Once upon a time, when a team had a strong bat with limited defensive skills they knew just what to do with him. They stuck him in a corner outfield position. The corner outfielders, along with your first baseman (and in the AL, of course, DH) were going to be your best offensive producers. If your right fielder happened to have a good arm, so much the better, but the guys in the corners were getting paid to hit.
But in recent years, that logic seems to have shifted. Last year, corner outfielders were not, at least on average, the offensive juggernauts of most line ups. If you wanted to find offensive production in 2016, you’d need to look to the infield.
League Average By Position
Let’s consider these average performances from the 2016 season. Corner outfielders have not performed much above replacement level. 1.28 and 1.61 fWAR are well below what people would expect out of the average starting position player, but that’s what teams got out of their corner outfielders last year.
Left field is traditionally an offense-first position, but production from that corner in 2016 was tepid. The 97 wRC+ from 2016 was the lowest over the last decade. In seven of the past ten seasons left fielders put up between 103-107 wRC+. Only three left fielders cleared three fWAR last season with Starling Marte, Christian Yelich, and Ryan Braun leading the way.
Right field fared a bit better, but the 103 wRC+ is the lowest in the last ten seasons. The remaining seasons over the last ten years right fielders hit for 107-114 wRC+. Five right fielders cleared three fWAR: Mookie Betts, Adam Eaton, Kole Calhoun, George Springer, and Bryce Harper.
Why is offense dropping from these offense first positions?
Of course, one year of data may not make a trend. These positional averages can be skewed by a few outliers — a few second basemen have break-out years; a few key corner outfielders get injured and you can get a completely different look than you might have the next season.
But it could be that teams have come to value outfield defense, even at the corners, in a way they have not done before.
Last year we saw the poster boy for corner outfield defense, Jason Heyward, get an 8 year, $184MM contract with the Cubs. His defense was still strong and allowed him to put up 1.6 fWAR while producing little offense — his 72 wRC+ barely beat out the Rays catchers at 66 wRC+. That Jose Bautista, Mark Trumbo, Michael Saunders, and Brandon Moss (who might all be plugged into left field) are still looking for free agent contracts suggests that teams aren’t willing to write large checks to outfielders who can’t add defensive value.
If the league continues to value better defense in one of the outfield corners this trend won’t likely be reversed, the Rays may find short term opportunities through what’s left on the free agent market.
What does this mean for the Rays?
The Rays want to add a speedy athletic outfielder who can backup center field to make the outfield more competitive, but that might not be easy to find on the market as it looks every team is looking for similar skills for their outfield corners (again, instead of the prototypical masher).
The answer for the Rays might be to go for the bat instead of heavily valuing defense in their fourth outfielder. Add to the team through offense, and give that player plenty of time at designated hitter, or split time in the outfield to try to keep Dickerson and Souza as healthy as possible. This would have the Rays effectively putting their eggs in the Kiermaier basket and hoping he stays healthy, but it’s a gamble the team may be able to parlay into more value overall.
The Rays historic focus on run prevention once allowed them to take advantage of a market that undervalued defensive skills. Those days are over. If the Rays want to upgrade the roster, they may need to take a look at some of the offense-first players who now may represent a new market in-efficiency.