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The defensive future of Randal Grichuk

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While many questions have been asked about Randal Grichuk's future prospects as a hitter, it is worth evaluating how sure of his future defensive value in center field we are.

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Before the 2015 season, Randal Grichuk was projected by Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA system to be worth 0.6 Wins Above Replacement Player, with a .239 batting average, .275 on-base percentage, and .414 slugging percentage.

This was the median projection. Grichuk's 90th percentile projection was more optimistic--2 WARP in 313 plate appearances. In March 2015, this level of performance would have sounded terrific. After all, Randal Grichuk was not entering 2015 with much, if any, star pedigree: his rookie eligibility was still intact and his lackluster 2014 postseason didn't inspire much confidence.

But Grichuk exceeded his 90th percentile, producing 2.6 WARP in 350 PA. Here's a look at Randal Grichuk's 90th percentile projection compared to his actual 2015 results.

PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K SB CS AVG OBP SLG TAv WARP
Randal Grichuk, 90th percentile 313 39 81 16 3 12 42 14 65 4 3 .280 .319 .487 .292 2.0
Randal Grichuk, 2015 350 49 89 23 7 17 47 22 110 4 2 .276 .329 .548 .316 2.6

Aside from strikeouts, his actual performance was almost uniformly better. But perhaps the most surprising revelation of Randal Grichuk's 2015 came not at the plate, but in the field. Pre-2015 projections tabbed Grichuk as a right fielder, and most of his 2014 work came in the corner outfield positions: he only played 29 MLB innings in center field and started all nine postseason games that season in right.

Going into 2015, the outfield was Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, and Jason Heyward, with Grichuk's fellow bench outfielder being the elite defensive center fielder Peter Bourjos. The expectation was that Randal Grichuk would pinch hit and get a few starts, particularly against left-handed pitching. Here is what Baseball Prospectus 2015 had to say about Grichuk.

"An excellent defensive outfielder who is stretched in center but an asset in right, Grichuk doesn't profile as a long-term starter but should carve out a long career as a fourth outfielder ideal for the short side of a platoon."

Quick: Without looking, guess how many innings Randal Grichuk played in center field in 2015.

In 2015, Grichuk played 282 innings in center field. While this is a larger total than most would have guessed that he would log before the season, he only ranked third of the six men who logged innings in center field for the 2015 Cardinals (behind Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay; ahead of Tommy Pham, Jason Heyward, and Stephen Piscotty).

Due to a combination of Matt Holliday's injuries and Mike Matheny's initial reluctance to pencil him in as the center fielder (his second start in center came on May 18), Randal Grichuk spent more time in left field than in center. But Grichuk nevertheless established himself as the club's top choice in center field to such a degree that he even got a start when he, in a nearly literal sense of the phrase, couldn't throw.

Grichuk's armless phase, of course, did not last. But it did seemingly reveal the club's intent to play him in center whenever possible, and occasionally when impossible.

But what can we glean from Randal Grichuk's relatively limited time in center field? And was his performance impressive enough to inspire sufficient confidence in Grichuk's future defensive exploits?

If one were to adhere strictly to a Siskel & Ebert standard of thumbs-up or thumbs-down, Grichuk's 2015 deserves a thumbs-up. Of the 50 MLB players to tally 250 or more innings in center field in 2015, Grichuk ranked 10th in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 innings, with 13.1 runs saved above average.

An optimistic view of this would be to consider some of the names near Grichuk on the list. One spot ahead was Lorenzo Cain, the Royals center fielder who won a Fielding Bible Award in 2014. Beneath Grichuk on the list were each of the last three National League Gold Glove winners in center field: Carlos Gomez, Juan Lagares, and A.J. Pollock.

This sounds great, but Jon Jay ranked 4th. And while I was far less cynical about Jon Jay's defense than many Cardinals fans, he was essentially an average defensive center fielder in his career until last season. Among the 34 center fielders with 2000 or more innings between 2010 and 2014, Jay was 15th in UZR/150.

Now, if Randal Grichuk turns out to be a slightly above average defensive center fielder while duplicating his 2015 offensive production, the Cardinals should be very happy with the end result. Twenty-three center fielders had enough plate appearances in 2015 to qualify for a batting title, and of those, only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen posted a higher wRC+ than Grichuk's 137.

But this doesn't just mean assuming that Grichuk holds his 2015 form at the plate; it means assuming that a player for whom there were serious concerns about playing in center just a year ago, whose minor league experience in center field was sporadic, will be something beyond passable there going forward. And because this is a post about Randal Grichuk, I will, of course, now compare him to Mike Trout.

Mike Trout was drafted one pick after Randal Grichuk. You may not know that, if this is indeed the first time you have ever read about baseball on the internet, but it's true. Small villages can subsist on energy provided by recitations of this fun fact alone. And while Trout had an elite defensive season as a rookie in 2012, he has been an average-ish fielder since. In center field in 2015, Trout was worth 0.3 runs above average per 150 games.

Here is a look at the two by Inside Edge Fielding, a Fangraphs statistic which measures how a fielder performs during plays considered impossible, remote (one where a normal fielder has a 1-10% chance of making a play), unlikely (10-40% likelihood), even (40-60%), likely (60-90%), and routine (90-100%). Just for fun, I also examined Angel Pagan of the Giants, the worst defensive center fielder in baseball last year per UZR. Opportunities in the given range are in parenthesis.

Impossible Remote Unlikely Even Likely Routine
Randal Grichuk 0.0% (11) 0.0% (5) 100% (1) 33.3% (3) 100% (1) 100% (68)
Mike Trout 0.0% (54) 12.5% (8) 16.7% (6) 80% (5) 87.5% (16) 99.5% (411)
Angel Pagan 0.0% (46) 0.0% (12) 33.3% (9) 0.0% (3) 81.8% (11) 99.2% (248)

It is impossible to ignore the inherent flaw with these statistics: the small sample. Grichuk's fielding resume looks fine, but if he faces one more "likely" play and botches it (Kevin Kiermaier, statistically the best defensive center fielder in baseball last year by a wide margin and by all accounts a terrific fielder by the eye test, botched two such plays in 15 attempts in 2015) and is unable to make an unlikely play throw his way, his percentages all of a sudden look pedestrian.

And if you assume the "unlikely" play never happens (this may seem like arbitrary statistical selection, but in any honest assessment of a player, one play ought not have a dramatic impact on a player's statistical profile), there is a very easy narrative one could craft--that Randal Grichuk can make the plays an MLB center fielder is supposed to make, but is unable to make exceptional plays.

I could probably be sold on this narrative. With my eyes, Grichuk seems like a competent center fielder but not somebody who competes with Billy Hamilton's flash. I could guess that once something approaching a reasonable data sample is accumulated, his fielding will be somewhere in the neighborhood of "yeah, he's fine", but it would be unwise to draw certain conclusions from 311 total innings in the Majors from a player that very few believed could be an everyday MLB center fielder.

Tommy Pham is probably a safer bet in center. His MLB resume is even thinner than Grichuk's, but his track record in the minors is much more heavily concentrated in center field. What Pham's role in 2016 is for the Cardinals is a separate discussion altogether, but if nothing else, it is relieving to know that a backup plan for Randal Grichuk exists.

In a perfect world, the Cardinals have a 24 year-old center fielder with thirty homer potential. In an imperfect world, the Cardinals run the risk of remembering why he was perceived as a future corner outfielder in the first place. In the current world, we simply haven't seen enough of Center Fielder Randal Grichuk to know what we are going to get.