2015 Fantasy Baseball: The Fielding Chronicles — Center Fielders
Why should I read this article?
If you’ve been following the series, you’ll know the answer to this question. For those just joining us, you will not see any better example of the impact of fielding on playing time than center field. As we saw in the last article, many center fielders have been moved to other spots in the outfield because they weren’t quite good enough in center. Logic clearly dictates that there should be 15 players above average and 15 players below average. You will see something else entirely.
The reason for this is that teams are paying more and more attention to fielding. When they notice a guy that isn’t quite up for the job, he is either replaced outright or he moves to one of the corner outfield spots. There will be a few notable exceptions to that rule, but there are fewer negative impact fielders in center than at any other position on the diamond. If you are a negative impact fielder, you usually don’t play. It’s just that simple.
How does this fielding thing work?
We’ve been using the Fielding Bible system at billjamesonline.com to rate the fielders. There are numerous other fielding systems and their methodologies are similar, but their data is often expressed a little differently. I like the fielding bible system because it has more transparency than the other systems. It shows exactly how the plays are broken down to give you the score you get for each player.
Simply put, they calculate the number of plays they think a fielder should make based on how many balls are hit into his zone and how difficult each play is. If a player makes more plays than that estimate then he is said to be above average (or greater than zero). If a player makes fewer plays that he is estimated to make then he is below average (or less than zero). Those positive or negative plays are then converted into runs above or below average.
The Royals are a terrific example of the interplay between pitching and defense. They’ve managed to stack three positive impact players in the outfield. If you have a flyball pitching staff, suddenly they start looking a whole lot better than what they did before. It is no secret why guys like Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie have gone from mediocre to solid once they changed uniforms. Of course, Guthrie is still there.
Carlos Gomez is on the trading block. The Brewers are waiting until they get the right offer and they can afford to wait. Gomez represents the double impact that trading for a position player can bring. Not only does he help your offense, but he is better than most center fielders in the game today with his glove.
All of these guys represent a huge jump over the normal center field crowd except Michael Bourn. He appears to be going in the other direction after several high positive impact seasons. This time next year he will likely be on the second list. He might even suffer the same fate as Coco Crisp in Oakland. The Athletics shifted him to left field because he had had several negative impact seasons in a row. They are willing to give up some offense to get what Sam Fuld brings defensively. The general idea is that he will help more of the pitchers with his glove.
The Second Tier
It would certainly appear like there is a chink in the Mike Trout armor. When he first came up he was knocking the WAR out of the park because he matched hitting with fielding and speed on the basepaths. Now, he has less speed and the fielding isn’t quite there. He has surrendered some of that as he has filled out and gotten more power. These things happen, but you have to expect him to lose his spot in center field eventually.
In more of the bonus fantasy impact we turn our attention to Marcell Ozuna. He has been a positive impact center fielder to go along with Giancarlo Stanton in right and Christian Yelich in left. None are quite as good as Lorenzo Cain or Alex Gordon, but all three have been getting to more balls than the league average. Notice how Dan Haren is outperforming his FIP. Also notice how low his ground ball rate is. It isn’t a coincidence.
Believe it or not, some of these guys are in danger of losing their job. The Cardinals keep hoping that Peter Bourjos takes over in center field. As some people have said before, two thirds of the world is covered by water, the other third is covered by Bourjos. Unfortunately, he has never been able to hit enough, but the fact that he keeps getting more opportunities shows you how important fielding is.
The who is certainly more important than the way on this brief list. Both Jones and McCutchen’s are superstars and McCutchen is a former MVP. Teams often defer to their superstars and their fielding can only be called bad by comparing them to the other two lists. One and two runs below average is certainly not terrible by any other standard. Dexter Fowler on the other hand is another story altogether.
The Astros gambled on him last season and he paid off in a couple of instances. He continued to get on base at a good clip and showed more power than they thought he would. He also proved to be injury prone as he had in the past and the negative fielding was not a mile high mirage. He is now on his third team in three seasons and the Astros (and Rockies) pitching has suddenly improved. I doubt it’s a coincidence.