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Centering in on better outfield options

Screw it, punt on center field and get better bats in the lineup

Cleveland Indians v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

On Wednesday evening, Sandy Alomar presented a lineup card to home plate umpire Manny Gonzalez that featured an outfield with both Delino DeShields Jr. and Greg Allen starting.

While both offer above-average speed and defense, both are around the 20th percentile in terms of offense (relative to where they’ve played the most innings — center for DeShields, left for Allen). By wRC+, DeShields is 39% worse than league average, whereas Allen is 51% worse; Bradley Zimmer was only 17% worse than league average before he was optioned to Lake County, for reference. At this point, literally the only thing worse for offense than an outfield with both DeShields and Allen in it would be including Mike Freeman as well (he of the 44 wRC+, 56% worse than league average [oh jeez, he’s actually going to do that, isn’t he?]).

These two players, with similar skills sets and generally black hole offense, represent redundancy on the roster. Sure, they each got a hit in Wednesday’s win over the Twins, but is having their defense or speed for nine innings really worth it?

Let’s assume here that these two players are centerfielders. Even though Allen has seen more time in left this year, neither profile even remotely as a corner outfielder (career SLG: Allen, .346; DeShields, .339), because left field is not considered particularly challenging and “average at one does not equal average at the other in terms of total run prevention.” So, if Allen and DeShields are in for speed and defense, they should be in center, and with that established, how important has centerfield defense even been to Cleveland this year?

I can’t pinpoint exactly how valuable each ball hit to center has been in terms of run prevention, but I can tell you that of 688 balls in play so far this season, 143 have gone to center, which is 20.8%. Fewer have been hit to left (14.8%) and right field (15.1%), which backs up the importance of center on the defensive spectrum but also emphasizes the fact that DeShields and Allen are redundant on the field. If just one of them could be starting, it could open up offensive opportunities to other players and make the bottom of the lineup less of an abyss.

Or we could go even further. Of the 143 balls hit to center, 52% have come in the first 5 innings, lower-leverage innings in which the Tribe almost always has one of its league-best starters in the game. So, what if neither DeShields nor Allen were in the outfield at all to start the game?

The other options on the roster currently are not offensive superstars. Tyler Naquin, in a very small sample of 43 PA, is the best of the bunch with a 111 wRC+, whereas Jordan Luplow and Domingo Santana have struggled so far (57 and 65 wRC+, respectively). All three do have experience in center, though, and even if Santana in center should likely be avoided at all costs (he was rated -13 outs above average in the outfield, per Baseball Savant, in 2019), playing the platoons with Naquin or Luplow could be worth exploring, as both rate right around 0 outs above average defensively.

When the Indians face a lefty, for instance, rolling with Luplow in center (154 wRC+ for his career versus lefties) could provide a real boost; Naquin in center versus a right-handed pitcher (career 108 wRC+ vs. RHP) would help as well. Santana has no real platoon splits in his career (113 wRC+ vs. RHP, 108 wRC+ vs. LHP) and thus could stay in a corner in hopes he starts hitting closer to his career averages. As for the other corner, how about the guy who lost weight over the winter in preparation for more time in the field: Franmil Reyes. I don’t have to tell you about his offense.

An outfield with Naquin/Luplow, Santana, and Reyes would likely represent the best offensive outfield that Cleveland could compile given the current construction of the roster. It would also move DeShields or Allen to their proper role on the roster, that of late-inning defensive sub or pinch runner, likely moving one of the Naquin/Luplow platoon to a corner and Santana to the bench. Moreover, playing Reyes in the field (which he’s only done for 5 innings so far this year) would open up the DH spot to give someone like Francisco Lindor or José Ramírez a bit of a break.

If Ramírez were to get a break, it might also open up at bats for someone like, say, Nolan Jones. Jones is an unknown commodity at the big league level, but FanGraphs describes him as having “among the best eyes for the strike zone in the minors and some of the most impressive raw power, as well.” With the way aggressive callups have gone so far this strange season (e.g., M’s Kyle Lewis went from Double-A in 2019 to Rookie of the Year candidate; Phillies’ Alec Bohm made a similar jump from Double-A in ‘19 to a 143 wRC+ in 48 PA thus far in 2020), it would absolutely be worthwhile to see what Jones could provide this flailing Cleveland offense.

Mostly, it would just be worthwhile to stop seeing so much DeShields and Allen. Nearly 2,000 PA into DeShields’ career and 600 into Allen’s, we know who they are: late-inning defensive subs or pinch runners. Now is the time to stop using them in ways that don’t match their reality. Now is the time to see who else can provide a boost. With the offense mired among the worst in MLB (82 wRC+, 27th among MLB teams), there is very little way things could get worse from here (famous last words).