a surprise to no one, even as we pause to note that the Phillies took steps to put their franchise on the right track during the same period.

These two very dissimilar clubs, however, did have one pretty interesting similarity during the 2015 season. They both flanked excellent center fielders with horrible defenders in the corners.

While it’s perfectly reasonable to view defensive metrics with some skepticism, I don’t think the general argument here is particularly controversial no matter your opinion of the statistics themselves. The numbers presented here are merely illustrative and needn’t be as exact measurements for the point to stand.

My original interest was in determining the distribution of value across the three outfield positions for the 30 major league teams. To do so, I grabbed team DRS and UZR by position and lined them up side by side. Then I carved up the numbers into six categories: < -10.1, -10 to -5.1, -5 to -0.1, 0 to +5, +5.1 to +10, and > +10.1.

If you prefer words, you can think of the buckets as terrible, bad, below average, above average, good, and awesome. The categories are somewhat arbitrary, but they communicate the right idea. There is no discernible difference between a +4.9 and a +5.2 right fielder, but you’ll see that it won’t prove to be a problem for this specific analysis. Keep in mind, we’re just looking at the 2015 results relative to average at each position. We’re not trying to discern true talent or anything like that.

Of all 30 teams, the Blue Jays and the Phillies were the only clubs to feature one outfielder classified as good/awesome by this measure and two who were terrible/bad according to both DRS and UZR. In other words, both systems agreed that these are the only teams to fill one spot with great fielders and two with pretty rough ones. Honorable mention goes to the Marlins, but DRS liked their left fielders too much to make the cut.

What does this look like in concrete terms? I’ve created a color-coded Google Doc featuring all 30 teams, but the Jays and Phillies break down like this:

Team Outfield Defense, 2015
Team DRS RF DRS CF DRS LF UZR RF UZR CF UZR LF
Phillies -9 16 -16 -9.1 17.2 -9.6
Blue Jays -11 16 -12 -11.8 15.2 -25.5

Both clubs had terrific defense in center field and poor defense in the corners. There’s nothing remarkable about two teams finishing the season with such an arrangement, but it is interesting that the teams were otherwise so different.

It’s also interesting because of the way the “ball hog” problem might manifest itself on such a team. If a ball is hit between a very good center fielder and a very good left fielder, and both men arrive in time to catch it, only one player gets credit for saving whatever runs are able to be saved. The metrics are smart enough not to dock the other fielder, but they also aren’t able to credit him, either. If a selfish center fielder gets enough of these balls, he’s limiting the left fielder’s chances to add to his defensive numbers (even though the left fielder isn’t getting any negative credit either).

For this reason, it’s possible that a great left fielder might not shine statistically as much if he’s flanked by a great center fielder. I’m not sure how many chances fall into this category every year, but some do. Yet on the Jays and Phillies, the opposite is probably true. Kevin Pillar and Odubel Herrera probably caught a lot of balls in the gap that would have fallen if the teams employed lesser center fielders, and had those balls fallen, the corner guys would have been dinged even more. Granted, this probably isn’t a 10-run difference or anything, but it’s interesting nonetheless because it’s not the way we normally view that phenomenon.

Pillar got and held the Jays’ center-field job largely due to his elite defense, while Jose Bautista’s aging glove didn’t cost him playing time because he’s an extraordinary hitter. In left field, they tried anyone and everyone, including Danny Valencia, Chris Colabello, Ezequiel Carrera, and Ben Revere. Of that group, only Revere has flashed any kind of defensive chops in his career, but the Jays were thinking about scoring runs en route to the postseason and were willing to tolerate unremarkable fielding.

The Phillies, without a Bautista-like anchor in one corner, simply rotated their troops through at both positions while running out the clock on the season. Jeff Francoeur, Domonic Brown, Grady Sizemore, and Brian Bogusevic led the way in right field, providing nothing defensively that impressed the metrics. In left, it was Cody Asche, Ben Revere, Aaron Altherr, Darin Ruf, and Jeff Francoeur again.

The teams perfectly encapsulate the two primary paths to this shared place. The Jays wound up with bad defense in the corners because they were searching for offense and were willing to accept the trade off. The Phillies would up with bad defense in the corners because they didn’t have any good players.

It appears as if the 2016 Phillies intend not to renew their membership in this exclusive club, adding Peter Bourjos to the ranks and likely offering more playing time to Aaron Altherr, who was one of the better performers for them in left last season.

The Jays have learned the opposite lesson, choosing to double down on the strategy that worked so well the first time. The superlative Pillar will remain in center for his glove, Bautista will remain in right for his bat, and they are just going to try some stuff in left:

LF Blue Jays


Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Bat BsR Fld WAR
Michael Saunders 350 .246 .324 .411 .320 0.2 0.9 0.7 1.0
Dalton Pompey 210 .261 .322 .387 .310 -1.7 0.5 1.8 0.6
Ezequiel Carrera 105 .254 .304 .347 .287 -2.8 0.4 -0.6 -0.1
Junior Lake 35 .242 .295 .387 .297 -0.6 0.0 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .251 .319 .393 .311 -4.8 1.9 2.0 1.5

The projections aren’t pessimistic about their defense, but defensive projections are to be taken with a salt lick. Fielding numbers are noisy and the projections are pretty heavily regressed, so you’re hardly ever going to see a projection for -10 or -15 runs.

The true heroes of the story are Pillar and Herrera. For them, the 2015 season was not unlike a play in which Meryl Streep co-stars with two reality-show afterthoughts. All three would technically be employed as actors — just as all six of the Blue Jays’ and Phillies’ outfielders were technically employed as outfielders — but it’s pretty clear, in each case, that only one of group has a grasp on what they’re supposed to be doing out there.

There’s a compelling question running beneath the surface, too. It’s one that we can’t answer at the moment, but hopefully will be able to address in the not-too-distant future. We have a clear sense that offensive value isn’t totally linear at the team level. That is, adding a good hitter adds more runs to a good lineup than that same hitter might add to a lesser team.

So, might it be the case that the opposite is true on defense? Could having Pillar, Herrera, or someone like Kevin Kiermaier actually decrease the value of defense in the corners? You probably don’t want to surround him with -10 fielders, but if the choice is between paying for +5 runs of (context neutral) left-field defense or +5 runs of (context neutral) offense, a team with Pillar in center would seem more willing to target the hitter if the cost were the same. Fielders can cover for each other, but only one guy gets to hit at a time.

We could probably work out a rudimentary answer with our second-generation metrics, but this is the kind of question, like so many others, that screams out for Statcast.

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Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Damaso
Member
Damaso

This Ball Hog Theory is always stuck in my mind as an asterisk when looking at defensive stats. It’s hard to escape the easy logic that the one will steal credit from the other in many situations.

One note about those defensive projections, though – imo you or they are underrating pompey and saunders.

Not only has Pompey always projected as a very good defensive CF but his brief career numbers so far back that up – both drs and uzr love his CF work so far, DRS also loves his LF work, while the one outlier is a huge negative rating from uzr in LF, which i’m guessing is noise. imo pompey in LF would give the jays elite defense in LF.

Saunders as well has put up very good defensive numbers as a corner OF, by both systems. Though we will have to see how his knee holds up this year.

And of course there is the decent chance that both pompey and saunders might earn starting duty ahead of smoak or colabello, which could free the jays to start moving bautista to a 1B/DH type role.

johnsnot20
Member
johnsnot20

the ball hog theory seems correct to me. I saw some evidence a few years back that an outfield with Brett Gardner in center held the corner OFs to lower DRS even though the eye test appeared that the whole outfield looked great. (Gardner Granderson and Swisher). And that year where the Yankees had healthy Ellsbury and Gardner in CF and LF and neither of them rated out very good. But anyone watching the games could see that defense was elite.

I think a good portion of the reason KK, Herrera, and Pillar rated so highly was because they knew they had to catch everything. And after a few weeks of that, you just expect it as a flanking fielder and lay off.

Momus
Member
Momus

Oh god please no more Colabello in the outfield. He was second only to Hanley Ramirez in “close your eyes, you don’t want to see this” fielding out there last season.

Rollie's Mustache
Member
Member

The Rogers Centre pretzel stand would’ve done just as good a job in LF as Colabello did. That was a cringe worthy experiment last season.

BMac
Member
BMac

All the dumping on Collabello for being a poor OF disappoints me. He hardly ever played there even in the minors plus he more than made up for it with his bat. Imagine if he just said he wouldn’t play there? At least he was enough of a team guy to do his best.

The Jays were in a bad spot there and still won the East. What they cobbled together in LF is a part of that success.

Hughes
Member
Member
Hughes

As a 31 year old with 100 GP to his name, yeah playing where he was told was a good thing. He didn’t more than make up for it with his bat. If he did he would’ve been the every day left fielder.

Instead he platooned it with 2 other guys and then they traded for someone to play the position full time. His bat was the only reason he got the time that he did.

Then he platooned first base, because he’s a first baseman in the mold of the national league. A bit below average defensively, but where you stash your quality bat. He’d be playing DH if they didn’t have Edwin to do it better.

No one is questioning his attitude or his effort or that he hasn’t logged much time in the outfield. This isn’t little league where effort counts, this is MLB where performance matters.

He would’ve been a ~0 WAR outfielder with a 142 WRC+ bat. Instead thanks to getting moved to 1B he got 0.8.

Psy Jung
Member
Psy Jung

Not to mention that scouts are unanimously high on Pompey as an above average/plus CF