Left field is an interesting position for evaluators. The men who get stuck there don't have defensive demands put on them like infielders, and typically don't cover the same swath of grass as center fielders. Even right field might be something of a skill position, and a strong throwing arm is not as important in left as in right, since left fielders are very rarely called on to throw directly to first base.
A funny thing happened, then, when the BtBS team voted on All-Stars. We kept outfield spots separate, so on the BtBS All-Star Team, you won't find Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen, or Yasiel Puig starting "out of position" in left. And it just so happened that voting for the NL left fielder wasn't so easy. If you head on over to FanGraphs and sort left fielders by fWAR, you'll find this top 5:
Left field isn't exactly an embarrassment of riches. You've got Alex Gordon (actually, it's pronounced...nevermind) leading the field with a robust 4.5 mark even with a tweaked wrist, and Michael Brantley has had a legit breakout. But none of the other three guys rank in the top 30 of position players, and even at a position with a negative positional adjustment, that's a little surprising when left fielders' defense is judged against themselves and great hitting is expected.
Notice anything else weird? All five of these guys are in the American League. Christian Yelich is actually up to 2.4 WAR, as well, but seriously? The Orioles get two guys (Yeah, one is really a DH) before the National League gets one? You're starting to get the idea: voting for an NL left fielder wasn't exactly easy. Here's how the NL-only version of the leaderboard works, among the 58 "qualified" hitters that FanGraphs lists at left field:
An even less inspiring crop of players. And, it should be noted, when we closed voting for starters, Seth Smith was the leader (at least, when I voted) — both Yelich and Justin Upton have put together some great production at the plate recently. And we BtBS folks did indeed vote Smith into the starting slot for the NL.
But that doesn't mean we all voted for Smith. Note the low PA mark for Smith (299). Isn't that a little suspicious? It should be. Smith has batted just .174 against lefties this season — but that shouldn't mean much, what with Smith facing lefties for just 30 PA (and actually, 7 of those PA resulted in walks).
30 PA! Only 10% of Smith's at bats have come against southpaws, yet Smith has amassed enough at bats to qualify for the batting title. More teams should probably do this, actually. Last year, the Cubs managed to get Nate Schierholtz over 500 PA with just 13% of his plate appearances coming against lefties (66 of 503). The results were great for Schierholtz, and are even better for Smith. With substitutions often having ancillary benefits in the NL, I'm really surprised we don't see more left-handed outfielders in super-charged platoons.
I actually didn't vote for Smith. Here's the same NL leaderboard, but with the minimum changed from "qualified" to "0":
|Scott Van Slyke||Dodgers||149||.417||174||1.8|
Two new contenders! You probably guessed from the title, but I voted for Corey Dickerson. And while he's actually tanked the last two weeks, he's still a good fit for the All-Star team. Here's what Bryan Grosnick wrote with respect to his (later) selection as a BtBS All-Star Reserve:
Coming into the season, Dickerson probably wasn't even the fourth-most-likely Rockies outfielder to make the All-Star team. But he's outshone everyone on the squad, albeit in limited action, and there's a good chance he's a better option than real-life All-Star Charlie Blackmon. Dickerson's hit for loads of power -- even for a guy working at Coors Field -- and is walking about 10% on the season. He's been an offensive load, and even though it might not continue, he's been good enough to warrant consideration among a weak left field crop.
Yes! With respect to the voting, my reasoning was: if Smith's stock might actually have gone down by having to face more southpaws, is it fair to discount Dickerson's achievement because he too was used in more of a platoon role, even if his platoon had no rocket boosters on it?
After all, Dickerson did (and does) top Smith in WAR anyway. And I don't need to tell you that a 2.2 WAR performance in 227 PA is more valuable than even an identical WAR mark in 299 PA — the excess plate appearances could be taken by another player, giving Dickerson's team an even higher total in the same number of PA. Definitionally speaking, the WAR total can really only go up — we should be entitled to assume that Dickerson's replacement would be at least replacement level.
(Actually, by that logic, Scott Van Slyke might be the most valuable left fielder in the National League so far this year. But, I think, a 75% time player like Dickerson might cause much less roster stress than a 50% or below player like Van Slyke. He'll have to content himself with being one of the best fourth outfielders in baseball.)
It is true, though, that even in this 157 wRC+ season, Dickerson has struggled against lefties. As in, a .291 wOBA and 68 wRC+. We could have seen this coming -- in limited time last year, he also sputtered against same-sided pitching (49 wRC+). That's makes for a hefty platoon split, considering his 178 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers. Dickerson also shows the classic Coors Field split, with a chasm between his road production (129 wRC+) and his Coors production (181 wRC+). But 29% above average at creating runs isn't exactly bad.
It's the platoon split that's the more significant worry, and in his age 25 season, Dickerson may not be fronted enough playing time to develop that away. He hasn't exactly been a platoon player this season, anyway; primarily a pinch hitter in April, Dickerson had a mix-and-match May before taking over in left field for Carlos Gonzalez full time. Gonzalez's return could seriously cut into Dickerson's playing time, although Michael Cuddyer being on the shelf could certainly help.
Is it a breakout? I don't know. ZiPS projected a .336 wOBA this season for Dickerson, which is quite good — not so good that it could overcome bad defense, but Dickerson has been just fine (3.1 UZR/150) in limited time as an outfielder (751.2 innings) for his career. Dickerson may be a good player even if his .419 wOBA comes down to earth, and even if he's benefited this season from an artificially low percentage of plate appearances against southpaws (19%).
You can only have so many platoons as part of a major league roster. But in my eyes, sustainable or not, the fact that Dickerson's 2.2 WAR have come in limited plate appearances makes him more of an All-Star, not less of one. He's got my vote, anyway.
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Ryan P. Morrison is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.