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Indians may have to get defensive in the outfield next year

With a host of center fielders in the fold, the strength of the outfield may have to come from the glove

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Cleveland Indians Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Indians face an outfield crisis for the second straight offseason. Where the run up to the 2018 season was surrounded by worries of Michael Brantley getting healthy, right field coalescing, and Bradley Zimmer taking a step forward, this year things look somehow less optimistic. Brantely is likely gone. Lonnie Chisenhall’s contract is up. Brandon Guyer’s option was declined. About the only hooks we have to hang any kind of hat on are the one year deal with Leonys Martin, and Zimmer and Tyler Naquin coming back from injury. And Greg Allen being not too bad last year. This is not an ideal four to roll into a lineup. It’s not terrible, but it’s far from encouraging at the plate. If all goes as it looks like it will, 2019 could be the force to be the Year of Run Prevention.

It’s not catchy, is it. Year of Defense? Year of the Glove? That last one is kind of neat. Point being, the offensive output of the outfield is not going to be a point of pride for the Indians, unless an increasingly unlikely leap comes out of Naquin and Zimmer. Over the last two calendar years — of which got 500 plate appearances — that starting three I listed give us this look at the plate:

Indians Outfielders’ Last 2 Years Of Offensive Output

Player PA OPS wRC+ Hard Hit Rate
Player PA OPS wRC+ Hard Hit Rate
Martin 491 .681 84 34.0%
Zimmer 446 .671 75 35.9%
Naquin 223 .628 64 37.0%
Allen 330 .650 74 35.8%

To be fair to Naquin, I did trim this just after his rookie year that was just so incredible, but we all saw that and knew it fools’ gold at the time. It’s just that he’s proven his doubters right in that regard.

It’s not a heartening chart, either. All of them have been subpar offensive influences, though Martin offset the 36 wRC+ he recorded in 2017 with a 103 in 2018 before going down with infected blood. Him posting that for 2019 would be huge, and really help elevate the Cleveland outfield as a whole, Any offense is a nice bonus. Because these guys - or two of them at least - are pretty good in the outfield.

In the past we’d have to rely on UZR from FanGraphs or Range Factor from BasebalL Reference to try to parse out how these guys are at catching the ball. Martin and Zimmer do rate well, Martin averaging a 10.4 UZR/150 in his career and Zimmer at 9.9. Naquin is, once again, the weaker link here, -8.5 UZR/150 for his career. But with Baseball Savant’s newly debuted stats this year - Outs Above Average and Directional Outs Above Average - we actually have numbers to consider. As far as OAA is concerned, Zimmer rates a +1, Martin a +3, and Naquin... negative 4. For reference, the best outfielder in baseball according to OAA is Ender Inciarte, at +21 OAA.

Also, graphics! Baseball Savant debuted these with actual in-game overlays during some broadcasts late this year, and thy’re quite neat. We actually get to see how players play the ball depending on how they attack it. Here’s Martin’s Directional OAA chart, telling us where he’s good going after fly balls:


And Zimmer:

And Naquin:

And, just for fun, what about Greg Allen?

Taken together, these charts paint an interesting picture. It allows us to think of who should play where, and perhaps who shouldn’t play at all. If the goal is sheer defensive capability, it seems like Naquin might actually miss out in favor of Allen. It would be one thing if his bat really put him over the edge, but he’s been below average for two years, and Allen didn’t look quite as lost as some expected toward the end of the year.

To me it looks like Martin in center, since he’s good going back both ways ,Zimmer in right since he can help cover that gap and he’s got a great arm that will play well in Progressive, and either Allen or Naquin in left. It’s the smallest area to cover in Progressive, and he’s the worst going back and to the left. So that makes sense. Plus Martin is best moving toward left field, so he can cover up a deficiency there.

Ideally the Indians sign a bat, and even if that bat’s glove is bad they can still make due with the offset in production. And it’s not like whatever solution they put together is some kind of Red Sox-lite, almost elite outfield. Martin is barely in the top 50 in OAA. So they need to figure something out, accentuate whatever strengths they do have. Defense alone won’t work, but at least for the first time in a while, it’s a bit of a plus out there.