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Baseball's best left fielders visualized

In this series that reviews players position-by-position, left field is under the microscope. FanGraphs measures and a Tableau data visualization show the left fielders who are delivering the most value--and those who aren't.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Some defensive positions have changed more than others, but left field might be the horseshoe crab that has evolved little in baseball's history. It's always been the position for players with good bats, slow feet, questionable arms and iffy defensive ability, a one- or possibly two-tool player whose hitting is so outstanding as to make defensive deficiencies acceptable; either way though, the hitting better be spectacular.

The crux for this post is a Tableau data visualization that plots FanGraphs Dollar Value (FG$V) on the horizontal axis and pro-rated salary on the vertical. FG$V is a straight-line function of a players fWAR, and in 2015 is equal to around $8 million per fWAR point. As such the horizontal axis also shows the players with the best fWAR.

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Yoenis Cespedes has had an interesting year--over the past 12 months he's been on three teams, going from playoff-bound Oakland to nowhere-bound Boston to "Hey, we need a left fielder, stat!" Detroit. Since reaching the majors in 2012, he's inspired awe with some of his amazing throws like this one from last year:

Who knows if the change of scenery helped or perhaps protection in the lineup from Miguel Cabrera and Victor and J.D. Martinez, but he appears rejuvenated playing for the Tigers this year. His fielding is still average at best, but his batting average has responded well to his new home. He apparently will never learn to take a walk, with an OBP only 30 points greater than his average, less than half the typical player, and he could be on pace for a career high in strikeouts.

Back in the day, The Replacements had a song called "Alex Chilton," with this chorus:

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round
They sing "I'm in love. What's that song?
I'm in love with that song."

During last year's playoffs, I tweeted that chorus and substituted "Gordon" for "Chilton" when he came to bat or made a good (or bad) play and added pertinent comments. I'm sure I amused myself no one but myself, but that's what Twitter is for, along with settling political and religious disputes. He hit a single with two outs in the 9th inning of Game 7 of last year's World Series that Juan Perez and Gregor Blanco misplayed into allowing Gordon reach third and think about trying for home to tie the game:

Gordon seemed to be just another player who didn't live up to his expectations until moving to left, and since 2011, he leads all left fielders in FanGraphs Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) with 93. Next on that list is Starling Marte--with 36. Expand that to all positions, and he's been the second-best defender in baseball, behind only Andrelton Simmons. Combine stellar defense with above-average offense, and that's a player who deserves his own Replacements tune.

A brief note--FanGraphs lists players at any position they've played, and outfield has more players who move around more than other positions. I've manually cleaned this up in the past but chose not to this year and will just focus on those players who primarily play a given position. It may make for a messier chart with more players, but using the filters can reduce the number of players seen.

Justin Upton was acquired by the Padres in a trade that extended the offseason moves by the Braves that confounded me. In the process they changed their outfield and closer:

Pos 2014 Age 2015 Age
LF Justin Upton 27 Jonny Gomes 34
CF Melvin Upton 30 Cameron Maybin 28
RF Jason Heyward 25 Nick Markakis 31
CL Craig Kimbrel 27 Jason Grilli 38

The Justin Upton trade netted Jace Peterson, and Jason Heyward yielded Shelby Miller, but getting older, more expensive while not getting better is a bad trifecta. Upton is a free agent after this season, which no doubt played a role in his trade. The Padres were supposed to be one of those teams changing directions, but so far the only thing they've changed is their manager (twice). It will be interesting to see what teams pursue Upton, since he's a young free agent who's been very consistent his entire career.

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the left field play of Ben Revere,
In the Year of Our Lord 2-0-1-5;
LFs with one homer won't survive

Words cannot express my apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for what I did to his poem, but rumor has it he was a Red Sox fan anyway. The Phillies are going nowhere, and with the emergence of Odubel Herrera in center field (and I use the term "emergence" with great trepidation), Revere had to go somewhere else. Teams can have at most two players who are defense-first, and those players better be up-the-middle guys. Revere can buck this trend by getting on base and being driven in, but these are the Phillies, so. . . There are no shortage of seasons in which a left fielder had fewer than 10 home runs with at least 400 plate appearances, but usually not in a positive manner. If Revere can keep batting .300, increase the walks and be a top-of-the-order table setter, he might survive, but he'll always be looking over his back.

I'm at a loss to understand what the Red Sox were thinking when they signed Hanley Ramirez with the expectation they'd play him in left. From a fantasy perspective I can almost understand it--"Hey, he was a shortstop--playing left field has to be easier! Plus it's Fenway! Plus it has to work!" It hasn't--he's the worst-fielding left fielder, and it's not really close. Take a moment to consider the ramifications of "worst-fielding left fielder"--he's the worst of the most defensively-challenged position on the field, which makes for a solid argument that he's. . .the worst defensive player in baseball. He's not, but he's in the discussion. Not to worry, Red Sox fans, you only have him through 2018.

It was almost guaranteed Jayson Werth wouldn't live up to the contract the Nationals gave him, but they were counting on a 20 home run/80 RBI guy to complement Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper. Injuries have caught up to him this year, and it remains to be seen how he'll return from that. With Anthony Rendon's myriad of injuries, they could certainly use any help Werth could provide.

Melky Cabrera was part of the huge haul White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn made in the offseason, and along with Jeff Samardzija, Adam LaRoche and David Robertson, was supposed to propel them back to respectability. Writers who shouldn't be trusted fell for this, and hopes were high as the season began. Cabrera typifies the dumpster fire this Sox season has been, and in retrospect, chances are too much was expected from him. He and Adam Eaton were supposed to get on base and let Jose Abreu, LaRoche and Avisail Garcia drive them home. It hasn't worked out that way since the Sox are below average in both the number of baserunners they have and the percent of time they're driven in, which is a horrible combination. They're the kings of the stupid mistake, which can be seen in my Mistake Index, and Cabrera just seems to be the natural focus for this. It's not fair, he didn't make the Sox commit to him through 2017, but that's baseball.

Left field is an interesting position today, since in order to rise above the defensive shortcomings, a player has to be almost superhuman with the bat. Other than Alex Gordon, it's hard to call any of them outstanding, although Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Brett Gardner are quite good. It's the true mutt of defensive positions, places where players who can hit go after they either can't handle other positions or better players come along. There will always be talk of great defensive center and right fielders, but the great defensive left fielder is a shorter discussion. Given that, he has little choice but to be a great hitter, because if he isn't, he's well on the path to being an ex-ball player.

Scott Lindholm is a writer and editor for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a contributor to BP Wrigleyville. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.