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:
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:
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:
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:
@ScottLindholm You have to try to have a -.9 WAR.— Alex (@Alex_Kienholz) June 20, 2014
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:
|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|
||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|
||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.
|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.