One of the truisms in sports is that whenever an organization emerges as a new success story by doing things unconventionally, other teams often try to copy the pattern. In football, we’ve seen this with the rise of the west coast offense after the 49’ers rose to power in the 1980s, and in basketball, we’ve seen teams get away from big line-ups after the Phoenix Suns won a lot of games with their seven seconds or less philosophy. Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays were the new success story, one of the foundations of that success was their outfield defense.
Carl Crawford is, for all intents and purposes, a center fielder. He’s just been assigned to left field for the Rays. B.J. Upton is the prototypical center fielder with long strides and blazing speed. And, while Gabe Gross might not look like a center fielder, he’s performed like one during his major league career. These three spent the majority of the time in the outfield for the Rays last year, and were the reason why Tampa racked up a +45 UZR from their outfield in 2008.
Based on what we’re seeing in Baltimore and Seattle, it appears that the Three CF model of outfields that Tampa made en vogue is catching on in other cities as well.
The Orioles just completed a trade for Felix Pie, an outstanding defensive outfielder who has struggled to hit major league pitching so far in his career. Those struggles haven’t carried over to the outfield, though, where Pie’s UZR/150 in limited playing time is +11.2. Based on the scouting reports, his physical skills, and even the limited data we have, there’s significant evidence to suggest that Pie is a well above average defensive center fielder. The Orioles, however, have tapped him to play left field, where he’ll roam alongside Adam Jones (+4.6 UZR/150 as a CF last year) and Nick Markakis (+3.6 UZR/150 as an RF last year).
With Pie and Jones, the O’s have two above average center fielders. Markakis, the least rangy of the three, is still above average for a corner OF and is better defensively than some players masquerading as center fielders (Josh Hamilton, I’m looking at you). With an outfield of Pie/Jones/Markakis, the Orioles should expect something like a +15 to +25 UZR from that trio, which would almost certainly give them one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.
However, depending on how Jack Zduriencik fills out his roster in Seattle, it probably won’t be the best. Right now, the Mariners are looking at a potential outfield of Endy Chavez in LF, Franklin Gutierrez in CF, and Ichiro Suzuki in RF.
Chavez is, without question, an outstanding defensive outfielder. In nearly 3,000 innings in CF, he’s racked up a +2.8 UZR/150, but that doesn’t even compare to his staggering +20.2 UZR/150 in 1,600 innings in LF/RF. The scouting reports agree – his defense is off the charts good.
He might not even be the best defensive outfielder in Seattle, though. Franklin Gutierrez has drawn raves from scouts for years for his jumps, range, and arm strength, and his defensive performances in Cleveland back up all the superlatives you could throw at him. He only got 159 innings in CF for the Indians due to some guy named Sizemore, so you have to take his +17.7 UZR/150 in center with a lot of salt due to the small sample size. However, it becomes a little easier to ingest when you see his +21.9 UZR/150 in LF/RF. Gutierrez is just a defensive monster.
That leaves Ichiro, the forgotten guy over in RF. For his career, he’s been +7 UZR/150 in right, making him a well above average corner outfielder. He’s been basically average while playing CF as well, confirming the belief that he’s going to look very good when compared to less rangy right fielders.
If they go with a regular OF of Chavez, Gutierrez, and Ichiro, it’s not hard to project the M’s as a +30 to +40 outfield in 2008. No one else in baseball – not even the Rays with newly added Matt Joyce in the mix – project to have that kind of outfield defense in 2009.
It will be interesting to see how these Three CF outfields turn out. All of them lack the traditional slugging corner outfielder, but if you see the Orioles, Mariners, and Rays once again exceeding national expectations, don’t be surprised if even more teams start copying the Three CF model.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.