During his postseason press conference in October, John Mozeliak talked about his desire to improve the Cardinals’ defense in 2017. Specifically, pointing out center field and his desire to move Randal Grichuk to left field. In theory it sounds great, because there were times that Grichuk looked iffy in center field, but should the Cardinals do it?
My first reaction was to be against it purely because the floor to be an average hitting center fielder is lower than to be an average hitting left fielder. A .240 batting average and 24 home runs seems to play better in center field, if he can remotely play the position, than it does in a corner outfield position where there are more offensive standouts.
What I found when I looked further is that it’s really not.
Looking at players who had at least 400 plate appearances last season, the top-20 center fielders averaged a 108 OPS+. In left field the number only increased to 109. Grichuk posted a 103 OPS+ last season.
So the organization must think his defense must not be good enough to stick, right?
There are an assortment of defensive metrics available, and I’m honestly not a huge fan of any of them. Defensive WAR (dWAR), defensive runs saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are the most popular and readily available that people refer to when discussing defense. So how well did Grichuk do?
Starting with dWAR, Grichuk posted a +1.0 last season which was twice what he did in 2015 in about 25% more innings. However it’s shortcoming is that it includes the 45 innings he spent in the corner outfield positions last year and the 440 he spent there in 2015. So the numbers are skewed, but this number would seem to indicate that he performed better defensively in center field than he did last year.
Then there is Defensive Runs Saved, where Grichuk was +7 in center field over 949 innings. In the 1,260 innings he’s played in center field for his career, Grichuk has +14 defensive runs saved in center field alone.
There’s also Ultimate Zone Rating, and it’s normalized brother UZR/150. For Grichuk, his UZR/150 in center field last year was -1.8. He got plus marks for his arm and his glove, but his range was lacking. But UZR’s shortcoming is that it can be skewed by positioning if you don’t start in the center of UZR’s defensive zone for your position.
His numbers seem like a mixed, but generally positive bag when you look at them. But let’s consider where Grichuk stacks up against other center fielders. Among qualified center fielders, Grichuk had the sixth most Defensive Runs Saved and the 11th highest UZR/150.
I think it’s fair to say that Grichuk is one of the ten best defensive center fielders in baseball based on those numbers.
When you break down his UZR into it’s three main components — arm, range, and glove — you find that Grichuk was the best center fielder in two of them: arm and glove. His range was the only minus factor against him and I think most fans would agree that there were times where he seemed to take weird routes which would have limited his range. But I would also argue that it’s the easiest thing to improve and that it should with time and experience. Until 2016, he’d always played mostly in the corners. He even went a year in the minors without playing it. Some guy named Mike Trout played it instead.
So when you look at Grichuk’s metrics, he stacks up favorably against his peers. And how he stacks up against his peers is really the biggest question that should be asked before figuring out whether to make replacing him a priority. Because unless you’re getting someone who stacks up better than him, what’s the point?
And that list of players who would be clear improvements over him is very short. And dare I say that none are likely available.
The Cardinals have most been linked with Dexter Fowler when it comes to bringing in a center fielder to improve the team’s defense. And while Fowler put together his best defensive season last year, good enough that people are lauding him as a good defensive player this winter, historically his numbers do not back that assessment up.
Fowler posted a +0.3 defensive WAR last season, his first positive defensive WAR season since 2010.
He posted a +1 Defensive Runs Saved, the first time he’d ever posted a positive Defensive Runs Saved. The previous two years he’d combined for -32 Defensive Runs Saved.
He had a +1.0 UZR/150 last season, which was also his first time ever posting a positive UZR in center field.
In only one of those metrics, UZR, did Fowler outperform Grichuk last year. And historically, Fowler has not been better than Grichuk.
In 2016, Fowler’s UZR was driven by an improvement in his range, something that is historically his worst component. In 2015, Grichuk had pretty good range too before it fell in 2016. Perhaps playing next to a guy named Jason Heyward had some effect? After all, there’s a lot of plays in right-center field that they would not be being asked to make thanks to the rangiest right fielder in the game.
The numbers seem to indicate that Grichuk has Fowler beat on both glove and arm, so the only question is range and both seem challenged.
Fangraphs also has Inside Edge Fielding, which has their scouts break down the likelihood that player makes a given play. Fowler made 84% of all the plays last year while Grichuk made just 80%. But Fowler never made a single play judged to have less than a 60% likelihood of being made. Grichuk made 7 of them.
Grichuk made more plays on balls that had a low probability of having plays made on them. Seems like a vote of confidence in his range being better. Or at the very least, his ability to make difficult plays.
It’s one of the reasons when I talked last week about the organization needing to look at Marcell Ozuna that moving Grichuk out of center field shouldn’t be a priority. And it’s because I think that Grichuk will be a better center fielder than most available potential center fielders you could find to replace him with.