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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Inside the decline of MLB’s star center fielders - Sports Illustrated

Tom Verducci takes a look.

Does your team need a center fielder? Two pieces of advice: get in line and keep your expectations low.

Center field is one of baseball’s traditional glamour positions. When Paul Simon conjured the yearning for the great American role model, John Fogerty sang about a return to limelight and Terry Cashman captured the lyrical essence of talkin’ baseball, all looked to center field. Now, when our nation turns its lonely eyes to center field, it sees the worst the position has been in half a century.

Center fielders last season hit .237 with a .303 on-base percentage and .688 OPS, the worst marks in each category at the position in at least 50 seasons (since 1973, when complete records by position are available).

jimfurtado Posted: November 29, 2022 at 01:59 PM | 11 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: centerfielders

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   1. DL from MN Posted: November 29, 2022 at 02:28 PM (#6107186)
Good data that teams are prioritizing defense in CF.
   2. Pat Rapper's Delight (as quoted on MLB Network) Posted: November 29, 2022 at 02:45 PM (#6107190)
Unless CF are being prioritized for their ability to leap and rob HR, this seems like the wrong era to start caring about outfield defense at the expense of grippin' it and rippin' it.
   3. Cris E Posted: November 29, 2022 at 03:24 PM (#6107207)
So 1) it's hard for develop hitters in this world of pitching optimization, and 2) old guys get hurt. I'm not sure how that is particular to CF, unless they are particularly susceptible to injuries or something. I mean that could easily be true, but it wasn't the argument. But maybe measuring things in terms of raw stats without any adjustments for league averages isn't a great idea, maybe the idea that 'CF over 30 qualifying for the batting title' isn't a great metric if you had to go all the way back to 2017 to find the goode olde days, and maybe the fact that there are so many good young CF coming up means that this is just cyclical and the premise of the whole piece just needed a little tuning.
   4. DL from MN Posted: November 29, 2022 at 04:14 PM (#6107233)
Unless CF are being prioritized for their ability to leap and rob HR, this seems like the wrong era to start caring about outfield defense at the expense of grippin' it and rippin' it.

Everyone wants to hit fly balls. Makes sense to try to run down those hard hit fly balls.
   5. Barry`s_Lazy_Boy Posted: November 29, 2022 at 04:29 PM (#6107235)
There are less balls in play and less putouts by center fielders. After seeing the headline, I thought the article was going to be about fleet fielders being replaced by Daulton Varsho and the like. Woops.
   6. Walt Davis Posted: November 29, 2022 at 05:42 PM (#6107249)
Makes sense to try to run down those hard hit fly balls.

But fly balls have never produced many in-play hits ... although the hits they produce tend to be quite valuable of course. There were only 3,610 in-play FB hits in 2022, almost exactly 3 for every 4 team-games played (also 3 in-play hits for every 4 HRs). BABIP for FBs was 101. So, give or take, the average team gives up 120 in-play FB hits a year.

Which I suppose is overly pedantic on my part. What you need are guys who can flag down the occasionall line drive to the gap. Nearly 3 times as many doubles come on LDs as FBs and a bit over 1.5 times as many triples. I don't think there's any way to precisely separate out OF LDs from the rest based on b-r data but my rough guesstimate is 25,000 OF LDs of which about 7,000 are converted to outs or about 1.5 per team-game. If you can find a guy who can do that an extra time every 1-2 weeks then you probably add a win or two.

Anyway, it's the hard-hit LDs ya gotta track down.

If we can assume that LDs have been consistently defined and measured over time (I don't think we can) then LDs in 2022 were down about 10% from 2017 but up substantially relative to 2012 and 2007. The increase in Ks seems to have mainly come at the expense of GBs.

My pet theory is that guys who can hit ("big" guys) are much less likely to be shifted off SS in the minors than they used to be. One place those guys were shifted was CF (and 2B and 3B). We are also in something of a golden era of 3B, having just come off a golden era of 3B. Meanwhile 1B defense is being prioritized a bit more. We've moved towards a position-independent defensive mindset in baseball. Statcast measures against average OF (i.e. not average CF) and other than a few really good guys (mostly but not entirely in CF) and really bad ones (mostly but not entirely not in CF), nearly every OF in baseball is so close to average defensively that either there's nothing to be gained or teams decided every OF position is bat-first. I'm not quite sure what they're doing in the IF but the positional differences seem much smaller than those used in WAR.

I think we're still in a decade or more where the average LF has consistently been a below-average player. Meanwhile for 2018-19 and 2021-22, the average ML SS has had 1 WAA. Those might just be flukes but they make no sense -- possibly something fundamental has changed and WAR, etc. haven't adjusted yet. Maybe SS#1 is 10 runs better defensively than the average SS but maybe the average SS is no longer 5 runs more valuable than the average 2B? For whatever reason, all the good players smaller than Yordan Alvarez play SS, 3B and 1B now ...

... and CF when they're healthy. I agree it's probably mostly cyclic and bad luck. If Buxton wasn't made of glass, if latter Trout wasn't made of glass, if Bellinger doesn't take that weird dive off of a cliff then those average CF numbers improve substantially. On the other hand, those numbers are propped up by guys like Judge and Springer who, I strongly suspect, would not have been let out of RF back in the day.

Again, of course we have to take these numbers (especially the old ones) with a grain of salt but Dave Winfield was listed at 6-6, 220; Seager is listed at 6-4, 215; Correa 6-4, 220. Jack Clark was listed at 6-2, 175 and even if slugger Clark was more likely 6-2, 225 that's still Arenado at 6-2, 215 or Machado at 6-3 and a suspiciously precise 218. Apparently Correa's workouts are all over youtubbe, etc. and according to some puff piece in Men's Journal he can deadlift 3 Rafael Belliards. This is not your old man's infield. Ripken (6-4, 200) is not a big SS anymore.

X and Story are in a similar range; Baez, Lindor, Franco, Turner and Swanson are all smaller but still about the (reported) size of Banks, Fregosi and (heavier than) Yount and Nomar. But sure, Kessinger is also reported as the same size as Yount and Nomar which might have been true when Yount and Nomar were 18 so grain of salt.
   7. DL from MN Posted: November 29, 2022 at 06:04 PM (#6107252)
CF is where speedy players end up. Speed has never been as devalued on offense as it was in 2022.
   8. Walt Davis Posted: November 29, 2022 at 10:19 PM (#6107279)
But apparently speed has also never hit as poorly. The article does touch on most of the points -- the injury bubble, the rise of part-timers, the youth movement -- but still doesn't provide a satisfying answer (maybe because none exists). While I don't think it was exactly the intent, it also seems to make clear that the hacker is doomed in the modern game. The rise in breaking balls and the rise in spin and the rise in velocity and teams increasingly poinpointing where a particular hitter can't hit, batters that chase are in big trouble (just ask Baez).

I'm a little less impressed by the "worse in 50 years" stuff ... it's troubling for sure but this was a pretty terrible season offensively for everybody. Despite the universal DH, this was the lowest BA and OBP of the last 50 years for MLB as a whole. (Or did I miss one?) SLG and OPS weren't as bad as some of the 70s and 80s but were close to the worst of the last 30 years. I suspect it was the worst or close to it season for RF too.

2022 100+ GS at a position
1B: 19
2B: 12
3B: 16
SS: 22
LF: 11
CF: 12
RF: 10
OF: 50 (so 17 guys who had 100 starts across 2+ OF spots but not 100+ in one)

So the only "regulars" are SS, 1B and maybe 3B. "OF" is pretty regular but they're moving around. (Note, b-r doesn't list DH in the fielding tables I'm loookig at.) No doubt there are some guys with 100+ starts in the field but spread between IF positions or IF/OF spots.

Comp this to 2017
1B: 24 (-5)
2B: 16 (-4)
3B: 18 (-2)
SS: 20 (+2)
LF: 11 (0)
CF: 18 (-6)
RF: 20 (-10)
OF: 59 (just 10 rovers so -7) ... or -9 in the OF

Those CF/RF changes are quite dramatic although not as dramatic as they seem as some of the CF/RF of yesteryear are now rovers.

The total number of qualified batters has dropped from 145 to 131.

So something has gone on in CF and RF. Obviously the universal DH** has some effect on field starts. But whether the rest of the change is just a short-term blip needed to adjust to some injuries and maybe a temporary talent desert or a fundamental change is up in the air. But it's the general trend across positions. The guy the team wants out there everyday is usually the SS. Maybe the shift will even things out in the IF -- harder to hide a defensively limited SS?

** You would think the universal DH would help guys qualify but it was down 2 on last year.
   9. Starring Bradley Scotchman as RMc Posted: November 30, 2022 at 06:06 PM (#6107383)
   10. The Yankee Clapper Posted: November 30, 2022 at 06:57 PM (#6107390)
Center fielders last season hit .237 with a .303 on-base percentage and .688 OPS, the worst marks in each category at the position in at least 50 seasons …
That’s with Mike Trout & Aaron Judge putting up some great CF numbers. The other guys must really stink.
   11. the Hugh Jorgan returns Posted: December 01, 2022 at 12:16 AM (#6107419)
The other guys must really stink.

I'm a Red Sox fan and I can't even tell you who logged the most innings out there last year, so Sox CFers definitely dragging down the numbers!

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