Can the Indians Improve Center Field in House?

Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports

In life there are inescapable flaws which are revisited by human beings on a nearly constant basis in order to chase some semblance of wholeness. For the Indians, center field has been such blemish since the days of a young Grady Sizemore.

In 2016, Naquin outperformed everyone’s wildest imaginations offensively. Even considered comprehensively, it is not unreasonable to expect that his first big league season will be his best. This is not to belittle Naquin who does a fantastic job barreling the baseball when he is able to make contact, but the issue of being able to make contact is a powerful one. Naquin posted a 135 wRC+ or .886 OPS on the back of an unsustainably inflated BABIP. Naquin’s value was 2.6 fWAR. As WFNY’s Michael Bode established this morning, center field was still one of three positions where the Indians had below league average production. The other positions being first base and catcher.

With Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana manning first base/designated hitter, those positions immediately become above average. As detailed over the past month, while catcher may not be league average, it will likely see a significant performance improvement. This leaves center field as the final topic of note among position players for 2017. WFNY has had extensive coverage of center field focusing on trade and other external options.  As the calendar turns closer to February, it appears more and more likely that the Indians will be staying in-house in center field. Like Sisyphus, I will once again push the boulder that is center field problems up the hill.

One of the assertions for seeking a different option in center field than Naquin is not that his bat is going to collapse, even significant steps back will make him a league average hitter. Rather it is the belief that Naquin is simply so poor in center field that a step back in his offense will collapse his value altogether. Naquin the center fielder was always a strange match. Out of the draft Naquin was presumed a right fielder and has not become faster with age.

If one combines the scouting reports which graded Naquin as a borderline defender in center with horrific grades in UZR/150 and DRS, it becomes difficult to see Naquin remaining there.1

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Shown above are the catches Naquin failed to make inside his range. There are a lot of coin flip and high likelihood balls that simply are not converted to outs, which when watching him run routes is unsurprising. So, Naquin might be ill-suited to center field, but he retains value as platoon bat against RHP. Is an option which could provide a potential upgrade in center field? Abraham Almonte has value as a fourth outfielder but appears to be a fringy starter. beat reporter Jordan Bastian suggested that Zimmer could start the season with the Indians if the Indians stand pat:

If the Indians do not add to their current mix, maybe that could increase Zimmer’s chances. Overall, Zimmer hit .250 with 15 homers, 25 doubles, six triples, 62 RBIs, 38 steals and 76 runs scored in 130 games between Double-A Akron and Columbus in 2016.

Zimmer comes with his warts a strikeout and pull side issue that threaten to mute his offense and with his whiff rate issues more time fine-tuning his approach seems likely. Greg Allen has garnered significant buzz for both his floor and his polish. His upside and was well covered by Jim Pete. Zimmer or Allen by early June is a reasonable expectation which is further impacted by Michael Brantley’s health problems, one dark horse candidate appears to have surfaced. However, of the Indians upper-level prospects, Eric Longenhagen Fangraphs lead prospect writer sees Diaz as being big league ready now(answering a MLB readiness question):

Probably Diaz. He could put on an Indians jersey right now and play great defense at a bunch of spots. Allen would be next and I like him better than Diaz as a prospect. Zimmer’s swing and miss would probably take some time to iron out before he’s ripping homers and doubles.

Yandy Diaz has been once again shredding pitching to the tune of a .961 OPS in 40 winter league games but most interesting has been Diaz deployment. Diaz played seven of his last ten games in center field and at least 15 total in center field and 17 in left field. Diaz is preparing as an outfielder signals a few different possibilities. First, a couple of bread crumbs of optimism. In discussing contact, David Wallace also noted Diaz’ speed:

“When you add the tool of speed, which Yandy and Greg have, it puts even more pressure on the defense.”

Using Clay Davenport’s minor league data conversions, Diaz graded out positively on defense in right field, though our qualifications about the noise of these data points remains. Diaz likely represents a potential complement to Naquin in center field if the Indians choose to punt on defense. Paired together there can be some small optimism about Yandy Diaz, center fielder. As bats pair, this is dreamy, Diaz destroys left-handed pitching and Naquin right-handed pitching. Further, Diaz likely fits providing a bench bat to optimize platoon play in left field and resting Jose Ramirez.

While punting defense at a critical defensive position sounds on its surface foolish, there is an argument to be made that center field defense is less impactful to the Indians than most other teams. What limits plays for outfielders? Strikeouts and ground balls. What does the Indians pitching staff do really well? Create strikeouts and ground balls.

The Indians were fifth in K/9 innings in 2016, and the Indians top five starters – Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Bauer and Tomlin- are now ground ball dominant to varying degrees. Perhaps this is the reason the Indians can afford to wait on the ascendance of Bradley Zimmer or Greg Allen.

This is a messy circle. An argument for and against punting defense early in the season, while having some shuddering flashbacks of 2015. But, the option is one that the Tribe can afford to consider. They are loaded with an elite roster, which is possibly the best in the American League as the Tribe has above average players at every infield position, an elite bullpen, and an above average rotation. They can get by with center field being a below average position.2

So, the Indians will likely not improve center field production in 2017, but they don’t need to do so to get back to the postseason or even the World Series.

  1. Relying on DRS/UZR in single season samples is certainly flawed as defensive data in baseball is largely a disorganized mess, however, when pairing with what the eyes see, and what reports expected we see a bigger picture []
  2. with numerous long-term options in Zimmer and Allen []