Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nationals Review: Center Field

Every team seems to have one, a position they just can't seem to fill. They'll cycle players through for a month or two at a time, maybe settling in with some journeymen for a few years at a time. The Cubs were never able to find a 3B. The Yankees always seemed to have a new LFer every year.

For the Nats, it's been a rotating cast of characters in center since day one. This year was a relatively stable year at the position, yet the Nats used six difference center fielders. Last year it was 10. Remember Luis Matos? They can never seem to find an answer.

But part of the problem, I think, is that they don't really know the question to ask. The problem the franchise has had in CF is that they've wanted to shoehorn that position not just into a defensive role, but also into an offensive one. They want a slick-fielding, speedy runner with a high OBP to bat leadoff.

One problem.

There aren't many of them.

Here's the exhaustive list of all MLB CFers who have had a single season with a .350 OBP and 30 or more SB since 2000.

It's happened just 16 times.

30 teams x 8 seasons of play means there were 240 opportunities for just such a player, and it's happened only 16 times. No wonder the Nats couldn't find that. It's practically an endangered species.

If you lower the SB threshold down to 20 -- since SB are down league-wide -- you still get just 28 individual seasons. The Nats are looking for something that just isn't there, trying to either shape the personnel they have into unfair roles (as they did with Endy Chavez) or hoping that their marginal talent will bloom into Kenny Lofton (as they have done with Nook Logan).

It hasn't worked.

It was that hope that led Nook Logan to the starting CF job coming out of spring training. It certainly wasn't his .245 spring BA or his career .334 minor league OBP. As fate would have it, Logan strained his foot on opening day while going for a catch deep into the gaps. He would miss a month.

When he went on the DL, the Nats recalled Kory Casto and shifted old hand Ryan Church to the position that they worked hard to not give him over the last two years. He would flourish.

Through that first month, Church caught most everything he needed to catch, and was quite the sparkplug for the offense, one of the few players to really be doing anything. He hit .284, got on base at a .392 clip, and thanks to 12 doubles in 30 games, he slugged .490.

But with Casto flailing away and the team's OCD-like need for CF defense, Church was needed elsewhere. Nook Logan came off the DL and the team sent Chris Snelling away for Ryan Langerhans, and a platoon was born. From the beginning of May til mid-June, Langerhans and Logan would alternate.

It wasn't a strict platoon, as Logan's switch-hitting ability ("ability"?) allowed him to face some righties, too. And you could tell that Acta WANTED to settle on someone, giving both 3-5 game stretches to try to establish themselves. But it didn't work. Neither batter really did all that much.

Well, anything, really. Logan "hit" .198/ .235/ .272 over those 81 plate appearances. Langerhans faired better, sometimes coming off the bench and filling in at the corners: .257/ .382/ .432. It was towards the end of that run that Logan gave up switch-hitting, choosing to bat right-handed for the remainder of the season.

So with neither player really doing much, the Nats shuffled the roster once again. Robert Fick went to the bereavement list to deal with the death of his mother and Brandon Watson -- he of the 43-game minor league hitting streak -- got another chance in the majors.

Manny gave him his chance, writing his name in the lineup for five straight games, and he slapped enough singles to give the illusion of usefulness, batting .273. (Just pay no attention to the .316 OBP or the .333 SLG) During this time, I heard Bowden interviewed on the radio, and he downplayed Watson's accomplishments in the minors, constantly mentioning that AAA pitching isn't like NL pitching (although Mike Bacsik's performance could render that point moot). He also criticized his defense (there's that bugaboo again!). So it wasn't any surprise that he was back on a plane to Columbus once Fick was ready to rejoin the team.

In Watson's place came the headless platoon. Again. Only this time with a solely right-handed Logan. Logan would respond, a bit. (or at least he'd get lucky with some more of those singles dropping in). Over the month of that latest experiment, he got his line up to .250/ .333/ .357. Solidly below average, but when you factor in the defense he was playing, he wasn't a complete crusher. Over that same period, Langerhans would crater, hitting .127/ .200/ .309. Only a performance this terrible could make Nook's look excellent.

So that led to the newest plan: All Logan, All The Time! And proving that this is one weird game, it worked. Logan started hitting the ball a bit better, making more consistent contact, and actually getting those balls to drop in. Luck, perhaps. But it also could've been a change in his approach thanks to the abandonment of his switch-hitting. Either way, the Nats were happy for the catalyst a .364/ .403/ .439 line provides.

But then the Nats would trade for Wily Mo Pena, and Manny flirted around with Church and Kearns in CF for a game or too, instead of leaving Logan out there every day.

Well, it screwed with Logan's mojo. (or maybe that was just regression to the mean! OK, it was entirely regression!) From mid-August to the end of the season, Logan got the bulk of the starts with the odd Church one mixed in. (at least til the very end of the season, but we'll get to that in a second.) Logan didn't do well. The batting average dropped back down, and he's never walked nor hit for much power. So when he's batting .250, as he did then, the team's offense is going to suffer.

Then finally, at the end of the season, Acta turned CF over to one of the only position prospects the Nats have, Justin Maxwell. His raw power impressed the hell out of everyone, given his towering flyballs, but the plate patience wasn't there with a 8/1 K/BB ratio. But, oh, that power!

So all that flailing around, the 14 different plans, and what did the Nats find out?

That Ryan Church isn't a terrible stopgap CF. That Nook Logan probably can't be a regular CFer. That Ryan Langerhans is meh. That Justin Maxwell is intriguing.

Didn't we know all of that before the season began?

So barring a free agent signing, the Nats will go into next year with CF continuing to be a question, especially if they're not content to give Church the job. And next year, unless Maxwell develops even more quickly, we still won't have an answer to the question.

OFFENSE

Logan ended the year at .265 .304 .345, an on-base percentage way too low to be usable in a major-league lineup. Church started 39 games at CF and thanks to some good timing, hit .292/ .394/ .555 at that position. Langerhans got 33 starts and hit .170/ .273/ .283.

Gah.

As a whole, NL CFers created 1481 runs, using 8187 outs in the process. They created .181 runs for every out.

Nook Logan created 37 runs, using 259 outs in the process. The league average CFer would've created 47 runs (.181 * 259) if he had used Logan's same number of outs. Subtracting that out, (37-47), Logan was 10 runs below a league average CFer. (Despite playing only about half a season)

I can't do a direct comparison with Church's CF numbers (and there's a sample size problem there as well), so I'll use his full season numbers. He created 77 runs in 359 outs. So he'd have been 12 runs above average had he spent all season in CF.

(For an apples to apples comparison, had Church created runs at the same rate he did all season (77/359), he would have created 55 runs in the same number of outs as Logan did, making him ~18 runs better on offense over Logan's half season.

Sum up the totality of the Nats CFers, and you're probably around 10 runs or so below average on offense.

DEFENSE

I've got a theory about Nats CFers. No real stats to back it up, just a gut feeling.

Logan took a lot of criticism for his defense this year. Truthfully, he deserved some of it -- if I saw him back off on another can of corn between outfielders for fear of a collision, I was going to scream. But he also got a lot of criticism for playing deep and for too many balls dropping in.

I think that's an optical illusion.

RFK is so massive, the outfield walls so far back -- especially in the deepest part of the gaps -- that it skews our perspective. CFers have to play a bit deeper and when they do come in to make a catch, it doesn't seem as tough as it is because our minds make us think there's less territory out there than there is; we're not used to seeing so much fair area.

Look at the Rockies last few games in Coors Field. The announcers have made much of the size of the fair territory making it a tough place to play defense. Now it's probably a bit larger than RFK (in spots), but there's still a lot of grass to cover and the occasional bleeder has blooped in. That doesn't mean that the team was playing bad defense, just as the occasional dying quail into RFK's CF doesn't mean the fielder was playing poorly. With that much territory to cover, things are going to drop in.

The other notion I have back in my mind is that this "first step" thing has been a constant criticism of every Nats CFer. We heard it about Church, Wilkerson, Wilson, etc. (At least in Wilson's case, it was deserved.) But I remember Wilson saying something (and getting told to shut the hell up) about how hard it was to play CF there because of the rim of the stadium. I wonder if that's a factor and if that "park effect" (if you will) is contributing to some of our heartburn about defense.

But enough of that... what about the stats?

Well, they love, love, love Nook Logan.

Among CFers with 700 defensive innings, his zone rating (the percentage of balls in his area that he turns into outs) is third in the NL, just behind Andruw Jones and Carlos Beltran. He was 10th in the league in plays made outside of his zone (42), which is higher than the totals of those immediately around him in defensive innings. Think of those as "stolen hits", the plays that the 'average' CFer has only a so-so chance of converting.

Sure, he's got a terrible arm, but his speed and the jump he gets helps to take away plenty of hits, especially in RFK's massive gaps.

If you aim to convert his range to runs, he's about 10 runs better than the average defensive CFer. If you prorate that to full-time play, he's about 15-20 runs better than average, putting him right there just below the absolute best, far above average.

Church, incidentally, rates at roughly league average for his time in CF as does Langerhans.

TOTAL:

It really does appear that Logan makes up for his limp bat with his strong glove. He's roughly 10 runs below average offensively, and 10 above defensively making him a roughly league average CFer. Church hits the hell out of the ball a lot more and doesn't make as many plays, but he still comes out ahead, roughly 10-20 runs or so better over a full season.

What's the answer for next year? Do they tread water with Logan? Give Church a chance? Sign Andruw Jones? Who knows.

(And because I know I'll be asked...

Andruw Jones was 8 runs below average this year offensively and about 20-30 above defensively, making him a 20-run player. He wasn't much better than Ryan Church would've been this year.

If you chalk it up to injury, a typical Andruw Jones season (I'll use '06's stats) is in the range of 20-30 runs above average with the bat. If you put '06 Jones on the '07 Nats, you've improved the team by about 30-40 runs over the course of a season. That's a pretty sizable bump, even if it doesn't seem like much.)

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