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The myth of the five-tool outfielder

Baseball is filled with many great outfielders. Seeking a perfect one may be an impossible endeavor.

Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In 2012, his rookie season in Major League Baseball, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout was the best player in baseball by both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement. He was the best player in baseball by both metrics again in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, presumably 2017, and perhaps until the end of baseball, at which point a team of Mike Trout and 24 of his clones guide the Los Angeles Hyperreal-Angels to the 3985 World Series title with a 897 game sweep.

Mike Trout seems to be the perfect baseball player and yet, by the traditional label of “five-tool player”, Mike Trout does not measure up.

The “five-tool player” archetype consists of ability to hit for contact, ability to hit for power, baserunning acumen, fielding ability, and throwing ability. In his five seasons, Mike Trout has proven adept at hitting for contact (he has led baseball in OPS+ three times and trails only Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve, and Joey Votto since 2012 in batting average among batters with over 800 plate appearances), hitting for power (only Chris Davis, Edwin Encarnacion, Nelson Cruz, and the aforementioned Cabrera have more home runs in the last five years), baserunning (he led MLB with 49 steals as a rookie and trails only Ben Revere and Billy Hamilton in Baserunning Runs since 2012), and fielding (in 2012, Trout trailed only Michael Bourn and Denard Span in dWAR among outfielders).

But Mike Trout doesn’t have a great arm. In four of his five seasons, Trout rated as below average at Outfield Arm Runs, as measured by Ultimate Zone Rating. It would be disingenuous to refer to Trout as a “five-tool player” when he lacks one of the five tools. It’s that simple.

This is far from a deal-breaker. Arm strength is arguably the fifth most important of the five tools, and Trout easily atones for his moderate deficiencies with his arm with his tremendous hitting ability. But he is imperfect. Most players are.

Mike Trout has never had a season in which he exhibited above-average performance in all five tools—an above league-average batting average, an above league-average isolated power, and positive runs by Baserunning, Fielding, and Arm. This decade, 32 such qualified seasons have come from MLB outfielders.

One might expect these 32 seasons to be the absolute upper crust of MLB outfield performance. But several of them are outliers—the only players to have multiple five-tool seasons in the 2010s have been Mookie Betts, Kole Calhoun, Yoenis Cespedes, Carlos Gonzalez, and Shane Victorino (two times each), as well as Alex Gordon (three times). Perhaps the most jarring name on this list is Calhoun, Trout’s Angels teammate, who despite appearing two more times on the list than Mike Trout, ranks only 56th among MLB outfielders in WAR since 2010—his 10.9 WAR is smaller than the gap between Trout and Andrew McCutchen, MLB’s #2 WAR outfielder in that period.

Kole Calhoun is a fine player, arguably an underrated one, but he’s not Mike Trout. And in a free agency period in which the St. Louis Cardinals are heavily courting big-ticket center fielders, it is imperative that the organization not only maintain realistic expectations, but not allow the flaws in prospective center field solutions prevent the Cardinals from signing a player who could be the best available solution.

Arguably the top free agent on the market this offseason is Yoenis Cespedes, who twice cracked the five-tool player list; he fell short on batting average in 2013, fielding in 2012, 2013, and 2016, and baserunning in 2013 and 2016. His shortcomings are clear—he isn’t a consistently good fielder (his left field defense has been generally fine, but his time in center field has been overwhelmingly mediocre) and his baserunning is nothing to write home about. But he also has a powerful bat—his 2016 wRC+ of 134 was his career median and he was one of baseball’s twenty best hitters last season.

Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler is a truer center fielder than Cespedes, but brings his own set of defensive concerns—while his two seasons at Wrigley Field were statistically much improved from his Rockies days, Fowler still rated as an average-ish center fielder with a UZR lower than that of Randal Grichuk, the incumbent center fielder that the Cardinals seem intent on moving away from the position.

And this is not an attempt to rail against Dexter Fowler (although I admittedly am skeptical about signing him), but it would probably be accurate to suggest that signing Dexter Fowler would not solve the problem as implied by the initial decision that Randal Grichuk needs to be moved to a less important defensive position.

But in a larger sense, the problem that the Cardinals have is not so much that Grichuk is an insufficient defensive center fielder, but that their overall personnel are not as productive as they could be. Cespedes or Fowler (or shortstop-turned-outfielder Ian Desmond, a dark horse in the free agent market) would represent, at best, a marginal defensive upgrade for the Cardinals, and I believe that the defense would be worse than if the Cardinals instead opened 2017 with an outfield alignment of Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, and Stephen Piscotty.

But Cespedes, Fowler, or Desmond would each represent a dramatic offensive upgrade. By the same token, if the Cardinals were to make a trade for an elite defensive center fielder such as Kevin Kiermaier of the Rays or Billy Hamilton of the Reds, they would be sacrificing offensively (Kiermaier being a drop-off from this year’s elite free agents; Hamilton being a drop-off from Tommy Pham, among many others) and certainly improving defensively.

It would be naive to expect a player, particularly a free agent (at which point at least some speed decline has usually already begun), to be a superstar in every facet of the game. These players are exceptionally rare on even a micro level (looking at individual seasons; keeping the standard for five-tool players at “being ever-so-slightly above average”), and holding out for a perfect player may prevent a team from adding a potentially valuable player. And thus the proper way to evaluate potential acquisitions is not by how closely they fit an idealized archetype of a player, but rather how productive they will be, however they come by that production.