Jazz Chisholm Jr.’s Switch to Center Field Is Looking Like a Great Decision

Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

Position changes can be risky. The outcome depends heavily on the timing and circumstances of the switch, and the natural ability of the player. Sometimes, rookies need to carve out a roster spot for themselves and end up switching on the fly, like Jordan Walker. His shift to the outfield is a work in progress, just like it would be for most rookies. Then there are cases of a more experienced player moving due to roster construction, as with Jazz Chisholm Jr.’s move to center field.

Chisholm’s switch was precipitated by the Marlins’ offseason trade for Luis Arraez. With the sixth-worst offense (88 wRC+) in all of baseball in 2022 and good starting pitching depth, a pitcher-hitter swap to improve the lineup was highly logical, and the Marlins saw their best chance to obtain an impact bat in Arraez. That created something of an infield logjam. With Joey Wendle penciled in at shortstop and Jean Segura at third, the question became what they would do with their young star, who was slated to start at second base. Soon after the announcement of the trade, Kim Ng revealed that Jazz would be moving to center field, their most important position of need. His speed, athleticism, and lack of premium defense on the infield made it worth a try.

In spring training, it was clear there was much learning to be done, but after almost a month and a half of regular season ball, Chisholm appears to have found his defensive home of the future. Below is a table with some necessary information on his defense so far:

Jazz Chisholm Fielding Metrics
Metric Total Center Field League Rank
Outs Above Average 3 T-1st
Defensive Runs Above Average 3.3 2nd
Deserved Runs Prevented 2.3 2nd
Statcast Jump 2.6 4th

Analyzing defense requires a combination of statistical insight and video scouting. At this point in the year, we should proceed with caution in taking defensive metrics as undeniable truth. However, it is a good sign that there is consensus here. Three different methods of measuring defensive value all have Chisholm at or near the top of their leaderboard. Even in the relatively small sample of the season, it is impressive to see him next to great established defenders like Jackie Bradley Jr., Kevin Kiermaier, and Cody Bellinger.

Center field defense isn’t just about speed and athleticism. You can’t just throw any fast player out there and hope it sticks. There are other factors that all play a key part in a player’s success in center, such as their instincts, footwork, jumps, and routes. That can be a lot to handle for any player, let alone one who is a lifetime infielder, but as you can see in the table above, Jazz’s transition is going well from a converted outs standpoint. That is mainly due to his 91st-percentile jump rating (measured in feet gained above average).

Typically, instincts and jumps are skills a fielder builds over time. The more reps they get out there at full speed, the more comfortable they become with knowing their strengths and weaknesses. That confidence and knowledge directly impact their jumps. It’s easy to second guess what you see when you only have a millisecond to react, but that doesn’t seem to have been a problem for the Marlins center fielder so far. That’s not to say Jazz is a finished product, but given how little time it’s taken for him to get comfortable, his early results indicate this may be a natural skill for him. Just take a look at a few plays he has already made this season towards left-center:

These are not easy reads. With 3 OAA accumulated going to his right, he’s made these jumps off the bat look easier than they are, especially the second one. With great reactions like this, Jazz can work on how to vary his closing speed. Closing speed is the pace at which you approach a fly ball. You have to adjust your speed depending on your jump and your distance from the ball. Some plays are nail biters and require you to sprint through the catch. But if a play is similar to the first one above, you have to teach yourself to decelerate so you have enough body control to catch the ball and make your next move if there is a runner on base. It’s one thing to get to the ball, but it’s another to be aware of where you are in space and how you can limit a runner from advancing. With Yan Gomes running, Jazz wasn’t challenged. But based on how well he slowed down after his initial quick jump, I’d expect this is something he has the ability to do. That said, he will have to learn the proper footwork for stopping on a dime when ranging towards left center. With line drives in the left-center direction taken care of, let’s move to right-center field:

Again, these jumps are very impressive. You can see as soon as the camera flips that Chisholm is already at full speed on his way to tracking these down. So far, he has accumulated 1 OAA going towards right center, and I’m pretty confident in saying it’s due to these two plays. There are a few things I want you to pay attention to. The first is how steady his head is as he is running and getting closer to making the play. When you’re tracking down a fly ball, you have to maintain smooth strides — otherwise your head bobs up and down and you can lose track of the ball. The second is his awareness of the fence in both plays. Yes, he still ends up running into the wall both times, but it’s only soft contact. Learning the warning track and fence is a crucial part of being an outfielder.

The last piece I want to cover is batted balls in front of Jazz. These are often the most difficult to adjust to when transitioning to the outfield. As a low liner comes to you at eye level, it can be difficult to decide if you should be aggressive or not. Usually this depends on the score, outs, and runners on base. Statistically, this has been Chisholm’s only weak spot, as he sits at -1 OAA in this direction. However, it seems like there have been some potential improvements already. The first clip I’m going to show you is from Opening Day, when Jazz misreads a hard liner:

This is a product of Jazz trying to do too much and realizing a few steps in that he had no chance of catching this on a fly. Learning to read spin on a line drive at this height can be tough. Top spin is relatively easy because you can see the path of the ball being dragged down quickly, but on a liner contacted flush — like this one from Brandon Nimmo that skips off the grass like a rock on a pond — it’s easy to get stuck in between. It’s tempting to attack the ball aggressively knowing there isn’t a speedy runner on second. It was just hit too hard for Jazz to get the angle he desired, and it ended up leading to one more run being scored than should have been. After this play, the hope would be that Chisholm would make an adjustment and learn when to be aggressive. Here are two more plays — one from a week later and another from almost a month later — that show some tangible progress:

That liner off Starling Marte’s bat came in at 97 mph and had some tailing spin. Jazz wasn’t deterred by his error from the week prior, though, and took an aggressive route to the ball despite there being runners on first and second with no outs. A mistake would have led to a 4-0 game with a man on third and no outs. By making the play, he instead saved his pitcher a run and put him a groundball away from getting out of the inning.

The second came in at 104 mph from Austin Riley and hung up a bit more for Jazz to make an easier play. The important part here is related to Jazz’s deceleration. On the play against Nimmo, he never slowed down to make the secondary read. To see him make this adjustment knowing that running full speed could cost him is a key development. So even though he grades out negatively here to start the year, it looks like he has made the adjustment to be more calculated with when he picks his spots.

When analyzing a position change, it’s very important to be patient. Judging a player based on their results from spring training and a week of regular season ball doesn’t give you enough time to see how they’ll adjust to their mistakes. I would have expected it to take more time, but Jazz is moving at the only pace he knows: fast. After 37 games played, he has already made adjustments to his weaknesses and continued to take advantage of his strengths. If you told me before the season that Chisholm would get off to a bad start with the bat — he’s hitting just .221/.282/.360 for a 78 wRC+ — I would have been very concerned at his overall outlook. However, his defense has unexpectedly carried him. If the bat turns around, he could very well be in for a career year that changes our expectations for him as a player.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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9 months ago

Chisholm is such an interesting player to follow. First, he was 1/2 of a trade that is very rarely seen in which two top prospects were traded, 1 for 1, with the Marlins sending Zac Gallen to Arizona. The heat is on Chisholm to perform now that Gallen has firmly established himself right at the apex of starting pitchers. On Chisholm’s side the question marks he carried with him when he was a prospect are still present and perplexing. Is he the 139 OPS+ hitter from 2022 or the 76 OPS+ guy of 2023? He can blast a 100+mph Jacob deGrom heater into the upper deck but also K 50 times in 150 PA’s. I value positional players much more highly than starting pitchers, even more so now that the starter is, often, little more than an opener, but at this point Gallen has opened up a wide gap over Chisholm in value.