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For this post, I had written something entirely different, but I woke up early to change it. All of it. I didn’t dream about it — no, not quite. But I came close. This month has proven to be pretty difficult. Maybe “finicky” is the word.
So many hitters are producing at similar levels with similar peripherals to support them that it’s hard to tease them apart. I tried a full re-rank and I had clustered something like 20 or more guys together twice. I try to limit each particular tier to maybe a dozen hitters, so coming away with only three-or-so tiers was problematic. That’s why I decided to wake up early and do this over. The ranks haven’t changed much, but certain guys have moved a lot, and I will try to identify which guys are most likely to move up or down by the time the June iteration of these rankings roll around.
Also — and this is totally unrelated — I think more readers were infuriated by my omission of Tommy Pham (who has all of one plate appearance this year) than my ranking of A.J. Pollock over Bryce Harper. Y’all crack me up sometimes.
You know the drill: I rank National League outfielders, you yell at me in the comments. Consider all rankings fluid within tiers but not between them (except at the top and bottom of each tier, perhaps). Normally, I would tell you that players should be reserved to their respective tiers, but I think there’s much more opportunity for movement here than ever before (ever before, in the context of me doing this since the beginning of last year). Lastly, if I omit a name, politely let me know in the comments.
Unless it’s Tommy Pham. Then shhhhhhhhhh.
So, I ranked Pollock ahead of Harper in the preseason. Knowing what I know now, I’d still do it; expected Harper to repeat his historic 2015 season seemed insane, and Pollock can contribute in ways Harper can’t. Besides, Harper is a human wrecking ball who sometimes wrecks himself. In other words, he’s an injury liability simply because of how he plays the game. We’ve already seen it multiple times before, so this is nothing insane.
Then Pollock slide head-first into home during a spring training game like a total ding dong. Never mind that I drafted him in multiple no-transaction leagues. What a disaster. Anyway, the argument was quickly kaput. Harper would be the no-doubt No. 1 NL outfielders to start the season.
What he has done thus far, however, is unreal. He has absolutely owned the zone, walking far more often than striking out. At a certain point, his production almost identically mirrored Barry Bonds‘ simultaneously historic and infamous 2004 season. Granted, Harper had only produced at that level for roughly 60 plate appearances; Bonds, for 600. (Which only further underscores just how unbelievable that season really was.)
Anyway, let’s pretend I never doubted you, Bryce. It was easy to dismiss such an anomalous season, but you’re an anomalous dude. We’ve known that for the better part of a decade now.
Not Bryce Harper
This entire tier risks being demoted, frankly. McCutchen is hitting a ton of fly balls, but it should serve to only offset the lowest hard-hit rate (Hard%) of his career since his debut season. That, and a career-worst strikeout rate, should eat into his batting average quite a bit. He only has one stolen base, too, pacing out to mere single digits by season’s end. I knew he would only contribute to four categories, but it’s looking more and more like it’ll be only three categories.
Meanwhile, Blackmon has been shelved for much of the season thus far. And I’m not sure Stanton’s power is enough to warrant taking him far ahead of anyone else when he doesn’t contribute very meaningfully to batting average or stolen bases.
So, again: all of these guys could be outside the top-5 next time you read this.
Still Not Bryce Harper, but Also Not Much Different Than Those Other Guys
Stocks up: a lot of the third tier, plus Fowler and Polanco. I essentially combined the second and third tiers from last month, so it would be unfair to say I demoted someone such as Matt Holliday. Still, he and others are not worthy of their association, semantics aside.
I do think Braun is a clear cut above Cespedes, Pence, and Kemp. His plate discipline trumps all of them (except Pence’s), and he runs. The latter three are all pretty interchangeable. I would take Pence over the other two if you’re looking for a little more batting average or on-base percentage (OBP) than power.
Fowler is hitting the ever-loving snot out of the ball, so while the power output is ahead of last season’s pace, it is, for the time being, completely warranted. He’s also running more than ever before. The batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is obviously unsustainable, but I am buying what Fowler is selling; it would take a massive slowdown or complete erosion of skills to force me to demote him back to the third or fourth tier. Besides, he’s hitting atop the Cubs’ lineup. Could a leadoff hitter ask for anything better?
Meanwhile, Polanco just posted what can be called, almost inarguably, the best season of his still-young career. The counting stats aren’t too flashy, but the plate discipline is extraordinary. Yes, he still can’t hit lefties, and I anticipate I’ll hear about it from more than one of you. But with the way he’s hitting righties, it doesn’t really matter.
A Little Different from the Second Tier, but Upward Mobility, Like in Any Fair, Modern Society, is Still Achievable
This is where things get incredibly clunky. I’m having such a hard time. You’ll have to forgive me.
Conforto was, allegedly, supposed to be the short side of a left field platoon, but he has dominated the reps there, and rightfully so. Literally half of the balls he has put into play have been hit hard, and not at the expense of plate discipline, either. He has essentially continued his torrid short-season-2015 pace, with an extra stolen base to boot. His whole career is still a small sample, but he looks increasingly like The Real Deal.
Between Piscotty and Grichuk, I had always liked the former more. However, they’re basically the same dude at this point in terms of output and underlying metrics, except Grichuk (1) hits way more fly balls and (2) is suffering from woeful BABIP luck. Piscotty appeared to be able to sustain a high BABIP, and while he has done so thus far, his batted ball profile doesn’t really support such lofty expectations. I think I might Grichuk more long-term, but that could change overnight. At this point, the difference between them is playing time (and it actually might be enough to knock Grichuk down a few pegs, so consider him overrated for now).
I think CarGo is not far better, if at all, from many of the power hitters listed in the fourth tier. Parra is a poor man’s Fowler, but he might be more. Shoot, the Artist Formerly Known as B.J. Upton is posting some numbers worthy of association with Fowler as well. He will always be a batting average liability, but there’s certainly something different happening here: Upton hasn’t popped up once yet in 2016, and he’s running a heck of a lot.
Limited by Playing Time, or Other Factors
Peralta hasn’t quite replicated his magic from last season — he’s not hitting the ball as hard, he’s hitting more pop flies, and he’s not pulling the ball as much, all of which chip away at a tenuously balanced offensive profile. Heyward has looked anemic at the plate, with only his stolen bases (and being surrounded by Cubs) to keep him afloat. Something will have to change.
When does Yelich become statistically indistinguishable from Nick Markakis? The latter hits a few more fly balls, but otherwise, their batted ball profiles and plate disciplines essentially produce the same high-average, low-flash output. What Yelich does is awesome, but either we are overappreciating him (while waiting for that big power breakout that will likely never come) or we are underappreciating post-prime Markakis — something I never thought I’d say.
Ozuna, Werth, Bruce, Pederson, Moss: these guys would be worth a little more if they played every day. They’re all cut from the same cloth, and, like I mentioned earlier, I don’t know if they would be much different from CarGo should they see just a few more plate appearances per month. And a lot of these guys do what Grichuk does, too, in the same amount playing time, just with less speed. I guess that’s my point in all of this: it’s early, but outfielders in the National League seems like an especially deep crop.
Tomas is so different than what I ever could have expected from him. Given hiS performance in Cuba, followed by his very different stateside debut, up to now — it’s quite remarkable. If I had to give you a name to watch, it’d be his; the much-improved plate discipline coupled with a hard-hit rate north of 40% can only mean good things.
Also: keep an eye on Soler. Good things are a-brewin’, even if his BABIP wants you to think otherwise. It seems like he may finally tapping into his once-superb minor league plate discipline.
The Last Tier Catch-All
Kike “KikÃ©” Hernandez
Santana hitting a ton of line drives, but he also has a 15.8% fly ball rate (FB%). That’s kind of crazy, and it’s not conducive to his power, unfortunately.
Taylor looks like post-prime Melvin Upton Jr. (but not the 2016 version). Power, speed, and a gaping void in the batting average column.
Drury and Hazelbaker came out of nowhere. At least Drury was a top prospect, and it seems like he’s living up to that hype. Lots of hard hits, with very few pop-ups. If it weren’t for the Starling Marte-esque plate discipline, he could be a fine hitter. But, hey, Marte makes it work somehow. He could shoot up the rankings in due time. Hazelbaker — well, who knows. It has been a wild ride, but most of what he has achieved so far is unsustainable. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Owings and his post-hype status are running a whole bunch as A.J. Pollock’s unexpected center field replacement. Keep an eye on him, especially if any semblance of power emerges. (Even empty speed is valuable, though, if not frustrating — just ask Billy Hamilton owners.) Speaking of which, Smith could be a poor man’s Revere if, say, he cut his strikeout rate in half. He’s not too valuable now, but he’s certainly a name to remember.
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I omitted quite a few guys with fewer than 50 (or so) plate appearances in the outfield. If there’s someone I missed, just ask. I feel so scatterbrained right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a rough day in the comments today.