2018’s Worst Outfield Defenses and What They Mean for Pitchers in 2019

2018 saw some ugly outfield defense. If DRS isn’t your thing, the teams that posted baseball’s worst outfield DRS numbers ranked towards the very bottom of the league in Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) and Baseball Prospectus’ Fly Ball Efficiency statistics as well. By any measure, these are some of baseball’s weakest outfield defenders.

Outfield Defensive Metrics
Team DRS Rank Outs Above Average Rank Fly Ball Efficiency Rank
Phillies -62 30 -20 29 88.10% 23
Blue Jays -40 29 -6 21 87.70% 25
Orioles -34 28 -22 30 86.80% 29
Nationals -33 27 -16 27 87.80% 24
Rockies -23 25 -14 25 87.10% 27
SOURCE: Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus

Defense doesn’t typically matter in fantasy, but an improved or reduced defensive lineup does have implications for the pitchers taking the mound in front of it. While fly ball wOBA-xwOBA differential does factor in things other than a pitcher’s defense, it is telling that 11 of the top-50 differentials come from four of these five teams:

Fly Ball wOBA-xwOBA Differential
MLB Rank Player Team Differential
5 Tyler Anderson Rockies 0.214
8 Dylan Bundy Orioles 0.138
9 Jon Gray Rockies 0.134
20 Max Scherzer Nationals 0.084
21 German Marquez Rockies 0.084
25 David Hess Orioles 0.78
31 Andrew Cashner Orioles 0.66
37 Nick Pivetta Phillies 0.06
44 Alex Cobb Orioles 0.55
45 Vince Velasquez Phillies 0.053
49 Zach Eflin Phillies 0.049
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Will any of 2018’s worst defenses improve in 2019? And can they help these respective teams’ pitchers if they do?

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies defense on the whole looked to be historically bad in 2018. Jeff Sullivan does a great job of breaking this down here. Has the outfield defense improved heading into 2019?

Moving Rhys Hoskins to first base will certainly help. Hoskins’ -24 DRS was one of the worst in baseball. He is being replaced by Andrew McCutchen, who has posted decent DRS numbers in the outfield corners the past two seasons (+4 DRS in RF the past two seasons), although OAA tends to like him less, where he’s posted a -9 in 2018 and -2 in 2017. In center field, Odubel Herrera has posted solid defensive numbers in the past, but had a career-worst defensive season in 2018. At 27-years-old, Herrera could still rebound. Bryce Harper is coming off a similarly down defensive season, but consider that he did make 59 starts out of position in center field and has historically posted solid DRS numbers in right field (although OAA hasn’t liked him for three seasons now).

This outfield defense should be better without Hoskins in the outfield – it’s just a question of how much better. If Herrera and Harper can rebound or McCutchen looks more like his DRS and than OAA numbers, the Phillies’ fly ball starters – Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez could see their ERAs inch closer to the FIPs in 2019.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays are returning the same outfield unit that posted some ugly defensive numbers in 2018. Teoscar Hernandez was terrible and the numbers suggest that the once elite Kevin Pillar has lost a step as he moves into his 30s (-2 DRS and +1 OAA in 2018). If Hernandez’ platoon mate Billy McKinney, or one of Toronto’s prospects (Anthony Alford, Dalton Pompey), ends up seeing more playing time, there is a path to improvement.

With Toronto’s starting pitchers, outfield defense may not be as important as with other teams. Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez anchor a rotation of ground ball heavy pitchers that includes the newly acquired Clayton Richard and sophomore Ryan Borucki. The quality of the Blue Jays’ infield defense will be far more important to helping the 2019 pitching staff than it’s outfield will. Which is a good thing, because as of now, it doesn’t appear to be much improved.

Baltimore Orioles

While the Orioles are returning two of last season’s starters in Cedric Mullins and Trey Mancini, the team will enter 2019 without Adam Jones in center field for the first time since 2008. While Jones was the heart and soul of the Orioles for many seasons, his defensive skills have not been looked on favorably by the metrics over the past several seasons. Jones’ -14 OAA was third worst among all outfielders (minimum 50 opportunities), and he hasn’t posted a positive DRS number since 2015. Joey Rickard and D.J. Stewart, the two outfielders that will likely be replacing Jones, are not strong defensive players, either. But like Hoskins in Philly, even a slightly-to-below average outfielder will be an improvement on Jones.

Dylan Bundy (46.0 FB% in 2018), may see improvement with someone else patrolling center field in 2019. But this is not to suggest that Bundy’s problems in 2018 were created solely by poor defense. In deep formats where Andrew Cashner and Nathan Karns may be relevant, its possible they can benefit from a reconfigured Baltimore outfield.

Washington Nationals

Victor Robles will replace Bryce Harper in the Nationals outfield this season. Robles is a strong center fielder that was part of MLB.com’s All-Defensive team for the second year in a row in 2018. While this should be a good thing for the Nats defense, Michael A. Taylor, was no defensive slouch himself in 2018 (10 DRS, 9 OAA). Despite Taylor’s 134 games played, the Nationals still ranked at the very bottom of the league in defensive metrics. Which is to say that much of the blame likely lies with the Nats’ corner outfielders – Adam Eaton and Juan Soto. Soto has never been known for his defensive work, while Eaton’s age and injury history suggest that his best defensive days may also be behind him.

Luckily for the Nationals, Max Scherzer is the only member of their rotation that has any type of significant fly ball tendencies. And he was plenty good playing behind last year’s bad outfield defense.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies have decided to move Charlie Blackmon, baseball’s worst defender according to DRS (-28), to right field. The only hitch with the Rockies’ plan is they intend to replace Blackmon in center field with Ian Desmond – who’s only full season of outfield work came in 2016 with the Texas Rangers. Desmond, graded out favorably by OAA (+4) and slightly less favorably by DRS (-4). Returning Desmond to center is a gamble considering he has limited outfield experience and is a year older (33) than Chuck Nazty (32). Not to mention, patrolling center in Coors’ expansive outfield is a more difficult task than it would be at Globe Life Park in Arlington.

David Dahl, who will be the team’s primary left fielder when healthy, has posted mediocre numbers in limited major league action, but has the tools and minor league pedigree to be a solid defensive outfielder. If Raimel Tapia or any Rockies farmhand not named Ryan McMahon ends up seeing time in the outfield, the defense could also improve.

The Orioles, Rockies and Phillies should improve defensively – all three teams had players post some of the worst defensive numbers in baseball at their respective outfield positions last season. There will be an element of addition by subtraction. There is a path to even more defensive improvement if other things break right – whether it’s Odubel Herrera, Andrew McCutchen and Ian Desmond returning to form, or young players in Toronto, Colorado, and Baltimore carrying some of the defensive load. Keep an eye on these guys if you’re planning on moving their pitchers up and down your draft boards.

Nick thinks running a Major League or fantasy baseball team is incredibly easy. Until he is handed one of those coveted GM positions, his writing at RotoGraphs will illustrate how to do it properly. Fantasy baseball trade consultations and anything else can be sent to nick.dika@gmail.com or tweeted to @nickdika.

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3 years ago

I think the Nationals OF defense will be a lot better than last year. Taylor only a started 87 games and 811 innings on Defense. Eaton was liked more by non DRS stats.
Not to mention Harper was horrible in RF too (-16 DRS in 800 innings, UZR/150 was almost as bad in RF vs CF). Inside edge feilding even says he was barely able to make plays last year that were not in 90-100% range. Soto says he worked on this defense this winter, and he can really only go up. Unless Harper decides that he knows how to hit the cut off man he is a defensive liability.

3 years ago
Reply to  Nick Dika

By UZR/150 he was only -2.8 which isn’t great obviously but a lot of that is driven by him somehow accomplishing a UZR/150 in LF of -37.5 (69 of his 598 innings, and -2 of his -6 DRS).
For OAA I think I was assuming that was the same as catch probability/inside edge fielding. By inside edge he is pretty similar to his career norms when he was considered a pretty good defender. I don’t think he will ever do what he did in 2016, but by the eye test I think he is at least average and the further he gets from that knee injury the better he can be.

For Harper, as a Nationals fan having watched him almost every day for 7 years, he is not a good defender. Like Eaton, I think a lot of his stats are propped up by his arm and his willingness to go “balls(face) to the wall”. Last year he stopped doing that and it showed. He is also completely lacking in fundamentals. The number of times Harper over threw the cut off man last year and it allowed a run to advance was horrific. Every time it made me want to pull my hair out watching a 7 year veteran do something even middle schoolers know not to do.
I wish Harper nothing but the best, but his personality is holding him back from being the best player he can be and no where is that more evident then his defense. Just my thoughts.