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Where Have All the Great Outfielders Gone?
2007-02-17 15:25
by Scott Long

In the latest issue of Sporting News, they rate the top team outfield groups. Each team correspondent for TSN has a vote and the best NL outfield is the Atlanta Braves. You know, the team with a rightfielder (Francouer) sporting a .293 OBP and a leftfielder (Langerhaus) who meekly slugged at a .378 clip. While Andrew Jones is still a top-notch player and their defense is excellent, it's hard to imagine the National League ever having a weaker "best" outfield.

If you think that TSN must have screwed up in their rankings, it's hard to say they are flat-out wrong, as the NL really hurts when it comes to this position. The New York Mets have a potentially strong hitting group, as long as Beltran, Alou, and Green stay healthy, but considering it's not the year 2002, there are few guarantees of this happening.

The American League is not a whole lot better. The Yankees group of Matsui, Damon, and Abreu are very impressive hitters, but are not a plus in the field. When you add in Cabrera to this unit, though, they do rate as the best overall outfield in MLB. TSN I think blows it with their second rated AL group, as the Tigers unit (Monroe, Granderson, Ordonez) are solid players, but I question if they won't all slip some in 2007. The Angels (Anderson, Matthews, Guerrero) and Red Sox (Ramirez, Crisp, and Drew) have larger upsides, but both teams's must be concerned, like the Mets, about the significant injury risks their outfield's have.

Another thing that becomes apparent when looking at the starting outfields is how few of them have players hitting their prime years. The only quality outfield groups that will start the year with all of their members under the age of 30 are the Devil Rays (Crawford, Baldelli, Young) and Braves. The Blue Jays just miss fitting into this group, as Reed Johnson recently turned 30. It could argued that Toronto might be the best overall outfield, as their defense is top-notch and Wells and Rios should continue to improve.

On TSN's individual list, the Top 5 AL outfielders are Sizemore, Wells, Crawford, Guerrero, and Suzuki. TSN's NL list is Beltran, Jones, Bay, Soriano, and Lee. While all are good players, it just shows how much the game has transitioned, as it would be hard to rate any of them, besides maybe Beltran, as one of the Top 10 players in the game. No position on the diamond has been more impacted by the exodus of better athletes choosing instead to play basketball or football over baseball.

I welcome anyone to do the research and point out any year where the outfield position was weaker than where it is going into 2007. I'm doing a bit of talking out of my ass here, but sometimes like Ace Ventura, great success can come from this activity.

Scott's Top 10 Overall Team Outfields

1. Yankess
2. Blue Jays
3. Red Sox
4. Angels
5. Devil Rays
6. Mets
7. Braves
8. Tigers
9. Twins
10. Rockies

2007-02-17 17:09:27
1.   Cliff Corcoran
I'd like to see a list of the 10 best players in the game that doesn't include more than just Beltran from the ten men listed above.
2007-02-17 17:55:21
2.   das411
Sizemore and Crawford will jump several spots up into that top ten list this year Scott...and if the Rays would just man up and trade Baldelli to the Sawks and start crazy Elijah Dukes instead, then you will see what a terrific young outfield looks like...
2007-02-17 21:28:04
3.   joejoejoe
Nine of the top 24 players in VORP are OFs in Baseball Prospectus's 2006 list.

4. Grady Sizemore
7. Manny Ramirez
9. Jermaine Dye
10. Vlad Guerrero
12. Vernon Wells
15. Gary Matthews Jr.
20. Ichiro
22. Johnny Damon
24. Carl Crawford

Roughly 3 players of every 8 should be OFs in any list of top VORP (3OFs, 8 position players) and that holds true for 2006. Top modern OFs may lack star power but their performance is still excellent. At a glance it looks like 2B and 3B that are in historic lulls.

2007-02-17 21:36:56
4.   joejoejoe
3 I used AL-only data above by mistake.

Anyone have a paid B-P account to check my theory that 3 of every 8 players on the VORP ranking should be outfielders?

2007-02-17 22:41:20
5.   dianagramr

Here are the top 24 VORP for 2007:

Pujols, Albert 1B 84.2
Cabrera, Miguel 3B 70.3
Wright, David 3B 62.1
Santana, Johan SP 65.7
Berkman, Lance 1B,RF 60.1
Howard, Ryan 1B 59.2
Hafner, Travis DH 58.7
Beltran, Carlos CF 56.7
Ortiz, David 1B 54
Mauer, Joe C 52.9
Utley, Chase 2B 51.4
Guerrero, Vlad RF 51.3
Jeter, Derek SS 50.7
Webb, Brandon SP 54.2
Rodriguez, Alex 3B 49.5
Zimmerman, Ryan 3B 49.1
Guillen, Carlos SS 49
Ramirez, Aramis 3B 48.6
Hall, Bill SS 48.3
Tejada, Miguel SS 47
Soriano, AlfonsoLF 46.9
Bonds, Barry LF 46.1
Dunn, Adam LF 45.6
Mccann, Brian C 44.9

2007-02-17 23:13:27
6.   Scott Long
Thanks for the info. It is pretty much where I was at, without looking at BP. My point was that just 5 years ago, I'm guessing you had at least 3 OF's in the top 10 and you go back into overall decades and I would think you would get similar figures.

The lack of quality superstar young outfielders will only magnify this situation in the future.

I stand by thinking that Beltran is the only outfielder who is a top 10 player. Berkman is mainly a first baseman at this point. I expect Guerrero's 2007 VORP is a bit optimistic, considering his lingering injury issues. Dye had a career year. I like Sizemore, but I guess I didn't think he was the 4th best player in the AL last year. More like 8. Now if Bonds plays enough games....

2007-02-17 23:35:55
7.   joejoejoe
5 Thanks dianagramr.

My crack team of Google research monkeys must have Ebola. Scratch what I said in 3. Here's the latest breakdown of position players in VORP and some comparisons from two decades earlier.

Outfield VORP leaders / 2006
1-8 / 1 OF - Grady Sizemore
9-16 / 4 OF - Carlos Beltran, Manny Ramirez, Jermaine Dye, Vlad Guerrero
17-24 / 2 OF - Vernon Wells, Matt Holliday
25-32 / 3 OF - Gary Matthews Jr., Jason Bay, Andruw Jones
33-40 / 3 OF - Alfonso Soriano, Barry Bonds, Ichiro Suzuki

Outfield VORP leaders / 1996
1-8 / 3 OF - Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Brady Anderson
9-16 / 2 OF - Albert Belle, Ken Griffey Jr.
17-24 / 6 OF - E. Burks, J. Gonzalez, M. Ramirez, Bern. Williams, Lan. Johnson, B. Gilkey
25-32 / 5 OF - Rusty Greer, Bobby Higginson, Kenny Lofton, Steve Finley, Jim Edmonds
33-40 / 1 OF - Jay Buhner

Outfield VORP leaders / 1986
1-8 / 3 OF - Tim Raines, Kirby Puckett, Rickey Henderson
9-16 / 5 OF - Jim Rice, Eric Davis, Jesse Barfield, Tony Gwynn, Joe Carter
17-24 / 3 OF - George Bell, Kevin McReynolds, Robin Yount
25-32 / 3 OF - Phil Bradley, Kevin Bass, Kirk Gibson
33-40 / 4 OF - Brian Downing, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, Lenny Dykstra

Scott is definitely on to something. (all VORP from B-Prospectus's stats database)

2007-02-18 05:02:13
8.   Yu-Hsing Chen
Might also just be a random circulation, remember that while more American youngesters are turning to football and basketball the MLB is also getting a greater influx of Latin and Asian players...
2007-02-18 05:38:08
9.   Scott Long
Latin players have seemed to gravitate towards infield positions more than outfield. With the amount of great hitting shortstops that have played the game over the past 20 years, I'm not saying the quality of the game is noticeable worse, just that there has been a seismic shift to being dominated by infielders at the plate.

Kevin Bass was a top 30 player? Never would have guessed it.

Phil Bradley was a great college football QB who chose baseball for his pro career. He and Rick Leach actually had good success, unlike the spate of college qb's who have met disappointment in their pro baseball careers. (Henson, Borchard or high schoolers Booty and Mauck who went back to football)

Notice the 8 top rated outfieleders in 1986 were African-American. Yeah, I know it's a bit random, but I'm guessing that the ratio would be close to this from 1960-1995.

2007-02-18 19:08:52
10.   gophersw
There seems to be more of a tendency among coaching staffs throughout baseball to stick players with fine sticks but perhaps below average gloves somewhere in the infield. BJ Upton, fifteen years ago, would have already been converted to the outfield fulltime. His offense is extremely valuable at SS or 3b, not nearly as valuable as a corner OF. More and more teams are trying to maximize their lineup's run-scoring potential, and know it is easier to find another decent bat to play the OF corners than it is to find one to play SS or 3b - therefore, teams are more willing to overlook a player's shortcomings when it comes to footwork, range, or agility in the infield today than they seemed to be in the past - as long as they can hit. Moving Miguel Cabrera's huge bat from the outfield to third is another example. It is arguable if this trend is more prominent today than has been in the past, but to me, off the top of my head, it seems so.

Also, Scott, thanks for the tickets to the St. Peters show. Good show, good times.

2007-02-18 23:30:23
11.   das411
Didn't Pujols also get some brief time in the outfield when McGwire and Rolen were at the corners in StL?
2007-02-18 23:47:35
12.   gophersw
Pujols' rookie year he played more time in the infield than the outfield, even though he was used more as a utility-play-everywhere-firstbase-thirdbase-lf-rf guy.
In 2002, 118 games in the OF and 62 games at 1b/3b.
In 2003, he still played 113 games in left and 62 at first, a lot of those as late-inning switches.
2004 was his first as a full time firstbaseman.
2007-02-19 12:28:49
13.   dianagramr
Just an FYI that I got my blog mentioned in Will Carroll's Positional Health Reports over on today. He's running down the 3Bs today, and this past weekend, I e-mailed him on something I read regarding Ensberg's BB rate going up in 2006.

Will Carroll ... a good guy!

2007-02-20 11:34:01
14.   fdsa134
Isn't VORP the wrong statistic to use here? It would be comparing any individual outfielder to others in the position, not others in other positions. If you want to compare between positions, it would seem to me that you would use a raw statistic like OPS.
2007-02-20 11:38:18
15.   Scott Long
I would agree that VORP is not the perfect stat to compare, but OPS would exclude fielding, which is obviously an important element to this measure.

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