Best outfield D? Don't forget the Marlins
July, 11, 2014
By Mark Simon | ESPN.com
AP Images, Getty ImagesThe Marlins outfield has done a nice job at tracking down balls this season.
Earlier this week a New York sports-talk radio host convinced himself that the New York Yankees' outfield combination of Ichiro Suzuki, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner was the best in the majors.
That's a hard sell, at least so far this season. Gardner's strong performance in left field has been canceled out a bit by Ellsbury's surprising average play (per advanced stats) and Suzuki is a couple years past his prime. The reputation of all three is very good. But in 2014 the reputation doesn't match the numbers.
The discussion got me to thinking about outfield trios that rate best. In polling some colleagues (Alex Cora, Manny Acta and Chris Singleton) one of the common teams mentioned was the Kansas City Royals, with Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain, and that trio bears out well as the best in the game via Ultimate Zone Rating.
But I wanted to give another team its due, one that didn’t get mentioned by any of the aforementioned "Baseball Tonight" analysts. The Miami Marlins' trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich has played very well.
Marlins outfielders lead the majors in the other primary advanced defense stat -- Defensive Runs Saved -- and as opposed to the Royals, who had a struggling Norichika Aoki in their outfield for a while, the Marlins group has been consistently solid all season.
Let's take a look at what makes each of them valuable.
Stanton has not only had a great offensive season. Stanton's defensive numbers have fluctuated considerably from season to season, but the Marlins may have unlocked a key to his success, as our ESPN The Magazine colleague Sam Miller noted in an article for Baseball Prospectus earlier this season.
The Marlins have played Stanton closer to the right-center gap in bigger parks, like AT&T Park in San Francisco. That's enabled him to get to some balls that other outfielders aren't reaching.
Stanton ranks second in the majors in a stat findable at FanGraphs.com, "Out of Zone catches (OOZ)." An out-of-zone catch is one in which the fielder makes the play in an area in which less than half of batted balls are turned into outs. Stanton's 68 are one fewer than he had last season and are surpassed only by Jason Heyward's 80 (Heyward leads the majors in Runs Saved).
Stanton is a bit of a high-risk, high-reward outfielder in that he's among the major-league leaders at his position in both Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays & Errors (based on a video review system that classifies about 30 categories of good plays and 60 categories of miscues). But the good has offset the bad, enough for him to rack up some good overall numbers.
The exclamation point on Ozuna's season will be the two plays he made against the New York Mets on June 20, throwing out the tying run at the plate in the eighth inning and the ninth inning, the latter ending a one-run win. Those came in a cameo appearance in left field. He's been pretty good in center this season too.
Ozuna is one of three outfielders to have two assists in a game without the help of a relay man this season (the others are Brandon Barnes and Yoenis Cespedes).
Ozuna's arm has been worth a couple of Defensive Runs Saved, but he too has done a nice job of picking off balls in the deeper parts of the ballpark, whether at home or on the road. He is well above average with regards to the range component of Runs Saved and improved from a 2013 season in which he had -2 Runs Saved in 33 games in center field..
Yelich is another outfielder whose Runs Saved total can be attributed to catching balls hit to the deepest parts of the ballpark. His 44 Out of Zone plays rank third-best in the majors among left fielders, trailing only Alex Gordon and Dustin Ackley.
Yelich entered Thursday ranked second among left fielders in converting plays with an expected play rate of less than 50 percent -- he'd converted 18 of 44, or 41 percent, trailing only Alex Gordon of the Royals (42 percent).
Yelich has a weakness. His outfield arm rating has actually cost him four runs, bringing his numbers down a bit, but they're still pretty good overall, as noted in the chart on the right. They're much better than 2013, when he had -2 Runs Saved in 59 games.
One of the great things about this outfield is that it is young -- all three of these players are 24 or younger -- and nimble: By our batted-ball calculations, the Marlins are allowing the third-lowest batting average on balls in play on line drives hit to the outfield (an estimated distance of 200 feet or more).
Being young, they may not have the track record of the likes of Gardner, Ellsbury and Suzuki. So it's hard to make the jump to saying that they're the best one in baseball, especially considering that there is some disagreement between Defensive Runs Saved and UZR on their performance (another discussion for another time).
But I'll say this: I think I'd take this outfield before I'd take the Yankees' one. At least for the moment.