The defensive play of the Jays outfielders scored near the bottom of the league in 2020. Would Jackie Bradley Jr. or Lorenzo Cain be outfield options worth pursuing during the upcoming offseason?
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Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Randal Grichuk, and Teoscar Hernandez were the primary outfielders for the 2020 Blue Jays. From an offensive perspective, all three were above-average hitters. All were below-average outfield defenders.
Why Is Defense Important?
Simply put, a run scored equals a run saved.
During the five most-recent 162-game regular seasons, 36 of the 50 teams that made the postseason had a positive DRS mark from the outfield. Of the 20 teams that made the League Championship Series, 17 were on the DRS ledger’s positive side.
The data also shows that above-average defence from the centerfield position is consistent with making the postseason. Of the 50 teams that made the playoffs during the 2015-2019 period, 32 of the teams had better-than-average defence from their center fielders. In terms of the League Championship Series, the center fielders from 17 of the 20 teams had positive DRS marks.
Above-average outfield defence is a good thing.
Ranking the Outfielders
Table 1 shows the key defensive metrics for Hernandez, Gurriel Jr., and Grichuk. The highlights are as follows:
- For each of these players in 2020, Outs Above Average (OAA”) is marginally in negative territory
- In 2019, Grichuk was +2
- Hernandez and Gurriel Jr. were below-average with OAA marks of negative 4 in 2019
Table 2 illustrates the batting contributions of these players. The highpoints are as follows:
- In 2020, Gurriel Jr. and Hernandez surpassed Grichuk in wRC+
- The expected stats (xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA) were also better for Gurriel Jr. and Hernandez compared to Grichuk
Grichuk’s fWAR during 2019 and 2020 lagged the marks produced by Gurriel Jr. and Hernandez. In 2020, Grichuk’s fWAR received the centerfield position bump, yet he still trailed his teammates. As batters, Hernandez is the best hitter of the three; Gurriel Jr. has demonstrated enough promise that he is Number Two on this chart. Defensively, Grichuk is, at best, an average defender in centerfield. The Blue Jays can succeed with slightly below-average defence from Gurriel Jr. and Hernandez because of their batting excellence. However, the Jays should sacrifice a little offence from the centerfield position in exchange for above-average defence.
Concerning a landing spot for Grichuk, the Pirates, Marlins, and Rockies have received below-average hitting from their corner outfielders during the 2019-2020 period. Perhaps they would be interested in Grichuk. After all, he will be entering his age-29 season in 2021 and should generate enough fWAR over the remaining three years of his contract to justify the $31 million due on that deal. ($31 million divided by FanGraphs’s $8 million per fWAR metric equals less than 4 fWAR in total).
A Short-term Solution
The Jays selected Austin Martin in the 2020 MLB June Amateur Draft. He profiles as a player who is capable of playing in the outfield, specifically centerfield. Because he played little baseball in 2020, Martin could make Toronto’s roster in 2022 and then become a full-time starter in 2023. Accordingly, the Jays need to source a short-term replacement for Grichuk.
Why Bradley Jr. or Cain?
The process used to identify candidates to replace Grichuk in center field was as follows:
- Downloading FanGraphs’s DRS for all center fielders for the 2017-2020 and the 2019-2020 periods
- The elimination of any fielder with a DRS less than six during the 2017-2020 period
- The identification of pending free agents and those players who may be on the trade market
Three players made it through the noted screens: Lorenzo Cain, Jackie Bradley Jr., and George Springer. I removed Springer from further consideration because he will likely command a contract term that exceeds the desired two or three-years.
A caveat to note is that Cain opted out of the 2020 season soon after it began due to his COVID-19 concerns. He only played in five games and, accordingly, his 2020 record is spare.
Table 3 summarizes the critical defensive metrics of Cain, Bradley Jr., and for information purposes, Springer. The highlights are as follows:
- Cain has been an elite defender in centerfield
- His OAA in 2018 was the best (100th percentile) and 99th in 2019
- Cain’s DRS was 18 in 2018 and 22 the next season
- Bradley Jr.’s OAA has been no worse than 91st percentile during the past three campaigns
- His DRS was slightly negative in 2018 and 2019, but it was 5 in 2020, which tied for fifth-best among center fielders
Table 4 illustrates the batting prowess of the three outfielders. The key points are as follows:
- Cain is superior to Bradley Jr.
- Cain battled injuries in 2019 and posted a lacklustre 83 wRC+, but he recorded a 124 mark in 2018
- He was in the 91st percentile in xBA in 2018 and followed that up with a 90th percentile rank the following season
- Bradley Jr. bounced back from back-to-back 90 wRC+ season in 2018 and 2019 with a 119 wRC+ this season
- However, his expected batting metrics have been well below-average the past two seasons
- In other words, good fortune contributed to his 119 wRC+
- Also, Bradley Jr.’s career BABIP is 0.298, but it was 0.343 in 2020
The Cain Case
- Cain is a better defender than Bradley Jr.
- With his career 106 wRC+, he has been a better hitter than Bradley Jr., who has a career 93 wRC+
- Cain is owed $35 million over the final two years of his contract
- 2021 will be his age-35 season
- He opted out of the 2020 season because of Covid-19 concerns and subsequently stated that it was essential to spend time with his family
- Accordingly, given the uncertainty of when the pandemic will ease, there is a possibility that Cain will not return in 2021
- Player capital will be needed to acquire Cain
The Bradley Jr. Case
- Bradley Jr. will be a free agent and will not require the use of player capital to obtain him
- Given MLB’s current economic environment, there will be downward pressure on the value of free-agent contracts compared to the pre-pandemic periods
- Bradley Jr. earned $11 million on the final year of his current contract
- Accordingly, he may be willing to accept a three-year, $45 million contract (based upon a projected 6 FWAR over the term and the market pays somewhere between $7 million and $8 million per fWAR)
- Compared to Cain’s deal, this would mean the Jays would pay $10 million more for an extra year of Bradley Jr.’s services
- The three-year term would align with the stated plan for Martin to be the full-time center fielder in 2023
- Bradley Jr. could be a fourth outfielder in 2023
- He is a left-handed batter, which the Jays can use, with a career 97 wRC+ versus right-handed pitchers and has an American League average OBP
- If Boston extends a Qualifying Offer (“QO”) to Bradley Jr., which will be $18.9 million in 2020, then the Jays would forfeit their second-highest selection in the 2021 June Amateur Draft and would also lose $500,000 in allotted international bonus pool money
- However, the Red Sox may not extend the QO given that they have been shredding salary (trading Mookie Betts and David Price) and may not want to take the risk that Bradley Jr. accepts the offer
Replacing Grichuk with either Cain or Bradley Jr. would be a justifiable decision for the Jays. The outfield is currently below-average defensively and above-average offensively. By substituting Cain or Bradley Jr. for Grichuk, the Jays would improve the defence at a critical position and give up a little offence, less so with Cain. Also, either Cain or Bradley Jr. would allow a sound transition towards Martin assuming Toronto’s center field duties.
The Last Word
In his season-ending media conference, Ross Atkins said that defence was an area for improvement. The 2020 Jays fielded an outfield that was above-average in terms of batting but below-average defensively. Accordingly, the Jays should strive to replace Grichuk with a better defender in center field with adequate offensive skills. Cain or Bradley Jr. are candidates with resumes that fit the bill.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.