On the Astros: Brandon Barnes, Justin Maxwell and center field defense

USA TODAY Sports

What do the Astros do with Justin Maxwell when he returns? Has Brandon Barnes been as good defensively has the former starting center fielder?

Let's keep the discussion flowing about this Brandon Barnes character. Brian T. Smith wrote an article the other dayabout Maxwell's struggles with Corpus Christi and how that might affect Houston's outfield plans in the future. But, the quote that caught my eye was this one from Porter about Maxwell and Barnes, from a notebook Jose de Jesus Ortiz did last weekend:

“Brandon Barnes has done a great job in center field,” manager Bo Porter said. “I didn’t want (Maxwell) to get back here and have not played any right field because when he gets back I’m not going to exclusively play Barnes some place else or play Justin in center field exclusively. It all depends on who’s in the lineup. I want the flexibility for him to be able to have some innings under his belt, recent innings in right field.”

That sounds like some questions might need to get answered. But, the one that jumped off the page at me was this: isn't Justin Maxwell the better defensive center fielder? Why on earth would Houston be taking him off that spot?

That leads us to our second question from yesterday, which we held for now.

Is Barnes better than Justin Maxwell defensively?

We know Barnes will provide more contact potential than Maxwell at the plate, but JMaxx is a much more powerful hitter. Barnes has some light tower home runs, but is not hitting them at the pace Maxwell did last season.

So, why are the Astros considering replacing Maxwell in center field? Is Barnes truly a better defender than Maxwell out there?

Lucky for us, we have stats to sort this all out. Look at Fielding Runs first:

Barnes - 5.9 Fielding Runs (2013)

Maxwell - 4.5 Fielding Runs (2012)

Yeah, we're comparing Maxwell's numbers from last year, since he hasn't played much this year out there. Barnes has the edge, right? But, he's also played all over the outfield. How have the two compared just in center field?

In another lucky twist, it appears both have played about the same number of innings in center field, if we compare Maxwell's 2012 stats there and Barnes' career numbers in center.

Barnes - 381 innings, 8 Defensive Runs Saved, 9.3 UZR

Maxwell - 403 innings, 12 DRS, 10.5 UZR

Hmm. Now Maxwell has the edge. These numbers, while useful, still don't give us a clear picture of why Maxwell is better than Barnes or vice versa. But, we can drill down into the numbers some more to see how they compare.

Defensive Runs Saved is a metric which takes different parts of fielding and weights them by the number of runs saved through that action. Outfielders are rated on their Arm, Good Fielding Plays and Plays Made. Maxwell has consistently been slightly below average at making plays with his arm, and was worth -1 defensive run last season in that category.

He was slightly better at making good plays, and was worth plus-1 defensive run. This is what it's talking about when they say Good Fielding Plays.

Maxwelldive_medium

Barnes, on the other hand, has been worth 4 defensive runs with his arm and 2 with his good plays while only getting seven for plays made. You are probably familiar with Barnes' good defensive plays, but here's a refresher:

Barnesdive_medium

And this one.

Barnesruns_medium

Why is there a difference in plays made? Well, we can see exactly why through another defensive stat, Out of Zone plays. This one breaks the field up into different zones and assigns some to different fielders. It's the same concept that sparks Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Players who make plays outside their zones get credit for that.

Maxwell made 36 such plays last season in center field, while Barnes has only made 21 in his time out there. That explains the difference in both plays made and UZR between the two.

So, what does that tell us? Barnes doesn't have the range that Maxwell does in center but he's got a much better arm and a knack for making big plays. So, which factor should matter more here? Which one decides who's the better fielder?

Well, let's look at the rest of the league for a minute. Last season, only four center fielders in baseball posted defensive run totals with their arms above three. Only two posted good fielding play numbers above two. Only three posted plays made totals above eight.

Barnes looks like he could be one of the best throwing center fielders in the game if he keeps up this pace all season. Just look at that arm.

Barnesgun_medium

He won't keep it up, because teams will eventually stop running on him. Both Maxwell and Barnes, though, are posting DRS numbers that would put them favorably at the top of the entire league defensively in center field.

That's what makes this so hard. The players really are very close defensively. Barnes has the better arm but less range. Maxwell has a less-sure bat but can get to more balls.

It won't be an easy decision, but I bet Barnes gets to stay in center for a while. In fact, I'd expect he starts many road games in center, with Maxwell shifting over to right. At home, though? Maxwell should see plenty of time next to Tal's Hill.

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