Bradley Zimmer and the Indians Center Field Problem

Thomas Roy/Union Leader

As the fog begins to clear from the 2016 World Series that wore on our hearts, minds, and bodies, there are a few clear lessons for the Cleveland Indians moving into 2017. The most important lesson being one which was reiterated in playoff baseball coming off regular season concerns, the Indians lack a player who can properly defend in center field.

Tyler Naquin’s miscues under the bright lights of World Series baseball were not rare events but rather emblematic of someone who simply who lacks the speed, reads and routes to be an average defender in that position. In a Friday afternoon presser, Ryan Lewis of the Akron Beacon Journal noted that Antonetti saw potential usage shifts for Naquin.

The Indians see Tyler Naquin as being able to play all three outfield spots. Roster composition could be the determining factor in where he sees the most time.

For someone who played center field exclusively in 2016, this is not a ringing endorsement. Indeed, the implication is that they would like to push Naquin to a corner.  This development cannot come as a surprise, of 65 outfielders who logged 800 plus innings Naquin had the 4th worst DRS at -18. Other defensive measurements are similarly atrocious for Naquin. It is important to note that DRS and other defensive metrics are wildly imperfect; defense being a raw frontier in the analytics world. However, pairing DRS (and other measures) with the eye test is a good place to start and with all Naquin looked lost.

Setting aside Naquin’s offensive evaluation for a more comprehensive analysis, it is not unreasonable to posit that the Indians will attempt to improve on the center field position. There are three routes to an upgrade: free agency, trade, and in house. The prospect with the most pedigree and hype is Bradley Zimmer.1

Zimmer will enter 2017 at 24 years of age, which is older than Francisco Lindor and roughly the same age as Jose Ramirez. This is an age where players are often called upon and are nearing the end of their developmental time. Zimmer played 37 games with the Columbus Clippers. Most of the time, Triple-A is more similar to purgatory than finishing school. Barring injury Zimmer will be in Cleveland at some point in 2017.

While Zimmer was drafted with the buzz of an advanced college bat, which gave him a profile to move up quickly, the most unpolished part of his game is his hit tool. Evaluating a hit tool has many different inputs: contact frequency (K%), discipline (BB%/K%), contact quality (type and distribution), and finally marrying this info with scouting reports.2

First, as to why K% is so important. Chris Mitchell of Fangraphs has done extensive research to discover what statistics or indicators have the strongest relationship with big league success. A table reflecting this research is inserted below.

Courtesy of Chris Mitchell

Courtesy of Chris Mitchell

Start with age in order to determine if the player is significantly younger than other players at the level to help indicate if he is overmatched due to age. Zimmer has been roughly the average age over every level he has played at except for his final month in Columbus. K% is the second most important stat in terms of correlation to big league success, which is not a good sign for Zimmer.

K% per level for Zimmer with number of plate appearances.

2016 AAA: 36.6%, 150 PA

2016 AA: 28.3%, 407 PA

2015 AA: 25.2%, 214 PA

None of these are a large sample but cumulatively they map a concerning trend and large enough to draw a conclusion regarding his problems with the swing and miss.

Shop Cleveland Indians gear at!Zimmer has enormous swing and miss issues which where highlighted by former scout and current Fangraphs prospect writer Eric Longenhagen in Arizona a week ago:

Cleveland OF prospect Bradley Zimmer swung and missed a lot yesterday. It takes his bat quite a while to get into the hitting zone and his hitting actions look stiff and uncomfortable. The physical tools are clearly still there but I think there’s significant work to be done.

From a Baseball Prospectus scouting report:

Long bat path with smooth stroke; above avg bat speed; patient approach that works deep counts; prone to swing-miss

What do elevated K% do to a players hit tool? They put a ceiling on batting average because of the low frequency of balls in play. Further, players with high K% are much less useful with runners in scoring position because contact is more rewarded in those situations.

There is yet another concern for Bradley Zimmer’s hit tool, contact distribution. I noted the important of an all fields approach to sustaining a decent batting average when writing about Jose Ramirez.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Zimmer is pull dominant which allows him to generate above average power to the pull field but also will curb his batting average at the big league level when shifted with significant frequency much the way Carlos Santana’s batting average is limited by the shift. Indeed, offensively the upper outcome looks like that of a poor man’s Carlos Santana. Above average power, solid walk rate, bad batting average.

Still, Zimmer’s flaws look fairly exploitable at the big league level, swing and miss generally only gets worse as pitching improves unless the player is very young for the league like a Lindor or Ramirez who adjusts. Zimmer will not be particularly young. Further, the worry developmentally about a quick move to the big league for a player with a tons of swing and miss is that he can get lost, lose confidence, and allow those to hurt his other tools.

Zimmer has above average power and is a tick above average base runner. So, if he can play average defense in center field, these tools could probably cover for the below average hit tool. But the reports about Zimmer as a center fielder aren’t exactly glowing.

Kiley McDaniel now in the Atlanta Braves front office did not expect Zimmer to play in center field in the long term:

Again, deceptively, he’ll sneak up on you with plus run times despite his size and has long strides and good reads in center field. The Indians will keep him there, but the expectation is that he’ll lose a step, slide over to right and be above average over there, due in part to his plus arm.

When these comments were made Zimmer weighed a spindly 184 pounds, now Zimmer has added weight to look a more brawny 205.

From Chris Mellen at Baseball Prospectus:

Long strides enable player to cover ground into gaps and close on ball; at times does look clunky and a bit awkward in center field; reads ball off the bat; takes good routes and does not drift; displays strong outfield fundamentals; believe right field is the best fit for player over the long-run; don’t see enough mobility to play center consistently; can play center in a pinch and during stretches.

Others at Baseball Prospectus think he can stick in center field Adam Hayes:

Covers a lot of ground; reads and routes still developing; looks capable of staying in CF

When there is not a consensus that a player can stay in center, let alone defend it at above average, it becomes reasonable to be concerned about defense. Similar reports were given regarding Naquin’s long term future likely being as a corner outfielder. Which leaves the center field question largely unanswered and creates a logjam on the corners.

Zimmer remains a good prospect with a couple above average tools but it is important to note that Zimmer has flaws and will not likely be the short or long term solution in center field. The swing and miss brings huge risk into Zimmer’s prospect profile which must be curbed to allow slightly above average power to play up. His defensive skills have him destined for a corner outfield spot.

The Indians then have one problem and one positive. First, the problem, center field defense must be addressed and the position improved. The Indians cannot rely on Naquin and Davis for another season. A move outside the organization will be required, a fill-in until Allen is ready.

The positive is that Lonnie Chisenhall, Naquin, and Zimmer are all likely above average defenders in right field, crush right handed pitching, and there is redundancy within them. The Indians can use this redundancy to upgrade another position. Possibly flipping Chisenhall due to his escalating arbitration costs or Naquin if they want to attempt to maximize on an asset they may not trust.

The Indians contention window remains open for 2017 – and likely longer. So, acquiring an upgrade in center field has to be a priority.

  1. Though Greg Allen looks the most promising as a potential long term starter in center field. []
  2. Though, I have watched Zimmer more than a handful times with my own visual conclusions, I will rely on people with scouting experience for this part of the analysis. []