Jake McCarthy and the Fastest Outfield on Six Legs

Jake McCarthy
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Diamondbacks left a huge hole in their outfield when they traded Daulton Varsho to Toronto a few days before Christmas. He was not only Arizona’s leader in position player WAR but also the top defensive outfielder in baseball in 2022, according to UZR and outs above average. He brought back a significant haul— an elite young catcher in Gabriel Moreno and a potent corner bat in Lourdes Gurriel Jr. — but left a significant hole to fill in the outfield. Will Diamondbacks pitchers suddenly suffer endless bloop hits and doubles to the gap in his absence?

“There have been times when I’ve been in center, Alek’s been in left, Corbin’s been in right, kind of mismatching all over,” says Jake McCarthy. “When there’s a ball in the gap or over someone’s head, you never assume it’s a hit.”

There’s plenty of competition for playing time among Diamondbacks outfielders this spring. But in an ideal world, Arizona will line up with McCarthy and the two teammates he mentioned — Corbin Carroll and Alek Thomas — to form the fastest outfield in baseball.

Carroll has been in the news quite a bit recently; the no. 2 overall prospect in baseball signed an eight-year, $111 million contract with the Diamondbacks over the weekend. There’s plenty to recommend in his all-around game, but his noisiest skill in his speed. Superlatives can be a little dangerous in baseball, but he is literally the fastest player in the majors. Baseball Savant lists a sprint speed for 582 players in 2022; Carroll is no. 1 at 30.7 feet per second. He’s so fast that the ninth-year option on his contract isn’t actually an option year; it just accounts for relativistic time dilation compared to a normal outfielder.

McCarthy and Thomas can run a little themselves, too:

Live Fast and Diamondback Young
Player Sprint Speed Rank* Percentile
Corbin Carroll 30.7 fps 1st 100th
Jake McCarthy 30.1 fps 11th 98th
Alek Thomas 29.4 fps 28th 95th
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
*Out of 582 players

A partial list of players who rank lower in sprint speed than all three young Diamondbacks outfielders: Michael Harris II, Byron Buxton, Mike Trout, and Myles Straw. This outfield, likely with Carroll in left, Thomas in center, and McCarthy in right, is about as close as you’ll get to the early 1980s Royals nowadays.

Running is obviously only a small part of a position player’s job, and a less important one than hitting, at that. The Diamondbacks clearly believe Carroll is a franchise player who can anchor the team’s lineup for the next decade. Thomas hit just .231/.275/.311 as a 22-year-old rookie and will need to improve offensively if he’s Arizona’s center fielder of the future. But he can take pressure off his bat with his potential to play great defense at that position. He started in center for Mexico in Sunday night’s blowout World Baseball Classic win over the United States and not only ran down 10 fly balls plus a passing 737 flying out of Sky Harbor, but also did so with the kind of graceful effortlessness particular to elite defensive outfielders.

McCarthy, 25, will set out to build on an impressive rookie season in which he hit .283/.342/.427, stole 23 bases, and finished fourth in rookie of the year voting; his 116 wRC+ was second on the Diamondbacks behind Christian Walker (minimum 300 PA). But there are still questions about his offensive game. His wOBA of .337 was 39 points higher than his xwOBA, and he posted both an unusually high BABIP (.349, 16th out of 277 players with at least 300 PA) and an unusually high GB/FB ratio (1.72, 30th in the same sample). Then again, you’d expect a left-handed hitter with a fairly even spray tendency and plus-plus speed to beat out a lot of ground balls. McCarthy’s BABIP on ground balls, .291, was 34th out of 287 players with at least 60 ground balls in play last season. Plus, he’s still learning.

“I think you have a better understanding of how guys approach you,” McCarthy said of his first full season in the majors. “When I got up in 2021, I felt like I saw a lot of off-speed pitches. In the minors I didn’t have to sit on off-speed pitches or necessarily hit them because you were bound to get a pitch over the heart of the plate. But they don’t really make a ton of mistakes in the big leagues. It’s about capitalizing on those mistakes, controlling the zone. Everything’s more refined.”

As much as McCarthy is out to punish pitchers’ mistakes, one of his goals in 2023 is to avoid compounding his own.

“There’s going to be times when you struggle,” he says. “I’m trying to limit it and still contribute when maybe I’m not having my best day at the plate, whether that’s walking or seeing a lot of pitches or capitalizing on mistakes. If I get five at-bats and see five pitches to hit, I want to capitalize on that.”

Apart from their speed, the other thing Carroll, McCarthy, and Thomas have in common is their position in the Diamondbacks’ future plans. After some success in the late 2010s, Arizona went through a hard rebuild, trading away the likes of Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, and Paul Goldschmidt. It’s hard to compete in the NL West when the Dodgers and Padres are duking it out for intergalactic supremacy and the Giants are consistently competitive as well.

McCarthy and Thomas were drafted 39th and 63rd overall, respectively, in 2018, and Carroll went via the No. 16 pick a year later. Now that they’re all in the majors, the Diamondbacks, just two seasons removed from a 110-loss campaign, ought to be competitive. Maybe they won’t knock off the Padres’ army of star shortstops or the Dodgers’ collection of MVPs, but this Arizona team should to be tough to play against.

“The second half of last year, it was definitely nice to win more games, you know, just be competitive,” McCarthy says. (Arizona went 40–52 before the All-Star break and 34–36 after.) “In 2021 we didn’t do a lot of winning, and even at the beginning of last year we struggled a little bit. But in the back half there, we definitely picked up some momentum. Hopefully we can take that into this year.”

A serious run at the playoffs might be another year or two off, but .500 is a realistic goal for Arizona in 2023 and would represent a notable step forward from last season’s 74–88 campaign. And even if you have to squint to see the Diamondbacks as a contender, if you blink, you’ll miss their outfield.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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NATS Fanmember
12 days ago

Everyday I’m more and more convinced the snakes are a Wild Card team despite the division.

NATS Fanmember
12 days ago
Reply to  NATS Fan

Bull pen is strong. Would anyone be shocked if Gallen won close to 20? I wouldn’t. Kelly is good and still has some upside. Bumgardner and Davies don’t inspire confidence, but the three youngsters behind them (nelson, Pfaadt, and Jameson) very much do. The hitting is at least average, and the gloves should be near the top in the league.

Last edited 12 days ago by NATS Fan
12 days ago
Reply to  NATS Fan

Gallen is a good #2, Kelly is a #3/4, Pfaadt can probably give them midrotation quality innings right now, although who knows how many.

That’s three starters and they need eight. I think Drey Jameson is probably an acceptable backend guy.

Bumgarner and Davies look done, and after that the cupboard is bare.

12 days ago
Reply to  NATS Fan

It does seem like if things go right for them they could go really right. The SP is shallow, and that’s probably their biggest weakness.

Let’s assume the Padres, Cards, and Braves are division winners, and the Mets and Dodgers are wildcards (that order could change but it would be pretty surprising if any of those teams miss the playoffs).

That leaves one wildcard spot with Philly as probably the best bet, Milwaukee and AZ as the next tier, and SFO and CHC with a puncher’s chance. It’s a tough spot.

12 days ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

Milwaukee (63.7 PO% on PECOTA, 56.7 PO% on FG) and Arizona (3.7 PO% on PECOTA, 11.3 PO% on FG) would appear to be a couple tiers apart, at least according to the computers.

12 days ago
Reply to  grandbranyan

A big chunk of Milwaukee’s comes from winning the NL Central and that path isn’t available to AZ.

That said, if you want to swap AZ and SFO I wouldn’t argue that hard and I know that it’s what the projections think. I just see AZ as a high variance team with all the youth, and if it works out I think they have more upside.

NATS Fanmember
11 days ago
Reply to  grandbranyan

that’s the point of my comment. I think the snakes are better than the computers think.

12 days ago
Reply to  NATS Fan

They’ve definitely got the young core to be competitive if not this year then very soon.