Seeing Triple in the Cleveland Outfield

Steven Kwan Myles Straw Will Brennan
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Kwan and Myles Straw have extremely similar profiles. Both are small, speedy outfielders with great gloves. Kwan was a center fielder in both college and the minors, but Straw’s presence forced him over to left, and both took home Gold Gloves in 2022. On offense, they feature almost no pop, but they both survive through excellent bat-to-ball skills and plate discipline. They chase pitches outside the strike zone approximately never, and somehow they swing and miss even less often. You could practically snap their Baseball Savant sliders together like Legos.

Kwan’s is on the bottom and Straw’s is on top, but it doesn’t matter all that much; in most categories they’re nearly identical. That’s not to say that their performance is identical. Thanks largely to Kwan’s truly elite ability to avoid strikeouts and his lower groundball rate (plus a bit of batted ball luck), he put up a 124 wRC+ in 2022, nearly twice Straw’s. Still, the two Cleveland outfielders are very much playing the same game.

Crashing this scrappy little party after a May call-up was Oscar Gonzalez, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound right fielder with big power potential, no defense to speak of, and so little plate discipline that he finished the season just 0.4% shy of the worst chase rate humanly possible (also known as Javier Báez’s’s chase rate). He also absolutely towers over the 5-foot-9 Kwan and the 5-foot-10 Straw. Gonzalez looks like he could pick up the two Gold Glove winners and use them to play G.I. Joes.

Overall, Cleveland’s outfield was just fine in 2022. Really, it was fine. Its 7.1 WAR was good for 14th in baseball. Kwan posted 4.4 WAR and finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, Straw chipped in 1.9, and Gonzalez added his own impressive rookie contribution of 1.5 in just 91 games. But as you’d expect based on the component parts, that middle of the road performance masked some extreme tendencies.

By our metrics, Cleveland’s outfielders ranked fifth in both defense and baserunning value and posted the lowest strikeout rate in MLB. Meanwhile, they were last in just about everything related to power. Home runs, ISO, exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and pull rate: All dead last. Their .100 ISO was the third-lowest any outfield has posted in the last 30 years. They hit just 24 home runs. If you exclude the short 2020 season, that’s the second-lowest total in the last 30 years. Even in the short 2020 season, in way less than half as many games, six outfields hit more home runs than Cleveland’s did last year! Gonzalez hit 46% of the home runs in just 18% of the plate appearances; for Aaron Judge and the Yankees, those numbers were 43% and 25%. Just a quick reminder, Judge hit 62 home runs and Gonzalez hit 11.

But it turns out that 2022 was just the appetizer. Right after opening day, Eric Longenhagen provided an update to Cleveland’s right field situation: “Will Brennan looks likely to get the lion’s share of right field reps for the Guardians and slides up from the 40 FV tier into the 45s. He’s not an every-situation player and will likely platoon with Oscar Gonzalez, but while Brennan doesn’t have ideal power for a corner guy, his feel for contact makes up for that enough for him to be a good strong-side platoon option. He’s a deep sleeper for Rookie of the Year because he’s going to play a lot and make a ton of contact.”

If that description of Brennan’s skillset doesn’t sound familiar, how about this excerpt from January’s Cleveland Guardians Top 50 Prospects list? “Outside of the doubles, he’s probably not going to hit for significant power, so it’s important that he find a way to make those adjustments to preserve his excellent bat-to-ball production. An instinctive center field defender, Brennan’s capable glove should give him a consistent on-roster role somewhere.”

The Guardians were able to complete the set. Here’s a quick update of those 2022 Baseball Savant sliders, throwing Brennan’s 2023 performance on top (but excluding defense, as it’s so early in the season).

That is a whole lot of the same. Brennan’s plate discipline isn’t in line with Kwan’s or Straw’s, but it’s still extremely early both in the season and in his career; the lefty has just 81 career PAs at the big league level.

It’s easy to understand the reason behind this decision, despite Gonzalez’s fantastic rookie campaign. While his defense wasn’t good, there’s still time to improve on that front; he’s only 25, with a rocket arm and good speed (he’s actually faster than Kwan). If he could be assured of repeating his 122 wRC+ performance, the Guardians would absolutely want him in the lineup every single day. But his extreme aggression makes for a narrow path to success at the plate. There just aren’t many players who can be productive walking 3.9% of the time and striking out 19.6% of the time, and a .345 BABIP and a 19-point difference between his wOBA and xwOBA make him a candidate for regression. Brennan and Gonzalez have each made 36 plate appearances so far this season. The latter has struggled mightily, and while it’s way too early to draw conclusions, the former’s rest-of-season projections are slowly catching up to Gonzalez’s.

The end result is that at least half of the time, the Cleveland outfield will consist of three players who put the ball in play a ton and play excellent defense. That’s an exciting type of player, even more so when they’re all playing in the outfield together. They’ve already made a few impressive plays, and even Gonzalez has gotten in on the act.

Cleveland isn’t the only team throwing a center fielder party. Over the offseason, the Blue Jays signed defensive maven Kevin Kiermaier and traded for Daulton Varsho, the reigning outfield OAA champion. Those moves allowed the 33-year-old George Springer to slide over to right field, which will hopefully help to keep him on the field more often.

Springer, Varsho, and Kiermaier is a legitimately star-studded trio. Kiermaier and Varsho are two of the most entertaining outfielders in the game, and Springer is a four-time All-Star who has spent his entire career in center and never once a finished season with a wRC+ under 119. If we’re being honest, Toronto’s 2023 highlight reel is already lot more impressive than Cleveland’s.

All the same, despite Toronto’s advantage in talent and GIF-ability, it can’t boast an entire outfield that could looks like it was created by some sort of baseball-ability cloner.

When we published our Positional Power Rankings, we expected Gonzalez to get 67% of the PAs in right field to Brennan’s 24%. Even at the time, the Cleveland outfield’s projected ISO was just .120. That is to say, their median projection for 2023 involved an ISO that matched Amed Rosario’s in 2022. With Brennan playing a bigger role, that number should be even lower (right now it’s at .068). It’s still early, but Cleveland’s outfield has already stabilized in all the areas you’d expect it to. Their 92 wRC+ ranks 20th, but they’re the only outfield that has yet to hit a home run, and they have the lowest strikeout rate, ISO, hard-hit rate, barrel rate, and pull rate in baseball.

Unfortunately, their defense has graded out poorly so far, but it would be a surprise if it didn’t improve. In 2022, Kwan and Straw made 146 plays that rated at least one star according to Baseball Savant, more than any other pair of teammates. They accrued 22 Outs Above Average, a total topped only by Varsho and Alek Thomas in Arizona. If Brennan can live up to his defensive reputation, Cleveland’s three-headed BABIP suppression monster is going to chase down a whole lot of would-be extra-base hits. And at the plate, they should help the Guardians repeat as the league leader in both balls in play and infield hits. As Straw might say, this should be really [EXPLETIVE DELETED] fun to watch.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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1 year ago

“… but they’re the only outfield that has yet to hit a home run …” Oscar Gonzalez heard the challenge and accepted and hit a home run in game 1 yesterday.