Are Defensive Concerns Holding Up the Outfield Market?

Last winter, a 26-year-old Bryce Harper — a former No. 1 overall pick, MVP winner, and the 13th-most valuable player in baseball since his debut — hit the free agent market for the first time in his career. Because of his combination of age, pedigree, and the peak he’d shown in 2015, the bidding war for his services was expected to be as feverish and exciting as any in baseball history. The reality, however, was much different. Only a few teams ever emerged as serious contenders, and a deal didn’t get done until February 28, six days after the first spring training games began. He got his record contract, with the Phillies signing him for 13 years and $330 million, but it took the whole winter for him to secure it.

The forces that conspired to delay Harper’s signing were numerous. As a whole, the free agent market developed more slowly than any in recent memory, sparking rumors of collusion and swelling existing suspicions of how committed teams were to prioritizing wins over maximizing profits. But there was also the pressure placed upon Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, to negotiate the record-breaking monster contract people had been forecasting for them for years, as well as genuine concerns about whether Harper’s actual on-field play lived up to his fame and financial desires. There was little question about the bat, of course — his career 140 wRC+, 14.8% walk rate, and 184 homers made him one of the most fearsome hitters in the game. But his defense was a real issue after a horrific 2018 that saw him finish with the second-worst DRS total (-26) and the worst UZR (-14.4) of any outfielder in baseball. There are fickle defensive ratings painting an unclear portrait of how much a fielder is really contributing, and then there is a near-unanimous statistical case for a player’s glove being a dangerous liability. In 2018, Harper seemed to fit into the latter.

One year later, it seems those awful defensive numbers for Harper weren’t terribly predictive of his actual abilities. In his first season with the Phillies, he went from -26 DRS to +10 and -14.4 UZR to +10.0. In some respects, it was the best defensive season of his career. But while the numbers Harper displayed in the field in 2018 haven’t turned out to be prescient, the way his market played out as a result of them might have been.

This winter’s free agent market has stood in stark contrast to the previous two. The winter meetings saw all three of the star free agents get swept off the board in quick succession, and players up and down the class have gotten contracts that exceeded expectations. Players who have previously been snubbed in this setting have been rewarded. Older free agents have also been rewarded. Non-playoff teams from previous seasons have been big spenders. Overall, this has been an exciting winter for fans and a lucrative one for players. That is, with one exception.

After the Twins’ signing of Josh Donaldson this week, just three of the first 30 players from our Top 50 Free Agents list remain unsigned. They are all outfielders.

2020 Steamer Projections for Free Agent Outfielders
Player FA Rank Age AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Marcell Ozuna 7 29 .276 .344 .503 119 3.1
Nicholas Castellanos 11 28 .275 .331 .489 111 1.4
Yasiel Puig 18 29 .267 .335 .478 110 1.9

That grouping is rather conspicuous, as there were just six outfielders in our top 30 free agents to begin with. One of those, J.D. Martinez, was only included because of the possibility he would opt out of his contract, which he eventually chose not to do. Aside from him, there were the above three, plus Brett Gardner (No. 21) and Avisaíl García (No. 30). Gardner, at 36, was widely expected to return to the team he has spent his entire career with, which became reality when he signed a one-year, $12 million guarantee with the Yankees. Garcia, 28, signed a reasonable two-year, $20 million commitment with the Brewers after finishing just the second season of his career with more than 1 WAR. Those two are good players, but for various reasons, they didn’t enter this offseason expecting to sign a major contract.

The top three, however, were seen as having a much better chance of securing a significant deal. Ozuna and Puig have amassed 20.3 and 18.0 WAR, respectively, over their careers, and are both just 29. Castellanos has been worth just 10.4 WAR in his career, but he is just 27 and is coming off his two best seasons, including his most recent stint with the Cubs that saw him slash .321/.356/.646 over 51 games for a 154 wRC+. Kiley McDaniel projected Ozuna to land the biggest deal of this bunch at four years and $70 million, but Castellanos (four years/$56 million) and Puig (three years/$39 million) were also expected to do reasonably well.

But all three are still jobless in the second week of January, and it’s worth discussing because of what they share in common — not just with each other, but also with the most famous outfielder to sit through a stalemate last winter. Like Harper, there is little to quibble about with the bats of Ozuna, Castellanos, and Puig. Each of them have turned in at least four straight seasons of above-average offense. But any team willing to make a major commitment to one of these players must consider all aspects of their respective games, and each of these three enter 2020 with serious questions surrounding their defense.

Defensive Statistics, 2019
Player DRS UZR OAA (Percentile) Outfielder Jump (Percentile)
Marcell Ozuna 2 5.7 -8 (3rd) -1.4 feet (35th)
Nicholas Castellanos -9 -5.2 -7 (6th) -2.4 feet (13th)
Yasiel Puig 0 -0.7 0 (39th) -2.8 feet (6th)

OAA and Outfielder Jump are Statcast metrics, with the former using a catch probability formula to calculate how many outs a fielder makes above or below what’s expected by the average fielder, and the latter measuring how many feet in the right direction a fielder covered in the first three seconds of a pitch being released. Because of the more advanced technology involved, they’re intended to capture details that other metrics don’t.

That extra scrutiny is bad news for all three of these particular players, one of which looks good using common defensive statistics, one of which already graded pretty poorly, and one of which graded about average. We can start with Ozuna here. In McDaniel’s writeup of his free agency case, he noted that front offices regard his defense as being below average, despite what his DRS and UZR figures show. When confronted with Statcast data, we can see why. Out of 318 players who played outfield at some point in 2019, just 11 of them did more damage to their teams on an OAA basis than Ozuna.

That stands in sharp contrast to not only other advanced defensive stats, but also the way Statcast itself graded Ozuna just two years earlier. In 2017, his OAA was in the 84th percentile in Miami. Over two years in St. Louis, however, Statcast’s perception of his defense plummeted. The conflicting data here, combined with the notorious untrustworthiness of one-year defensive samples, make it difficult to draw a conclusion over what kind of defender Ozuna truly is. But he didn’t exactly do himself any favors with the eye test, and if MLB’s own data is showing red flags about him being a liability, the apparent wariness from front offices makes some sense.

In the case of Castellanos, there is no such ambiguity. After posting an astonishingly poor -64 DRS over four seasons at third base, Detroit moved him into the outfield, where he didn’t fare much better. He’s been worth -28 DRS over just two seasons in right field, a bleak picture that Statcast data more or less reaffirms. No one in baseball was close to reaching the depths of his -24 OAA in 2018, and while he improved upon that this past season, that improvement simply moved him from the worst in the game to merely 21 spots from the worst. As good as Castellanos can be at the plate, there just isn’t any way to get around the liability to he is on defense.

Puig’s standing here is a bit more complicated. By UZR and DRS, he’s been average to solidly above throughout his career, peaking at +18 DRS and an 11.8 UZR in Los Angeles in 2017. Those numbers are very good, but they are also very much an outlier in his career. And like Ozuna, Statcast has regarded Puig’s defense as being much worse than other numbers suggest, placing his OAA in the 29th percentile in 2017 and the 10th percentile in 2018 before his more pedestrian performance last year, and giving him consistently awful grades on jumps.

Beyond the murkiness of Puig’s defensive ratings, however, is the question of how much a team might be able to coax improvement out of him. According to a report by Andy McCullough in April of last year, Puig was known to rip up positioning cards given to him by Dodgers coaches, or otherwise simply ignore them. There’s no telling how much more receptive he was to help in Cincinnati or Cleveland, but it’s hard to imagine a report like this not having a real effect on clubs’ interest in him. Teams are shifting at an ever-increasing rate, and emphasis on lining fielders up in the optimal positioning, even on a pitch-by-pitch basis, has never been greater. If Puig is willfully underprepared in addition to having an iffy glove in the first place, that puts him at a significant disadvantage before the pitch is even thrown.

The specific defensive questions these players are facing are different in each case, but they could all be considered legitimate red flags. Every free agent is flawed in some way — age, health record, platoon splits, decreased velocity, you name it. There is always a devil’s advocate position to take, a reason not to sign pretty much anybody. But the fact that this specific red flag exists in all three remaining big-name free agents is uncanny enough to wonder what it might tell us about the way teams value outfielders with defensive concerns.

If you do some squinting, you can see this kind of pattern beginning to unfold over the past couple of offseasons as well. We’ve already discussed Harper, but we can also consider the free agencies of Michael Brantley and A.J. Pollock last winter. They entered free agency at roughly the same age, had compiled nearly identical WAR totals over their past five seasons, and had both missed considerable time in recent seasons due to various injuries. Brantley held the advantage at the plate — a 130 wRC+ over his last five seasons compared to Pollock’s 119 — but Pollock had been a very good defender, with +22.6 defensive runs above average over his last five seasons, while Brantley was a very poor defender, standing at -26.9. As for the resulting contracts, Pollock got four years and $55 million from the Dodgers while Brantley settled for two years and $32 million from the Astros.

The winter before also provided evidence of caution around outfielders whose defense might be viewed as suspect. Martinez entered his free agency as one of the elite hitters in the game, but he was widely known to be a defensive liability. The terms he signed for lined up pretty well with expectations, but he wasn’t signed until late February. In a less extreme but still interesting case from that same season, Lorenzo Cain hit the market after posting the worst defensive ratings of his career — still decent numbers, but a sharp decline from where he’d been in previous seasons. He wasn’t signed until late January.

But if outfield defense really is scaring teams off, the question is why? Is the danger of losing a few outs in that part of the field really enough to offset the extra runs you’d get by having one of these powerful bats in your lineup? Can there be that much correlation between team success and sound outfield defense?

Top 10 OAA Teams, 2019
Team OAA
Nationals 29
Astros 14
Padres 10
Rays 9
Brewers 8
Phillies 7
Dodgers 5
Athletics 4
Royals 4
Yankees 3

Oh, the top two defensive outfields in baseball literally played in the World Series against each other, and seven of the top 10 made the playoffs. The top of the standings in other outfield defensive categories are similarly clogged with playoff teams. It’s hardly a breakthrough to tell you that the best teams in baseball tend to play good defense, but what’s interesting about these standings in this particular case is the lack of playoff teams near the bottom. None of the worst 10 teams in baseball by DRS or UZR made the playoffs, and only two of the bottom teams by OAA did. One of those was the Twins, who set a major league record for homers, and the other was the Cardinals, who had far and away the best infield defense in baseball. It’s really difficult to win when you’re giving away outs, and signing one of these free agent outfielders will mean trusting them not to do that over lots and lots of innings on defense. You only have three outfielders playing at any given time, of course. If one of them is dragging the group down with his glove, it’s very difficult to compensate for that.

It’s worth noting that defense might not be the only reason these players remain available. Maybe they’re all waiting for one of the others to establish some kind of market price by being the first to sign, or they simply have unreasonable demands. On a case-by-case basis, Ozuna might be just a two- or three-win player annually instead of a four-to-five-win player, Castellanos doesn’t walk a lot, and Puig was a pretty poor hitter for large portions of last season. But it isn’t as though other hitters on the market this winter didn’t get paid despite having similar flaws. Donaldson’s age, Yasmani Grandal‘s potential aging curve as a catcher, and Mike Moustakas’s limited on-base skills didn’t stop them from landing major contracts from hopeful contenders.

In time, Ozuna, Castellanos, and Puig will all sign contracts, and could very well get the money they were expected to get all along. But they’re officially the last of the major players to be negotiating, and it’s difficult to ignore what all three share in common and what it could mean for similar players going forward.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Mike NMN
4 years ago

Nice piece. I’d think that every GM would ask themselves, with all three of these guys, is “how much is this going to make my team better?” and that might be a calculation that, to an extent, puts aside WAR (even though fielding is a part of it). Castellanos might be a very tough swallow on a longer–term deal, because you’d be signing someone who pretty much has to DH to not be a liability. The great DHs of the past—Edgar, Frank Thomas, Ortiz, for example, were among the best hitters in the league, so pencilling them in for four years (and giving away positional flexibility) seemed like a fair tradeoff. These three are competent-to-good hitters, but unless you buy Castellanos’ couple of months with the Cubs as his true talent level, not superior. I’m not sure I’d bite.