The Change: The State of the Outfield

Imagine your prototypical outfielder. What does he look like? What did he look like in 2010? The numbers say he’s changed a bit. Where he might have been Jermaine Dye or a late-career Moises Alou back then, today’s outfielder looks a little bit more like Ian Desmond or Tyler Naquin. That probably has ramifications on what you expect, generally, from your outfield.

First of all, it looks like you should expect, less, relatively. Here’s their production by league-indexed weighted runs created. That’s not a fantasy stat, sure, but it does tell you how big the bats are in the outfield now versus earlier in the century.

offenseoutfielders

It looks like there’s some evidence that it’s due to putting quicker, more athletic players in the outfield. They’re providing more value on the basepaths at least.

outfieldersrunning

More evidence that the profile is changing: even as the league’s getting more powerful, the outfield is producing less of that power. Here’s their isolated slugging percentage indexed to league average, where 100 = average.

outfielderiso

We can turn this newfound knowledge on the season’s end rankings for the outfield as a position. It might be tempting to spend a high pick next year on Rajai Davis and his 43 steals this past year, and he was worth $10. Not a terrible idea, and you could see power going up around the league, and steals going down, and talk yourself into it.

But then you’re ignoring the fact that power is actually a bit scarce in the outfield when compared to other positions. Without even going into the sustainability of their production, their age and batted ball stats, it looks like you would probably be better off buying a J.D. Martinez or Yasmany Tomas — both $10 outfielders last year — because you’d be buying into power at the top end. There are plenty of fast outfielders that can help you later.

Look around the replacement level at the types of players available there, and you’ll see a common thread. Paulo Orlando, Kevin Pillar, Kevin Kiermaier, Carlos Gomez, Chris Owings, Brett Gardner, Jarrod Dyson: all of these guys were within two dollars of replacement level. Most of them were fairly available. You could have put 20 steals in your back pocket if you bought one of these guys late, and that would have been in keeping with the way the position is going.

While Jose Ramirez and Odubel Herrera were worth nearly $30 combined, it would probably be folly to chase value on their type of profile in the future: batting average and a low steals total. That can easily turn into .275 and 10 and 15, or Denard Span’s $2.70 season. Get that profile from someone later in the draft, as you can see above.

And as much as Matt Kemp’s real-life game has failings, and those have seeped into our faith in his abilities, we need to recognize the value of the throw-back slow slugger in the corner outfield. Even in his worst years, he’s good for a .270 average and 25 homers, and if you’re not in an on-base percentage league, you don’t care as much about the fact that he’s only about 10% better than league average with the bat right now.

Kemp won’t cost as much as even a Justin Upton, but with a little improvement in the team around him, and those extra dollars in your pocket, you might go far with a Kemp/Kiermaier plan for the back end of your outfield next year.

The best part is, you’ll have bridged the outfields of today and yesterday in doing so. You’ll have your slow, terrible D power-hitting slugger, and your athletic combo outfielder, and you’ll have paid very little for it.

We hoped you liked reading The Change: The State of the Outfield by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Chill
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Chill

How much of this change in outfield player profile is due to PEDs becoming less prevalent I wonder? Perhaps some of the changes over the last decade and a half are due to the use of advanced fielding metrics that underscore the relative importance of outfield defense for pitching and team success. Interesting read.