They can’t all be Mike Trout, and this year, with the Millville Meteor posting a career-best 191 wRC+, the rest of the center-field pack has been as unproductive as any time in recent history. The collective 95 wRC+ recorded by all center fielders (including Trout) is the lowest it’s been since 2006, back when Trout was a high-school freshman.
Even with that fairly modest production, only a small handful of contenders — which for this series I’ve defined as teams with playoff odds of at least 15.0% (a definition that currently covers 15 teams) — are receiving less than 1.0 WAR from their center fielders, which makes them eligible for a spot among the Replacement-Level Killers.
By the way, since I don’t have anywhere else to put it — this is the last article in the series, since the RLK concept doesn’t work so neatly for pitchers and just one AL team has a DH who could be classified a Killer. Sorry if that was awkward; continue as you were…
As with the other installments in the series, here I’m less concerned about these teams’ eventual solutions via trades, an an area that colleague Dan Szymborski will examine once he’s done InstaGraphing the next 47 trades. Suffice it to say that it’s a thin market at the position.
Working from the order of the table above, from the worst to the most borderline…
Though he had just suffered a ruptured patellar tendon in his major-league debut a month earlier — before getting to bat for the first time, even — Dustin Fowler was part of Oakland’s haul when they traded Sonny Gray to the Yankees last July 31. The A’s planned for the 23-year-old Fowler to be the regular center fielder this year, but he was understandably rusty this spring, and began the year at Triple-A Nashville while The Other Boog Powell manned the middle pasture. The 25-year-old Powell made just six starts before being sidelined by a right knee sprain, and Mark Canha took over until Fowler was recalled on May 8. Though the 29-year-old Canha has played quite well while seeing time at all three outfield spots (.258/.336/.462, 118 wRC+, 1.7 WAR), he’s struggled somewhat with the defensive demands of center field (-2.3 UZR, -4 DRS), while Fowler has been thoroughly overmatched (.230/.261/.360 68 wRC+, 3.2% walk rate, -3.0 UZR, -0.4 WAR) and entered Thursday having started just three of the team’s last 10 games.
Powell, whose first rehab stint in June was interrupted by a thumb injury, restarted his assignment on Tuesday. At the very least, platooning the lefty swinger with the righty-swinging Canha and sending Fowler back to Triple-A makes sense, particularly as the pickings for the center-field market — Adam Jones? Cameron Maybin? Carlos Gomez? — from among pending free agents appear slim.
The Indians have tried four players in center field this year — namely Greg Allen (33 starts), Bradley Zimmer (29), Rajai Davis (25), and Tyler Naquin (14), and none of them has hit a lick. Allen, who has made the most plate appearances as a center fielder (123), has posted just a 42 wRC+ in that capacity and 41 overall (.209/.245/.288), earning him a trip back to Triple-A. Davis, the most competent defender of the bunch (3.6 UZR, 2 DRS), has hit just .250/.304/.297 for a 66 wRC+. Zimmmer, the owner of the highest wRC+ of the group (69), just underwent season-ending surgery to repair a tear in his right labrum, which — having undergone this myself in 2003 — is just a huge bummer. Eep.
While a Jones or a Maybin might be a fit, it’s possible the team could revisit last fall’s Jason Kipnis experiment, in which the longtime second baseman took to the outfield. Though Kipnis made the list of second-base Killers, he’s hit .257/.348/.463 (120 wRC+) in 155 PA since the start of June. That kind of flexibility would allow the team to find its best fit among the various third basemen (since José Ramírez can slide over), second basemen, and center fielders on the trade market.
General manager Jerry Dipoto traded for Dee Gordon with the intention of converting him from second base to center field. While his defensive numbers through the first quarter of the season were Not Good (-2.4 UZR, -10 DRS), Gordon was at least hitting well enough (.321/.347/.405, 111 wRC+) to be worth 1.0 WAR to that point. Robinson Cano’s PED suspension quickly led Dipoto to the conclusion that returning Gordon to the keystone immediately and nudging Cano to first base once he returned was the best way forward for the surprise contenders, but Gordon’s bat hasn’t played along (.259/.274/.311, 61 wRC+ since May 17) and neither has that of center-field replacement Guillermo Heredia (63 wRC+ at the position, 82 overall, on .225/.313/.321 hitting), and the latter’s defense in center has been no great shakes either (-3.8 UZR, -10 DRS). While the Mariners have prioritized pitching, this is a clear area of need. Trading once again for Leonys Martin, something Dipoto did early in his tenure as the Mariners’ GM, wouldn’t be the worst idea.
Even having repeatedly hammered the Rockies for their ongoing failure to build an outfield — they made both the left-field and right-field Killer lists, after all — I debated whether to include them here. On the one hand, three-time All-Star Charlie Blackmon has been worth 1.1 WAR in this spot (and 1.2 overall) while taking 93% of the plate appearances of Rockies center fielders. While his offensive production has dropped from a career-best 141 wRC+ (.331/.399/.601) last year to a more modest 117 (.288/.360/.501) this year, what’s really dragging him down is defense. Never known for his work in that area, he’s now in his sixth straight season with a negative UZR and his fifth out of six with a negative DRS; what’s more, he’s fallen from -0.9 UZR/-5 DRS last year to -11.5 UZR/-24 DRS in 93 games. Wile E. Coyote can relate.
If those numbers sound too extreme, it’s worth noting that via Statcast’s newish Outs Above Average metric, Blackmon’s -8 ranks 218th out of 224 qualifying outfielders, and the supposedly defense-first Gerardo Parra, his neighbor in left field, is at -5. Might be time to think think about moving Blackmon to a corner, huh? It’s probably not going to happen midseason, even though Blackmon has experience in both left and right fields, but right now general manager Jeff Bridich has more holes in the dike than he has fingers to use for plugs.
There simply aren’t many full-time designated hitters these days. Of the 89 AL players with at least 300 PA this season, just six (6.7%) have at least 300 PA as DHs, and just 11 have 200 PA in that capacity (12 when Mark Trumbo gets his next one). And whether or not they’re using full-timers or a patchwork, only one team has gotten less than 1.0 WAR from their DHs, namely the Astros. While Evan Gattis has considerable power, his lack of plate discipline (7.9% and 22.8% walk and strikeout rates, respectively) and subpar speed have limited him to a .243 BABIP and a lopsided .234/.298/.478 line (111 wRC+) overall, good for only 0.6 WAR. The Astros have given George Springer, Yulieski Gurriel, and Jose Altuve each a handful of reps there, and they’ve only lowered the total.
While they’re not likely to take on a big contract such as those of Kendrys Morales or Shin-Soo Choo, it’s not as though a potential upgrade needs to be a card-carrying member of the Designated Hitters Guild. Trading for an extra outfielder or first baseman — particularly as the Astros also made the Killers list at both left field and first — and rotating players through the spot might be enough.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.