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The complications of a crowded outfield

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Is the playing time being distributed correctly?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It can honestly be said that the Cardinals have too many outfielders. It was long believed to be a problem a team can’t actually have - like how you can’t have too many starting pitchers (though that one is absolutely true). But folks, the Cards have a player in AAA, who in 17 games since getting sent down, has EIGHT homers, and this is coming after a year where he so utterly demolished the league that he has earned about 1,000 plate appearances of failing at the big league level before getting sent back down. Tyler O’Neill has gotten 181 and he’s been an above average hitter. A very lucky, very unsustainable hitter, but still.

I think we can all agree that Tyler O’Neill deserves a chance. There’s obviously a problem with that statement though. A chance for O’Neill means someone else stops playing. We tried giving O’Neill sporadic playing time and he really doesn’t seem like the type of hitter who benefits from that at all. So he needs to play roughly everyday for a while, which means someone currently playing roughly everyday needs to essentially get sporadic playing time. Say 39 PAs in 21 games played type playing time.

So naturally I wondered if there’s a case for giving him a chance over the other four. Theoretically, and it absolutely does not work this way in practice, every outfielder gets to play three out of four games with a four-man rotating outfield. That’s 122 games, plus more playing time from double switches, pinch-hit appearances, and American League stadiums. You’re getting pretty close to full-time starter already and if you manage to stay healthy all year, you’ll get even more playing time since the other three are not ALL likely to stay healthy.

A fifth outfielder lowers the playing time to an evenly distributed 108 games for all, but of course that’s not how it works in practice either. 108 games played sounds great for Tyler O’Neil, probably not so much for Marcell Ozuna. So that’s why this doesn’t really work in practice.

Anyway, I wondered how much the starts of the five outfielders have changed the calculus of who should play. To date, Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler are both wildly outperforming their projections. Both Jose Martinez and Marcell Ozuna are not outperforming their projections as much as you think, because, after hot starts, both have cooled down. In Ozuna’s case though, his walks and increased power plus low BABIP suggest a better player while Martinez is mostly just a BABIP machine, which projection systems are never going to like. Lastly, Tyler O’Neill’s poor start in the MLB is more or less offset by the fact that he’s 23 and still destroying AAA.

First, let’s start with Dexter Fowler. I’m going to ignore his small sample defense so far this season - it’s literally just noise - but at least people aren’t going to claim he’s magically a -10 defender in RF based off literally 796 career innings after years of being a -10 defender in CF. So if you hadn’t gathered what I’m talking about, I have him as a -5 defender in RF and -10 in CF, which is essentially the same thing due to positional adjustments. If you’re new to advanced defense, what I’m saying is that an established defender at CF (3,500+ innings) is expected to be +5 better in the corner outfield unless there are about 3,500 recent innings suggesting otherwise, which is certainly not the case with Fowler. Why yes, this has been an extreme pet peeve of mine with criticisms of Fowler, why do you ask?

We’ll say he’s a +2 baserunner - he has a career +32.8 BsR - but acknowledging that he’s slower as a player, he’s still averaging +2 the past three seasons. He’s already at +1.6 for the season, so this is more than reasonable. His current ZiPS projection for the rest of the season is 108 wRC+, however he managed to raise his walk rate, lower his K rate, raise his BABIP, and increase his ISO from .132 to .157 from yesterday’s doubleheader. From what I can tell, those are the big 4 that move rest of season projections and he will have improved numbers for all of them. So I’m taking a calculated gamble that it will be 110 instead of 108.

Next is Bader, which is going to take a bit of guesswork on defense. Fowler has enough data that we know what his defense is - at least as certain on defense as you’re going to get. Bader is great on defense, but how great is actually rather important to knowing how good he might be as a baseball player. In his career, including his corner outfield work, Bader has shown to be a +16.7 defender in CF, if you could trust such stats, which you cannot. Again, we all know he’s great, but we as fans aren’t going to notice the difference between a +10 defender and a +20 one.

Standard operating procedure with defensive stats dictates that I fill in the other remaining innings needed for a good sample with average defense, BUT I’m going to trust my eyes a little bit and fill in the remaining defense with +10 defense. Seem fair? Anyway he’s a +12.5 defender in CF by this. Baserunning-wise, he has inexplicably been -1.7 runs so far this year, but he was +7.6 last year. Looking at the BsR leaderboard over the past few years and taking into account that Bader really isn’t much of a basestealer surprisingly, I’ll give him a +6 as a baserunner. Yesterday’s doubleheader was a mixed bag for him, so I don’t think his rest of season projection will change, which is at 96.

Jose Martinez’s defense is also guesswork, but I’ll do much less work for my guess: -10. In my previous research on how bad his defense could be, it didn’t get much worse than -10 over a good sample size. For whatever it’s worth, Martinez’s career UZR at OF is -12.4, so I’m not giving him much of a break. Despite his speed, Jose Martinez is just a -1.3 on the basepaths over 1,000+ PAs, and that’s close enough to average for me. Martinez’s bad day didn’t affect the big four much - The BABIP drop might be offset by the increased walk rate and minuscule change in K rate - so he gets a 115 wRC+ for rest of season projection.

As for Ozuna, as bad as he looks on defense, he has a track record of being good and is shockingly rated as average so far this year. Also he plays at a position with garbage defenders historically and that is who he is graded against, not the Harry Baders of the game. But still, I’ll make him an average defender, and not his career +4.2 because I can’t just ignore how he’s looked completely. Ozuna, similarly to Martinez, has roughly been an average baserunner in his career so we’ll go with that too. Yesterday, Ozuna increased his walk rate, didn’t strike out at all, raised his ISO, and raised his BABIP. ZiPS rest of season increases in ISO, and BB rate is nearly completely derailed by his lower BABIP and his BABIP yesterday didn’t go up a ton, so I’m going to assume it raises to 115, but not higher than that.

Lastly, O’Neill is a complete nonentity on defense as far as reliable stats go, so I’ll just say he’s an average defender in the corners. I’d give him a better grade, because he’s fast, but he’s also looked really bad out there at times and fumbles the great catches by not catching the ball, so I’m uncomfortable assuming he’s better for the purposes of this exercise. Baserunning-wise, I’ll be more generous because of his speed, and make him a +4 baserunner. It’s mostly a guess, but he was +2.2 last year in a very limited sample. His rest of season projection is shockingly 117 wRC+. Yes ZiPS believes O’Neill is right now a better hitter than Ozuna. Should be interesting to see how this plays out. So I’ve lined out my values for each player, here’s how they grade out over 600 PAs.

Fowler - 1.9

Bader - 3.8

Martinez - 1.4

Ozuna - 2.3

O’Neill - 2.7

Couple factors to consider here. First off, ZiPS is really low on Ozuna offensively. Steamer has him with a 126 wRC+ for the rest of the season. That is quite the difference. That’s a 3 WAR player by Steamer. If you want to look at 2018 as anomaly for Fowler (for personal, injury or whatever reason,) it is reasonable to expect him to perform better than his projection above as well. Also I’m higher on O’Neill’s defense than my projection so you can theoretically raise his value up to.

Which leaves us to Martinez. You could make the completely reasonable case that you would expect Martinez to be a better hitter than above. But really, he already has a .147 projected ISO and .336 BABIP and I don’t know how much higher I’m willing to put those numbers. Being a -10 defender in the corner outfielder sets an impossible hitting standard in order to become an above average player. How high? Since 2016, just 36 players have a 126 wRC+ or greater, which is what is required to be an average player with -10 defense at the corners.

In short, if O’Neill gets a chance, Martinez should probably be the odd man out. And Bader should be playing over him everyday right now.