George Springer: More Valuable Than Ever

When we think about how parks affect players, we generally think of it in the context of hitting and pitching. Bring the fences in and batters will hit more homers. Build a taller wall or a whole new park with bigger dimensions, and pitchers are going to have an easier time preventing the long ball.

For the Houston Astros and George Springer, however, the removal of Tal’s Hill has added significance. While it might add a homer or two to Springer’s home-run ledger, the greater impact is likely to be a defensive one. This represents Springer’s first season as Houston’s starting center fielder. With four homers already to his name this year, Springer is making a big impact with the bat. His ability to play the more demanding outfield position — one now free of deadly obstacles — also deepens the Astros’ excellent lineup.

In the minors, Springer primarily played center field, getting 244 of his 267 starts at the position as he ascended through Houston’s minor-league system. Once he got to the majors, though, he was moved to a corner while a combination of Dexter Fowler, Carlos Gomez, Jake Marisnick, Colby Rasmus, and even Alex Presley all got time there. Of those players, the only real plus defender — accounting for Gomez’s hip problems — was Marisnick. Fowler, meanwhile, provided the only decent bat Houston has featured in center field, and that was back in 2014. Springer ended up starting just 16 games in center field from 2014 to 2016 — and 10 of those were on the road. The removal of Tal’s Hill helps to facilitate Springer’s transition to a full-time role in center field. The team sacrifices a little on defense in favor of Springer’s offensive ability over Jake Marisnick’s.

Springer has been a positive out in right field for the Astros since joining the team three years ago, posting positive numbers in both UZR (+2.5) and DRS(+10) over nearly 3,000 innings. While certainly solid, such numbers don’t cry out for a great defensive challenge for Springer. Prior to this season, they likely discouraged time in center field, especially in Houston. With a center-field fence extending out to 440 feet and a gigantic hill to make everything more difficult, Springer’s range likely would have been exposed. For one of the team’s best hitters, it might have put him at increased injury risk given his penchant for running into walls.

Last season, there were 44 batted balls of at least 400 feet hit out to Minute Maid Park’s center field; per Statcast, only four of them went for home runs. Here’s where those balls went:

While a few of those batted balls are likely to be unaffected by the new outfield configuration, we’re talking about one ball every four games hit to an area of the park that’s incredibly difficult to defend. An area where fly outs get turned into doubles and double get turned into triples. A lot of these balls will now go over the 410-foot fence built during the offseason. That isn’t necessarily great news for Houston pitchers, but with less outfield to cover, some of these balls — as well as others, if defenders can play more shallow — could turn into outs. Extra-base hits might do less damage.

Springer acknowledged the difference when interviewed this winter, and mentioned his excitement about the potential change.

The hill is not in play anymore so you don’t have to be concerned about that bad boy out there, but there is fence, and I’ve been known to hit the fence a few times. So I’m hopefully going to stay away from the fence, but I can’t really make any promises. I’m obviously excited and will do whatever the club asks me to do.

Springer’s words already appear prophetic: just a week into the season, he’s already crashed into a wall. (It happened when Springer was playing right field, but the point remains: he’s a daring fielder.) He hurt his wrist, but then played the next day and hit a homer, so it didn’t appear to have any lingering affects. Jake Marisnick is still set to get time out in center field, but Springer’s ability to handle center field made the signing of Josh Reddick a lot easier to accommodate. Moving Springer to center and having Reddick play right most days — and minimizing Marisnick’s time — likely makes a full win of difference for the Astros’ outfield over what they would have done using the exact same personnel with playing time distributed differently.

As for Springer, last season represented a fantastic one when it came to health, as he played in 162 games and recorded an MLB-leading 744 plate appearances. His 4.5 WAR was an improvement over the 3.8 WAR season he put up in 2015, although on a rate-basis it was a 3.6 WAR/600 season compared to 2015’s 5.1 WAR/600 campaign (when a quadriceps injury cost him all of August and September). Springer’s walk and strikeout numbers were fairly similar year over year. He walked more than 10% of the time and struck out around twice that much. His power numbers were fairly similar, as well. He missed 30 homers by just one last season, though if the fences had already been moved in, he likely would have hit that mark, as a 421-foot triple off Rich Hill on July 2 would have been cleared the fence with the present park configuration.

The main difference between the two seasons is a 25-point BABIP drop in 2016 and a much less successful stolen-base rate. He stole 16 of 20 bases in 2015 while getting just 9 of 19 last season. His baserunning numbers outside of stealing were good both seasons, so he likely just needs to pick his spots a little better, although he’s already 0 for 2 on steals so far this year. Even without great baserunning, Springer looks primed for another four-win season.

He might get overlooked a bit with Jose Altuve‘s great 2016 season and Carlos Correa’s status as one of the best young players in baseball, but Springer could have a season as good or better than his more celebrated teammates. Springer’s ability to play center field, and Houston’s decision to get rid of Tal’s Hill, adds to the potential value Springer can provide and allowed Houston to have more options during the offseason. That type of value isn’t likely to show up in Springer’s stats, but if the playoff race is close at the end of the season, Houston could have Springer and their remodeling decision to thank for a playoff berth.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

I don’t understand the title. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say he “might” be more valuable than ever? I mostly follow the logic of why he might be able to play center field now where he couldn’t before, and that makes him more valuable, but maybe we should wait and see how he does in CF first before proclaiming him more valuable?