Scouting the 2017 Indians: Center Field

Trying to figure out how to handle the outfield has been driving me nuts. I planned to so three separate profiles, then put them together. Then I separated them.

In order for you to maintain the flow, I strongly suggest that you read these in the same sitting– in the order that the scorer intended– left, center, right. They build off each other and it’s not going to make a ton of sense if you do it piecemeal.

Let me use the same header in all three spots. The outfield is basically a mess– exactly the kind of mess that always makes me nervous, because the Indians have had these messes before, and have a history of handling them badly.

Let’s begin with some perspective. A year ago, the Indians’ outfield ranked 18th in the majors in Wins Above Replacement. The individual positions ranked as follows:

  • Leftfielders ninth out of 30 teams
  • Centerfielders 24th
  • Rightfielders 13th.

The Indians didn’t win because of their outfield– they won in spite of it. Things do not look substantially more reassuring this season.

Center Field

The 2016 Indians’ centerfielders finished 24th in the majors with -1.0 Wins Above Replacement. (Others sites have them as high as 22 and as low as 25).

Part of the reason is that many teams have really good centerfielders. The position with the most talent (measuring by WAR) are

  • Third base,, narrowly ahead of
  • Second base, with shortstop and center tied for third.

This is what happens when more front office begin to use analytics. The talent begins to get clustered at the positions where it will give you the most bang for the buck.

If you didn’t read the WAR essay I just linked to, I’ll mention that a star is someone who has at least 4.0 wins above replacement and a good player is over 2.0. Three teams have centerfielders who grade as “stars” (4.0 WAR or higher) and 15 have good players (2.0 or better).

The Indians’ best player was– let me start with the splits on who played. Again, I’ll put the players who will be unavailable in red:

Name
Age
G
GS
CG
Innings
PA
BA
OPS
Tyler Naquin 25
105
90
76
799.2
346
.306
.910
Rajai Davis
35
80
66
45
595.1
295
.255
.718
Michael Martinez 33
11
3
1
32.0
11
.455
1.091
Abraham Almonte
27
2
1
1
10.0
4
.000
.000
Lonnie Chisenhall 27
2
1
0 8.0
5
.400
.000

The low rating is 55% Tyler Naquin (0.9 WAR) and 41% Rajai Davis (0.4, but with a 40% of that coming as a leftfielder).

What was the problem? Defense. Cleveland centerfielders finished sixth in offense, but 26th in defense.

Last season, major league centerfielders made 2.46 plays (putouts or assists) per nine innings played. Cleveland’s made 2.23. Over the course of 162 games, that’s 35 fewer outs– and when a ball drops for a hit in center, it’s usually going for extra bases.

Davis, who was 35, made 2.36 plays. Last season, 36 centerfielders played 450 innings (50 nine-inning games). Davis finished 23rd.

Naquin, who is 10 years younger– and was supposedly drafted for his defensive ability– made 2.13 plays per game. Only two regulars were worse: Jacoby Ellsbury of the Yankees (2.05) and Dexter Fowler of the Cubs (1.97).

Fowler, partly as a result, is no longer with the Cubs. Ellsbury who is 33, and was signed to a 7-year, $153.3 million deal in 2014, ain’t going anywhere.

Plays made can be misleading– you can’t field the ball unless someone hits it in your direction. The Indians led the American League in strikeouts last season– they finished 112 strikeouts behind the Dodgers (who have the distinct advantage of facing opposing pitchers 152 games a year). They also have pitchers who get lots of ground balls.

Sure enough, only four teams in baseball (the Cubs, Yankees, Colorado and St. Louis) had fewer balls hit toward the centerfielder last year. Unfortunately, only four teams (Colorado,  St. Louis, Texas and San Francisco) had centerfielders who made a lower percentage of plays on those balls than the Indians..

The highest percentage of fielded by centerfielders was 57%. When the ball has hit to Naquin and Davis, it became an out only 50%. The teams below Cleveland were at 49% and 48%.

Naquin and Davis did do a good job of keeping runners from taking the extra base. Tampa was the only team that had extra bases taken less often. The Indians had 101 advances (in 201 opportunities); they were tied for fourth in outfield assists (12; Houston led with 17).

But if you’re going to do the “pitching and defense” thing, you need a good centerfielder. The Indians don’t have one.


The strategy for 2016 is to platoon Naquin (who’ll play against righties) with Austin Jackson. There are numerous problems with this:

1. Naquin has played 116 major-league games (365 plate appearances), so he hasn’t proven that he can maintain any level of performance. That’s true of all rookies, but Naquin’s rookie season was filled with all sorts of red flags that suggest he won’t repeat his 2016

2. The big problem: Naquin struck out 112 times in 365 plate appearances– 30.7% of the time. The major league average is 21.1%. Players do not go very far  if they strike out 50% more often than average. To put that into perspective Cleveland fans might remember:

  • Drew Stubbs (who started on the 2013 team, and once struck out 205 times in a season) has struck out in 30.6% of his plate appearances during his career.
  • Mark Reynolds (also from the 2013 team) has struck out in 31.1% of his plate appearances.
  • Cory Snyder struck out on 25.7% of his plate appearances.
  • For his career, Russell Branyan struck out 32.9% of the time

To put this very simply: Either Naquin will strike out much less often than he did in 2016, or he won’t hit .296 again.

3. Problem #2: On at-bats where Naquin put the ball in play– and he hit the ball inside the park– he batted .411 last year. That also does not happen to good players.

Normally a player’s batting average on balls in play (at bats where you don’t strike out or homer) is about 40 points higher than his batting average (it varies, depending on how common strikeouts and homers are). Here are the results for the eight Indians with more than 350 plate appearances last year (sorted by batting average), with the AL average (so I get as few pitchers in there as possible) in there for context. Notice how abnormally high Naquin’s number is:

Name
PA
BA
BA-BIP
Difference
Jose Ramirez 618
.312
.333
+.021
Francisco Lindor 684 .301
.324
+.023
Tyler Naquin 365 .296
.411
+.115
Lonnie Chisenhall 418
.286
.328
+.042
Jason Kipnis 688
.275
.324 +.049
Carlos Santana 688
.259
.258
-.001
AL Average 2016 .256
.298
+.042
Rajai Davis 495 .249
.299
+.050
Mike Napoli 635 .239
.296
+.057

There are analysts (I’m not one; I haven’t crunched enough data to trust this) who insist that BA-BIP is a measure of how lucky a player was. Most players will be within that 35-45 point range– meaning normal luck.

A player whose BA-BIP is much higher than average, they argue, isn’t exceptionally skilled at “hittin’ ’em where they ain’t”. He’s simply had very good luck– a higher-than-normal number of seeing-eye grounders, broken bats, flares, etc…

Because luck doesn’t usually repeat, those lucky hits will go away– and when it does, their batting average will plunge.

I don’t know if that interpretation is true. I do know that players with a BA-BIP  much higher than normal are bad hitters. It’s another sign that Naquin’s .296 is unlikely to recur.


One time I decided to check, and I began by looking at every player you might imagine would be good at this– the batters legendary for being able to hit the ball anywhere they wanted to. Ty Cobb’s career batting average on balls in play (.386) was 18 points higher than his career average (.368). Stan Musial had a BABIP 11 lower than his career average.

Rod Carew was +31; Tony Gwynn was +3. Wade Boggs was +16, Ichiro Suzuki was +27.

I looked for player with lots of homers and strikeouts. Babe Ruth was -2. Dave Kingman was +16, etc…

I finally found a group of players whose BA-BIP was consistently higher than their normal batting average– low-average hitters players who struck out so often that it shortened their careers:

Drew Stubbs has a career batting average of .244. His career batting average on balls in play? .335– 91 points higher. (You can find this on the same page I linked to above.)

Mark Reynolds? .234 career average– .301 career BA-BIP; 77 points higher.

Corey Snyder‘s career BA-BIP (.296) is 49 points higher than his BA. Russ Branyan was +64.

That’s not company you want to see a player in.


4. Last but not least: as a rookie, Naquin had 37 extra-base hits (18 homers, 5 triples, 14 homers) in 365 plate appearances– 10.1% of the time. The major-league average is 8.0%.

That number isn’t unusual– a lot of players with better-than-average power do it. Carlos Santana has been around 10.0% in four of his seven seasons. But it’s unusual as all get out for Naquin. He has never had above-average power. . In 1,542 plate appearances in the minors, he had 118 extra-base hits (81 doubles, 15 triples, 22 homers)– at 7.6%, below the average.

In 2015, Naquin made 378 appearances (160 at Akron, 218 at Columbus) and batting .300– almost exactly what he did in 2016. But in 2015, he had 25 doubles, one triple and 7 homers– a slugging percentage of .446.

Last season it was .514– with 14 homers.

He hits home runs twice as often in the majors? That seems really unlikely. I don’t believe in forensic statistics…. but if Naquin tests positive for performance-enhancers this year, it would explain a lot.

I can’t bring myself to assume he’ll repeat his season– or do better. And with his defense the way it is, he can’t afford to hit less.

I will say one thing for him, however. While I don’t believe Naquin is proven, I also don’t think hes proven he can’t hit hit lefties. The Indians have decided to platoon him, based on 40 plate appearances, where he hit .250 (.775 OPS). He hit .301 (.898 OPS) against righties, but ..250 and .775 was better than they got out of Rajai Davis last year.

 

If you don’t follow baseball too closely, Austin Jackson‘s arrival probably sounds like a master stroke. You probably remember him best as the guy who stepped in for Curtis Granderson with Detroit, hitting .300 in 2012 (.856 OPS) and .272 (.754 OPS) in 2013. When he got traded to Seattle for David Price, he slipped out of your radar screen.

He hit .229 (.527 OPS) for the Mariners in 59 games. When he hit ..272 the following season, he got traded to the Cubs for the stretch drive. He hit .236, and they let him go in free agency. Nobody wanted him.

The White Sox gave him a one year deal for $5 million. He missed 108 games last season– partly due to knee issues, partly because he was hitting .254 with a .661 OPS and playing centerfield poorly (2.34 plays per 9 innings– one spot below Rajai Davis).

The Indians are hoping that he’s 100% and will regain his form. He turns 30 this season, making that hope plausible, but not overly likely. It’s more likely that he hits around .250 with an OPS around .700.

Which is, unfortunately, about what they got from Rajai Davis last season.

About the only good thing I can say is that Naquin is hitting .371 in 13 games (35 ABs) this spring; Jackson is hitting .345 in 11 games (29 ABs). At this point, hope springs eternal..

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