In a continuation of our analysis of the Astros 2018 defense by the numbers, I’ll review the outfield this week. I used Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) in my last edition of the Astros defensive review, which focused on infielders. There are a few different metrics I’d prefer to use this week for outfielders, and I’ll introduce those to you along the way.
Here’s a look at the advanced defensive stats for the Astros outfielders last season.
Astros’ 2018 Outfield Defense
I don’t want to touch on all these numbers, but there are some interesting takeaways. Before I began this writeup, I was of the impression Josh Reddick was a good defensive outfielder—particularly in rightfield. I was right. Reddick ranked sixth amongst all outfielders in “Remote” plays (14.3%) converted into outs last season and he was one of 15 qualified outfielders (min. 900 innings) to convert all his “Almost Certain/Certain” opportunities into outs. Reddick also created seven Outs Above Average (OAA), tied for 15th amongst MLB outfielders with at least 200 opportunities, and had a Catch Percentage Added (Actual Catch % - Expected Catch %) of 3%, just outside MLB’s Top 10, according to Statcast.
My biggest concern with Reddick’s defense was that I didn’t think he had the strongest arm. After perusing the numbers, it looks like I underrated Reddick’s value defensively. His FanGraphs ARM rating, which provides an estimation of how much value a player adds with his throwing ability from the outfield, led the Astros in 2018 (2.3) and was 13th in MLB (for comparison Kyle Schwarber! led baseball with a 7.9 ARM rating, followed by some other guys you’re more likely to expect).
Granted, ARM ratings are prone to variability on a seasonal basis, so I evaluated at Reddick’s year-by-year ARM rating. There were only two seasons (both in Oakland) he didn’t post a positive arm value and he’s provided surplus both seasons with the Astros. Although I was pleasantly surprised by Reddick’s ARM rating, I’m still not convinced it’s due to his arm strength. I do believe Reddick has a very accurate arm (as we saw in the 2017 postseason), however, and that is probably driving his positive value in that regard.
I was surprised to see George Springer only played about half of his time in centerfield last season. I suppose the time Reddick missed with his spider bite and late-game substitutions contributed to that, though Springer did have a similar split in 2017. Anyway, Springer has graded out as a fairly average defensive centerfielder over the course of his career. Springer’s arm has rated well, especially when he’s in rightfield, but he’s generally been limited by his range in the outfield. Springer’s RngR, the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity, was a career-worst -3.7 last year when he played centerfield. He was a more serviceable -0.1 in rightfield, which likely helps explain his split between the two outfield positions. I think there is positive value to Springer’s ability to play both centerfield and leftfield, nonetheless, and having Jake Marisnick available to fortify the Astros defense late in games/fill-in at centerfield also positively impacts the team.
On the surface, leftfield appears to be a problem area for the Astros defensively. The Astros will likely miss the defensive attributes of Marwin Gonzalez, who posted positive values across pretty much all defensive dimensions and was one of the better leftfielders in the league last year. The addition of Michael Brantley probably won’t do much to wow Astros fans in the outfield in 2019—he didn’t convert any of his “Unlikely” plays into outs last season—but he was one of the aforementioned 15 outfielders that made all their “Almost Certain/Certain” plays (Marwin actually has the same distinction, though he didn’t log enough outfield innings to qualify as one of the 15). And Brantley had more than double the opportunities than Marwin (213 vs. 91). On top of that, Brantley actually had a 1.9 ARM rating in leftfield last season, essentially equivalent to Marwin’s 2018. Over his career, it’s mostly in centerfield where Brantley hasn’t provided positive value defensively, and he hasn’t played that position since 2015. Maybe the Astros see more to Brantley’s capabilities as a leftfielder than some of the reports we’ve heard about his defense?
Although I don’t think we have enough major-league data on Kyle Tucker yet to make a definitive statement about his defensive abilities, he didn’t look particularly adept in leftfield last season. Nonetheless, scouting reports and evaluations I’ve seen regarding his defense the past few seasons in the Minors indicate he should be at least an adequate corner outfielder. Tucker’s also now had some time to get acquainted with the unique leftfield situation at Minute Maid Park, so I think he can be expected to improve.
Jake Marisnick added even more OAA (13 total) than Reddick in 2018—which would actually be tied for 6th in MLB, had Marisnick qualified—even though he had nearly 100 fewer attempts. One area in which Marisnick particularly excelled was making plays “back” or “away from the plate,” where he posted 8 OAA. Nicholas Castellanos, who has been involved in some Astros rumblings this offseason, posted a league-worst -24 OAA (-11 “back” and -12 “in”). I think it’s safe to say if the Astros were to acquire Castellanos, he’d primarily serve as the DH. Back to Marisnick—who has long been considered one of the elite defenders in the game—I love him as a fourth outfielder, if he can stay healthy this year. As Brian McTaggart reported, Marisnick “recorded the top average arm strength on “competitive throws” among outfielders, clocking in at an average of 98.6 mph, according to Statcast. He placed in the top five again in ‘16 with an average arm strength of 95.7 mph.”
Jake’s got the ideal arm, speed, range, and stature desired in a centerfielder. If Jake can provide some value with his bat, the Astros will have quite a logjam in the outfield.
The Astros also have Tony Kemp, Aledmys Diaz, Derek Fisher, and Myles Straw as potential outfielders who will contribute in 2019. Although Kemp’s defense isn’t highly regarded, he did make some riveting defensive plays last season, such as this one against the Cleveland Indians
and this one against the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the ALCS.
I’m not really sure what to expect from Diaz. He’s only played nine outfield innings in his major-league career—all in 2017 with the St. Louis Cardinals—but I don’t expect him to solely serve as a backup infielder. He’s been labeled the pseudo-Marwin; a player who adds value with his versatility, so we’ll have to see what the Astros have planned for him (and we’ll likely get that chance soon with Spring Training approaching). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find advanced fielding statistics available for minor leaguers, so I don’t have a lot of data to examine for Fisher/Straw. Both players have outstanding speed, which should help them provide contributions in the outfield, if needed. The Crawford Boxes can make things an adventure for even the most-skilled leftfielders, but they can also be a boon for outfielders without significant arms, something I think will serve as a potential boost for any of the guys in contention for the final outfield spot on the team.
Overall, the Astros outfield defense appears to take a hit with the likely replacement of Marwin with Tucker/Brantley. Of course, Marisnick will likely be an oft-used, late-inning defensive replacement, but we can probably expect to see him get a number of starts as well (assuming he’s still with the club when they break camp) because he’s an absolute stud defensively. Reddick should be reliable in rightfield and Springer’s bat more than makes up for any deficiencies in his defense. The Astros may not have the defensive prowess in the outfield that the Red Sox boast, but I wouldn’t label it a weakness. What remains to be seen is who will be the everyday starter, or if there even is one, in leftfield.