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The Indians’ fourth outfielder problem

What is a fourth outfielder? You can probably picture one and it’s something like Abraham Almonte or Trevor Crowe or Jolbert Cabrera (depending on your age, maybe). How accurate that example player is, however, is an interesting question.

Is the fourth outfielder just the fourth guy on the depth chart? What if that guy is also the back-up (or starting) second baseman? Is it someone who comes short of qualifying plate appearances for statistical leaderboards? Is it outfielders who wear number four? Kyle Glaser at Baseball America dug into the question of the fourth outfielder by examining “every player who served as a reserve or platoon outfielder in the majors in at least one of the last four seasons (2015-18).”

What he found, well, it’s something:

“Short version: the average major league reserve outfielder hit .283/.357/.439 in his minor league career. Barely any hit below .260 or had a on-base percentage below .325.”

If you looked at those numbers and thought they were impressive, I’m with you. Using the same parameters as Glaser (200 to 400 PA, <90 percent of games started, no significant time missed due to injury), I found six Indians matching the criteria and an additional four just shy of the plate appearance threshold (<20 PA away from qualifying). Of the 10 players who could reasonably be “fourth outfielders” for Cleveland since 2015, one had a batting average higher than Glaser’s average, one had an OBP higher than Glaser’s average, and one had a slugging percentage higher than Glaser’s average. That one player was Tyler Naquin in 2016 for all three categories. Eight of ten players in my sample had an average below .260 and nine of ten had OBP below .325.

Short version: Cleveland’s outfield has been a problem for a while.

Here’s something worse: Of the projections at FanGraphs, not one projects an Indians’ outfielder to have an average above .260 or OBP above .325. Not Steamer. Not Depth Charts. Not ZiPS. If WAR is more your thing, Steamer projects the likely starters (Leonys Martin, Jordan Luplow, and Naquin) to be worth 2.5 fWAR and the rest of the team’s outfield to be worth 0.2 fWAR. That 2.7 fWAR for the outfield is 28th among all MLB teams.

It must be noted that projections are conservative and the Indians roster is (hopefully) anything but a finished product. (Lord, don’t let this be the finished product.) But, players report to spring training in three weeks. There’s plenty of reason to have hope for Luplow to break out or Naquin to rebound or Martin to far surpass his projections, but excuse me if I’m not so hopeful.

As the icicles gather in the corners of the artist formerly known as the Hot Stove and the Indians sit on their hands after subtracting more than adding for 2019, it seems like something is destined to happen. Someone is coming along to make this outfield look less like something that belongs in Columbus, or Akron. But when the consensus is that the Tribe’s stars and scrubs approach is already enough to win the division, I wonder if the team actually feels any eagerness to further improve or if the decision makers are content to play it out for a while.

The Athletic, MLB.com, and Cleveland.com had stories featuring Jake Bauers recently, all but anointing him as the big addition of the offseason. The likes of Carlos Gomez, Carlos Gonzalez, Marwin Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Gerardo Parra, Hunter Pence, AJ Pollock, and, of course, Bryce Harper are all still available, but they seem far from becoming Indians. Whether or not signing any of them is reasonable or desirable is an open question, but it’s hard to argue anyone from that list would not be an upgrade on what Cleveland currently has lined up.

We talk a lot about value when we analyze baseball, and almost all of that discussion is geared toward what value a player has in terms of salary. For example, trading Edwin Encarnacion’s big bat away was a good deal for the Indians because it created financial wiggle room. Copy, paste, change the name each time it happens. But what is the value for the fans? That saved money doesn’t hit home runs.

Signing Encarnacion literally led to a surge in season ticket purchases, so signing a player (or two!) to improve the outfield from literally worse than average bench players seems like it might have a tangible effect on ticket sales. We’re here to be entertained, and the terrible-AL-Central version of Groundhog Day the Indians are living is not a greatly entertaining product.

If the team is content to replay last season and not add to the roster where it clearly needs it, that’s a choice. Fans made a choice last year and clearly expressed disinterest in that approach (2018 attendance: 1.92 million, 2017 attendance: 2.04 million). Maybe trying to do more than scrape by and hope for good luck in the playoffs would be wise, perhaps by improving the outfield from literally worse than bench players. But what do I know?



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