The best outfield in baseball

Is Andrew McCutchen part of the best outfield in baseball? I say no, but that could change soon. - Joe Sargent

Who has the best all-around outfield in baseball?

I was listening to 670 The Score in Chicago earlier this week and mid-day host Matt Spiegel opined that by calling up Gregory Polanco it was very possible the Pirates have the best outfield in baseball. It's certainly a case with merit, adding young talent to reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. With that as my impetus, I decided to see just who does have the best outfield.

I have two goals -- first, to determine this year's best all-around outfield, and second to find the best all-around outfield since 2000. I gathered data from Baseball-Reference.com through Wednesday, June 18th, using Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) as my primary marker. I selected a methodology Bill James used to rank pitching staffs (The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, pp. 905-907) by weighting a player's rWAR as follows:

rWAR Rank Weight
1 1x
2 2x
3 3x

What I'm looking for is the best all-around outfield, not one with a stellar Yasiel Puig surrounded by underperformers. I'll use the Dodgers outfield to show how this works:

Player rWAR Weight
Yasiel Puig 2.8 2.8
Carl Crawford 0.6 1.2
Matt Kemp -0.6 -1.8
Total 2.8 2.2

I like the weighting method but will show straight rWAR values as well, since there is little difference in the rankings. I also limit it to the top outfielder at each position. It's not a perfect method, but all in all, the results match up with expectations. Without further ado, this is how this system rates the 30 outfields:

Team Age G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI WAR oWAR dWAR Value
Marlins 69 203 871 772 126 212 37 8 38 123 8.1 5.7 2.1 13.2
Angels 83 147 569 491 83 151 31 5 24 83 7.7 6.7 0.9 12.0
Brewers 84 186 799 727 125 207 49 7 34 109 5.8 5.0 0.3 9.9
Giants 95 207 845 769 122 230 47 5 26 91 5.2 6.4 -1.8 9.0
Athletics 89 174 707 630 97 161 37 7 22 93 4.8 4.1 0.0 8.0
Pirates 78 202 745 647 82 181 37 6 19 78 5.7 5.7 -0.3 7.7
Braves 79 202 875 777 101 193 34 5 28 85 4.6 2.6 1.6 6.5
Royals 90 185 773 695 93 199 42 3 10 82 5.2 3.0 1.6 6.1
Rangers 90 208 835 739 99 208 31 12 12 78 3.6 3.4 -0.4 6.0
Orioles 86 194 761 700 91 194 31 4 20 79 3.6 2.6 0.7 5.5
Mets 88 165 647 559 70 132 29 3 15 66 3.9 2.2 1.3 4.9
Padres 89 167 581 516 57 129 34 6 9 35 3.3 1.8 1.2 4.2
Blue Jays
89 183 794 703 114 202 40 2 34 103 4.1 6.0 -2.3 4.0
Cardinals 92 202 786 695 87 190 40 3 12 92 2.0 2.1 -0.9 3.3
Indians 90 188 800 723 101 208 38 7 18 100 3.0 4.7 -2.1 3.1
Yankees 97 180 770 692 93 185 33 6 16 76 2.6 3.1 -1.0 2.9
Astros 80 177 719 627 86 164 21 5 20 67 2.3 3.5 -1.5 2.8
Red Sox
88 154 541 470 58 100 23 2 8 51 1.3 0.0 1.2 2.2
Dodgers 84 175 704 630 92 185 42 6 22 87 2.8 4.9 -2.7 2.2
Nationals 97 187 715 639 89 165 37 4 8 54 1.7 2.3 -0.9 1.9
Rays 79 188 752 650 82 159 39 2 14 71 2.0 2.2 -0.6 1.2
Reds 85 171 663 589 78 152 31 4 14 63 1.6 1.6 -0.3 1.1
Diamondbacks 86 172 653 600 76 160 32 7 12 47 2.5 1.8 0.4 1.1
Rockies 92 139 511 471 71 134 29 2 17 63 1.1 1.8 -1.0 0.6
Cubs 83 187 729 675 75 160 29 8 13 65 0.4 -0.7 0.8 -0.5
White Sox 80 189 750 680 88 165 35 7 12 66 0.6 1.0 -0.6 -0.7
Mariners 76 153 541 503 70 120 22 7 7 42 0.2 0.2 -0.4 -0.8
Tigers 98 179 713 653 86 173 38 3 16 76 0.1 1.9 -2.1 -1.6
Phillies 88 200 811 758 88 195 33 6 17 87 -0.1 1.0 -1.7 -2.9
Twins 79 118 435 377 38 81 16 2 6 35 -0.9 0.2 -1.2 -3.2

Adapted from data at Baseball-Reference.com. The table is sortable.

The age column is the combined age of the three Marlins outfielders, Giancarlo Stanton (24), Marcell Ozuna (23) and Christian Yelich (22). So not only does this method rate this as the best overall outfield so far this year, it's also the youngest by a healthy margin. All three are having solid-to-outstanding years, with rWAR of 4.4, 2.3 and 1.4, respectively. This outfield is one of the reasons the Marlins are having their surprising success and illustrates my rationale for using the weighted method -- it's better to have three solid players vs. one superstar, although it rarely hurts to have a superstar. At the very end of this post the outfielders and their rWAR values are shown.

Using straight rWAR, the Marlins still rank as the best. Looking at offensive and defensive components, they rank fourth and first. It will be difficult for them to maintain the start they had, particularly after losing Jose Fernandez for the year, but it won't be the fault of the outfield. Being that young, they'll be around for years.

The Angels rank second not just because all-universe Mike Trout plays for them but also because Collin Cowgill and Josh Hamilton are having solid years as well. Hamilton is still working his way back with only one home run since his return from injury, but to have a rWAR of 1.0 with just over 100 plate appearances suggests he could be ramping up.

The Pirates rank where they do because in addition to McCutchen and Marte I included Travis Snider. Gregory Polanco only has 42 plate appearances but appears to have supplanted Snider in right, which is what an .882 OPS will accomplish. They'll have time to get full value out of him since McCutchen is signed through 2017 with an option for 2018, and Marte for even longer. If Polanco can maintain his production, there is a very real possibility that Matt Spiegel will be correct in his analysis -- as I edit this on Sunday, the Pirates just beat the Cubs and Polanco had his hitting streak stopped. It won't be stopped for long.

One last comment before I show the best outfields since 2000. I received this tweet from occasional Beyond the Box Score contributor Alex Kienholz:

Alex, of course, is referring to his beloved Twins, the proud owners of the worst outfield in baseball, and I promised Alex a paragraph on this. Actually, accumulating a negative WAR is simple -- use a total of ten people in the outfield to make sure none can amass a decent rWAR, double down by having Jason Kubel work his way to a stellar -1.2 rWAR and it's stunningly easy. It doesn't make for good baseball, but that's a different matter.

These are the best outfields since 2000:

Year Team #1 rWAR Wgt #2 rWAR Wgt #3 rWAR Wgt Total
2012 Braves Michael Bourn 6.1 6.1 Jason Heyward 5.8 11.6 Martin Prado 5.5 16.5 34.2
2002 Braves Andruw Jones 6.6 6.6 Chipper Jones 5.7 11.4 Gary Sheffield 4.4 13.2 31.2
2006 Blue Jays
Vernon Wells 6.2 6.2 Reed Johnson 5.1 10.2 Alex Rios 4.6 13.8 30.2
2001 Mariners Ichiro Suzuki 7.7 7.7 Mike Cameron 5.9 11.8 Mark McLemore 3.5 10.5 30.0
2003 Braves Gary Sheffield 6.8 6.8 Andruw Jones 4.9 9.8 Chipper Jones 4.4 13.2 29.8
2002 Angels Darin Erstad 6.4 6.4 Garret Anderson 5.1 10.2 Tim Salmon 4.0 12.0 28.6
2010 Yankees Brett Gardner 7.3 7.3 Curtis Granderson 4.4 8.8 Nick Swisher 3.7 11.1 27.2
2002 Cardinals Jim Edmonds 6.7 6.7 Albert Pujols 5.5 11.0 J.D. Drew 2.8 8.4 26.1
2003 Red Sox
Manny Ramirez 5.4 5.4 Trot Nixon 5.1 10.2 Johnny Damon 3.4 10.2 25.8
2003 Mariners Ichiro Suzuki 5.6 5.6 Mike Cameron 4.8 9.6 Randy Winn 3.5 10.5 25.7
2004 Mariners Ichiro Suzuki 9.1 9.1 Randy Winn 4.2 8.4 Raul Ibanez 2.6 7.8 25.3
2011 Royals Alex Gordon 7.2 7.2 Melky Cabrera 4.4 8.8 Jeff Francoeur 3.1 9.3 25.3
2011 D'backs Justin Upton 6.1 6.1 Chris Young 5.0 10.0 Gerardo Parra 3.0 9.0 25.1

Two players jumped out at me immediately, and I checked. Chipper Jones was indeed the Braves left fielder in 2002 and 2003, shifted to accommodate . . . Vinny Castilla?!? Likewise, Albert Pujols also played left for the Cardinals in 2003 as they were trying to find the spot where he could hurt them the least defensively.

Be prepared to refer to this when you tell people "You know, Vernon Wells, Alex Rios and Reed Johnson all used to be good once." As your audience erupts in spontaneous laughter, smugly pull this out and give them that knowing look. I'm not surprised a Braves outfield topped this list, I'm just surprised it was the 2012 version given the defensive excellence Andruw Jones provided at the beginning of his career. When his time comes for Hall of Fame evaluation, people will have to reminded about how dynamic a player Jones was in his first 12 seasons, but don't take my word for it -- check this link and see the best center fielders in their first 12 years, and he's right up there.

For the intrepid, all the data I used to reach these conclusions can be found at this Google Docs spreadsheet, so play around with the data if you wish, or grab it and create your own criteria. Are the Marlins definitively the best outfield in baseball? Of course it's a subjective question, but I don't think it's ridiculous to say so. The best thing is their youth, suggesting the years of the Marlins being a laughing stock may be over.

Team #1 rWAR Wgt #2 rWAR Wgt #3 rWAR Wgt Tot Wgt
Marlins Giancarlo Stanton 4.4 4.4 Marcell Ozuna 2.3 4.6 Christian Yelich 1.4 4.2 8.1 13.2
Angels Mike Trout 4.4 4.4 Collin Cowgill 2.3 4.6 Josh Hamilton 1.0 3.0 7.7 12.0
Brewers Carlos Gomez 2.9 2.9 Khris Davis 1.7 3.4 Ryan Braun 1.2 3.6 5.8 9.9
Giants Hunter Pence 2.5 2.5 Angel Pagan 1.6 3.2 Mike Morse 1.1 3.3 5.2 9.0
Athletics Yoenis Cespedes 2.5 2.5 Coco Crisp 1.4 2.8 Josh Reddick 0.9 2.7 4.8 8.0
Pirates Andrew McCutchen 3.7 3.7 Starling Marte 2.0 4.0 Travis Snider 0.0 0.0 5.7 7.7
Braves Jason Heyward 3.1 3.1 Justin Upton 1.1 2.2 B.J. Upton 0.4 1.2 4.6 6.5
Royals Alex Gordon 3.8 3.8 Lorenzo Cain 1.9 3.8 Nori Aoki -0.5 -1.5 5.2 6.1
Rangers Leonys Martin 1.9 1.9 Shin-Soo Choo 1.0 2.0 Alex Rios 0.7 2.1 3.6 6.0
Orioles Adam Jones 1.9 1.9 Nick Markakis 1.5 3.0 David Lough 0.2 0.6 3.6 5.5
Mets Juan Lagares 2.6 2.6 Curtis Granderson 1.6 3.2 Chris Young -0.3 -0.9 3.9 4.9
Padres Seth Smith 2.5 2.5 Cameron Maybin 0.7 1.4 Will Venable 0.1 0.3 3.3 4.2
Blue Jays Jose Bautista 3.6 3.6 Melky Cabrera 1.1 2.2 Colby Rasmus -0.6 -1.8 4.1 4.0
Cardinals Matt Holliday 0.9 1.8 Jon Jay 0.9 0.9 Allen Craig 0.2 0.6 2.0 3.3
Indians Michael Brantley 2.9 2.9 Michael Bourn 0.1 0.2 David Murphy 0.0 0.0 3.0 3.1
Yankees Brett Gardner 2.0 2.0 Jacoby Ellsbury 0.9 1.8 Carlos Beltran -0.3 -0.9 2.6 2.9
Astros George Springer 1.4 1.4 Dexter Fowler 1.3 2.6 Alex Presley -0.4 -1.2 2.3 2.8
Red Sox Jackie Bradley 0.6 0.6 Daniel Nava 0.5 1.0 Jonny Gomes 0.2 0.6 1.3 2.2
Dodgers Yasiel Puig 2.8 2.8 Carl Crawford 0.6 1.2 Matt Kemp -0.6 -1.8 2.8 2.2
Nationals Denard Span 1.2 1.2 Jayson Werth 0.8 1.6 Nate McLouth -0.3 -0.9 1.7 1.9
Rays Desmond Jennings 2.2 2.2 Matthew Joyce 0.4 0.8 Wil Myers -0.6 -1.8 2.0 1.2
Reds Billy Hamilton 1.8 1.8 Ryan Ludwick 0.1 0.2 Jay Bruce -0.3 -0.9 1.6 1.1
D'backs A.J. Pollock 3.1 3.1 Gerardo Parra 0.2 0.4 Cody Ross -0.8 -2.4 2.5 1.1
Rockies Drew Stubbs 1.1 1.1 Michael Cuddyer 0.5 1.0 Carlos Gonzalez -0.5 -1.5 1.1 0.6
Cubs Emilio Bonifacio 0.8 0.8 Junior Lake 0.1 0.2 Nate Schierholtz -0.5 -1.5 0.4 -0.5
White Sox Adam Eaton 1.3 1.3 Alejandro De Aza -0.1 -0.2 Dayan Viciedo -0.6 -1.8 0.6 -0.7
Mariners James Jones 0.5 0.5 Dustin Ackley 0.4 0.8 Stefen Romero -0.7 -2.1 0.2 -0.8
Tigers Austin Jackson 0.7 0.7 Rajai Davis 0.5 1.0 Torii Hunter -1.1 -3.3 0.1 -1.6
Phillies Marlon Byrd 1.4 1.4 Ben Revere -0.2 -0.4 Domonic Brown -1.3 -3.9 -0.1 -2.9
Twins Oswaldo Arcia 0.2 0.2 Aaron Hicks 0.1 0.2 Jason Kubel -1.2 -3.6 -0.9 -3.2

...

All data from Baseball-Reference.com. Any errors in compiling and amalgamating the data are the author's.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.

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