Dodgers Outfield Can Easily Support Four Regulars — with Quasi-Proof!

Matt Kemp recently voiced his distaste for being a potential fourth outfielder. He’s presently dealing with ankle issues, but I think most would agree that when he’s healthy he has the talent of one of the best outfielders in the league. He’s certainly wasted as a bench player, or a late-game defensive specialist, or a guy you put in when the other guy has a hangover. But Los Angeles is paying four outfielders something like a quarter of a billion dollars, so someone has to stomach this demeaning role.

OR DOES SOMEONE?!

In short, no. A study of all the outfielders to make a plate appearance in the last decade demonstrates that teams get 2389 PA for their outfielders, on average. The player with the fourth-most plate appearances got on average 304 of those PA, a mere 12.7 percent. That would indeed be a pitiful use of Matt Kemp, but again that’s just the average. A few teams have demonstrated a better balance of playing time, none more so than the 2007 Yankees. Let’s take a look at their example.

First, it helps that those Yankees got 2668 PA from their outfielders, well above the average, leaving more pie for everyone. That’s no problem; the 2014 Dodgers should have a powerful offense that generates more batting chances than the average offense does. In fact, last year’s Dodgers got 2524 PA from their outfielders, and they were a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of run scoring. We should expect at least that many PA from this year’s outfielders, given that injuries last year gave insane playing time to inferior players. Take a look: 10 Dodgers suited up in the outfield last year. That’s a sign something went wrong.

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This year, health permitting, the Dodgers can mimic the 2007 Yankees and give 95 percent of their PA to their top four guys. Those Yankees were not only healthy and top-heavy, they were incredibly even.

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Their top four guys each got at least 23 percent of total outfield PAs, leaving just 4 percent for the scrubs and replacement players at the very end of the bench. If you apply those ratios to last year’s Dodgers (2524 PA), then the consensus top four guys each get at least 580 PA, which is plenty, just shy of a typical starters’ amount.

That is of course just one possibility for 2014, one that treats the four Dodgers outfielders equally. If you subscribe to the idea that Andre Ethier is just a platoon player at this point, you could subtract say 150 PA from his total and spread those around among Kemp, Puig and Crawford. At that point Ethier becomes a $15 million part-time player, but he’s still getting a sizable part, and that’s the luxury of having the highest payroll.

A Way to Measure Speed and Quantify Its Effects: DP-

Speed is listed as one of the five tools, but metrics for it are either lacking or impenetrable. Stolen bases have been around forever, and in tracking them we’ve learned a lot about speed on the base paths and who is the greatest of all time. Stolen bases start and dominate the conversation, but they don’t represent speed as much as they are a result of multiple factors, speed among them, of course, but also aggressiveness, timing, preparation (studying tape to learn pitchers’ pickoff moves), and opportunity. Some managers enforce conservatism on the base paths, and some players can slug just as well as they can run, so they bat in the heart of the order, more likely to reach base with a player ahead of them (can’t steal unless it’s a double steal). Also less likely to risk getting caught stealing when the next guy in the lineup is a good power hitter. Because Dingers and Ribbies are best enjoyed together, some players with good speed and the inclination to steal will miss out on opportunities.

We could spend all day noting the imperfections of stolen bases, the pappy of all speed statistics, but that’s unproductive, about as unproductive as writing down all the flaws in your real pappy. My goal is to find another statistic that complements stolen bases to help us better understand which players have the best speed, or whose speed impacts the game the most. (Those might be the same question.) To start, I looked at double plays.

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Data from Fangraphs

Above you see how the percent of ground balls that became double plays has fluctuated over the last decade. They seem to have rebounded back to normal last season. You can also see that for the last eight years the AL has been more conducive to ground ball double plays (GDP). The difference is only a few tenths of a percentage point, but it is interesting, if you have an uneventful life like mine. I would guess the DH/pitcher disparity is the difference here. If pitchers are batting with less than two outs (i.e. the only time there could be a double play) and a man on first or multiple men on base, that pitcher is probably going to bunt. Meanwhile, a DH is usually selected for his power. If he was speedy they’d put him in the outfield. So a DH is probably more likely to come up in double play situations and ground into double plays during those situations.

So, with the league average rate of ground balls going for double plays, I compared the rates of individual players. In 2013, 6.5% of ground balls resulted in double plays (GDP/GB = DP%). Matt Holliday, in an extreme case, grounded into 31 double plays, out of 200 total ground balls hit. 31/200 = 15.5%. By multiplying Holliday’s total of 200 by the league average rate of 6.5%, we can say the league average hitter would have made only 13 double plays (xDP, x for expected). With the same amount of ground balls, Holliday made 18 more double plays than we would expect of an average hitter, thus “costing” his team 18 outs.

On the other hand, Norichika Aoki hit into only 9 double plays out of 328 ground balls, good for a 2.7% DP%. A league average hitter would be expected to hit 21.3 double plays, so Aoki “saved” his team 12.3 outs. Aoki is a fast player, Holliday notoriously slow and gimpy and getting old. These extreme cases jive with what we’d expect. In the narrow view speed doesn’t always break up a double play, but in the wide view it should, so let’s look at the players alongside Aoki and Holliday at the ends of the spectrum.

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2013 leaderboard using the MLB average (i.e., not split between AL and NL). All data from Fangraphs. What the hell is Adam Dunn doing here? Click to embiggen.

Again, xDP is the expected number of double plays based on the league average DP% of 6.5. DP- is the difference between a player’s actual and expected double plays (GDP – xDP = DP-). DP- gives good players negative scores, the lower the better, as in ERA- or FIP-.

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The leaderboard was filled with speedy guys, the anti-leaderboard with catchers and portly players. It does seem like speed is the driving issue behind the differences at the extremes. Of course, guys at the top of the second graph had a lot of opportunities to bat with runners on base, which may have inflated their DP- a little. Even so, Occam’s Razor wins out: The reason fast guys populated the first board and slow guys the second is that DP- measures pretty accurately the difference between fast and slow players in terms of double plays. In general, slow guys hit into more double plays and fast guys fewer, regardless of external circumstances; those always even out in the long run.

Stolen bases are choices. Not everyone decides to steal, but everyone must run to first as quickly as possible when they hit a ground ball. In ground ball double plays, a few tenths of a second make all the difference–fast players get to first base before the ball does, slow players can’t. Double plays above or below average are therefore a good index of speed; and therefore DP- is a good index of speed, and a purer one than stolen bases, for there is no element of choice. Over the course of a season, a individual’s speed when running against a potential double play can make a difference of 15 outs or so. This is just one small way speed shows up, the start of an inquiry.

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N of players: 385

Fifteen extra outs may not sound like a lot, especially because that number represents the extremes, but I’ve started to mess with Tom Tango’s linear weights in order to convert the outs gained and lost to runs gained and lost. With what I have so far, Matt Holliday cost the Cardinals 3 runs and Norichika Aoki saved the Brewers 2. From there, it’s easy to get to -0.3 wins for Holliday and +0.2 wins for Aoki. So only fractions of a win, with admittedly crude calculations, but again, this is just a first look of one kind of situation in which speed is manifest.

The NL in Great (Position) Players, Post-Bonds

Yesterday, for fun, I looked up all the National League position players who have accumulated at least 6 WAR in a season since 2005, and I mapped them out on a chart. Nothing fancy, just what you see below.

Click to engorge in a furtive new window.

I was going to start the time line at 2000, but that would have made this thing monstrously large, since all Barry Bonds did was rack up WARs over 10 and up to 12. The closest anyone has gotten to 10 WAR since 2005 is Albert Pujols in 2009, who got 8.7 WAR.

And since that year, only two other NL position players have even cleared 8 WAR. Matt Kemp in this context looks a little more like a flash-in-the-pan, whereas Andrew McCutchen is probably just getting started.

These men are the best the National League has had to offer since megaBonds stopped producing at megalevels. It’s been nine years now, so we’re basically looking at an era. Any player who played through the bulk of these seasons better show up on this list at least twice if he wants to be a serious Hall of Fame candidate. Let’s look at the one-timers above.

Derrek Lee was a good-hitting first baseman who put together a great year. I don’t think you can describe him as anything more than that. Jim Edmonds shows up here in the twilight of his career. This graph wouldn’t be very useful in evaluating him, you’d have to go back to the ’90s. Even without that graph, I feel confident saying he’s not a candidate.

Oops, seems like I skipped Morgan Ensberg.

Miguel Cabrera went to the American League and continued to mash.

Alfonso Soriano was always an exciting talent, but his flaws with the bat and in the field kept him from performing at elite levels consistently. Jimmy Rollins was the best shortstop in the NL for a time, but that’s not enough, especially since his double-play buddy Chase Utley was setting a higher example the entire time. The Big Puma Lance Berkman was once as feared as a big puma should be. He had some great seasons before 2005, and deserves consideration. One thing helping the case of Adrian Gonzalez is that he switched leagues soon after 2009 and posted 6.3 WAR for the Red Sox in 2011. Now that he’s with the Dodgers, he can add to this chart and to his resume.

Andres Torres is the least likely name here except for maybe Morgan Ensberg. Torres played out of his mind for the eventual champion Giants. He patrolled center better than anyone else that season, and his bat was hot for four months and cool for two. His speed and defense were so stellar he ranked as the fourth-best player in a weak NL. He wasn’t even a regular before that season, and he hasn’t been one since.

Justin UptonBuster PoseyJason Heyward, and Paul Goldschmidt are all quite young, and I think most of us would expect all of them to show up again. Matt Carpenter is more of a surprise, and an iffier bet to repeat, because his line drives came at Votto-esque levels. Could we really have two Vottos at once? What makes us so special?

Yadier Molina needed his best offensive season to climb over 6 WAR in 2012. (That’s the only time he’s hit 20+ dingers.) He will need one or two more seasons like that, or he will be remembered as merely the best defensive backstop of his time. I’m not sure if the defense alone will get him in. By the time he’s on the ballot, we might have new ways of quantifying catchers’ defensive contributions. They could ultimately temper or reinforce our belief in his defense

I think our last three guys–Chase HeadleyMichael Bourn and Carlos Gomez–are not likely to return to this level of performance. All three could fit in the category “Guys who had great defense at important positions and who, in their prime years, put together a truly worthy offensive season to go alongside that defense.” Gomez is young, though, and exciting. Maybe the only reason he fit into the category is because I tried so hard to make him fit.

That leaves us with: Albert Pujols, Andruw Jones, Chase Utley, Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Matt Holliday, Chipper Jones, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, Joey Votto, Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen as the cream of the NL from 2005 to 2013. When you think of the best players of this era, your thoughts should start with these guys. Some of them made their name before, some of them still have their best to come, but during these nine years there was no one better. Except maybe guys in the American League.