The 2019 Replacement-Level Killers: Center Fielders and Designated Hitters

Injuries have limited Khris Davis’ production at DH. (Photo: Keith Allison)

We are lucky to live in the time of Mike Trout, whose 186 wRC+ is tops in baseball, but — seemingly like the rest of the world around us — the game’s current crop of center fielders appears to be going to hell in a handbasket. The position’s average wRC+ of 93 is the lowest for the 2002-2019 period covered by our splits, and translates to “literally half as productive as Trout, relative to the league.” Woof.

Given that, it shouldn’t come as too great a surprise that several contenders — which for this series I’ve defined as teams who are above .500 or have playoff odds of at least 10.0%, a definition that currently covers 18 teams (make up your damn minds already, Rangers) — are getting meager production from the middle pasture (less than 1.0 WAR at the spot), making them eligible for a spot among the Replacement Level Killers. As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, there’s an urgency to patch that problem, particularly given that the August waiver period during which they can tweak the roster is no more. Even so, I’m less concerned about these teams’ eventual solutions, whether via trades or internal options, than in pointing out the problems. I’m a real hit at parties.

At the other end of the defensive spectrum, and at the very last stop in this series, we’re in an age where relatively few teams have devoted the designated hitter spot to a single batter. Just three teams have given their DHs enough plate appearances at the position to qualify for the batting title (3.1 PA per team game), and just three contenders have given a single player even 200 PA at DH. With the position’s production from AL teams at a modest 103 wRC+, eight points below last year and the third-lowest mark of the 2002-19 period, it shouldn’t be too surprising that several contenders are enduring Killer-type situations. Given that defensive competence doesn’t matter a bit, this shouldn’t be too hard to fix, and yet here we are.

Replacement Level Killers: Center Fielders
Rk Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR
26 Phillies .215 .285 .368 71 -16.5 2.3 -3.8 -0.3
25 Cubs .244 .298 .381 74 -14.5 -0.6 -0.8 -0.1
24 Indians .226 .290 .401 78 -12.5 2.3 -5.4 0.1
17 Giants .244 .281 .407 78 -12.3 2.4 1.6 0.7
16 Nationals .239 .304 .409 83 -9.5 3.2 -1.4 0.7
All statistics through July 25. Rk = WAR rank among all 30 teams.

Note that I’m waving off the Nationals here. Rookie Victor Robles has been a mild disappointment with the bat (90 wRC+), but even so, he’s been worth 1.1 WAR overall even considering his modest -0.8 UZR, and even better than that if we swap in his 10 DRS. It’s Michael Taylor’s -0.5 WAR in 69 PA at the spot that’s pushed them below the threshold, and given that he’s safely stashed in the minors, this is one area the Nationals don’t have to worry too much about.

Phillies

While Bryce Harper may be something of a disappointment in his first year in Philadelphia, he at least shows up for work every day; no other Phillies outfielder has played in more than 57 games. In center field, Odubel Herrera has been out since being arrested and charged with domestic violence on May 28; while a charge of simple assault was dropped after his girlfriend refused to proceed with prosecution, he has been suspended for 85 games, a count that doesn’t include four weeks on administrative leave but does include both the remainder of the season and part of next season. Roman Quinn, who filled in for Herrera when he was sidelined by a hamstring strain in April, missed 53 days due to a Grade 2 groin strain and a setback while rehabbing. Andrew McCutchen made 11 starts in center amid those two players’ absences, but he suffered a season-ending left ACL tear in early June.

While Quinn has returned, it’s Scott Kingery who has done the bulk of the work in center despite having played just 1.2 innings there prior this season. The 25-year-old has rebounded from a dismal 2018 rookie season to hit .279/.344/.522 (124 wRC+) with 1.8 WAR overall, though the metrics suggest he’s been rough in center field (-1.0 UZR, -5 DRS). Neither Quinn (.141/.214/.219 in 71 PA) nor rookie Adam Haseley (.205/.255/.409 in 47 PA) has offered a serviceable alternative. Given that Kingery can play second base, shortstop, and third base (where Maikel Franco placed on the Killers list), the Phillies have two clear routes through which they can upgrade their lineup, though like every other contender, they’re primarily focused on pitching.

Cubs

Despite gaining a greater share of playing time, Albert Almora Jr. has been moving steadily backwards the past two seasons in terms of value. On offense, he’s declined from a 103 wRC+ in 2017 to 89 last year and 69 this year; overall, he’s gone from 1.1 WAR in 323 PA to 1.1 WAR in 479 PA to 0.0 WAR in 306 PA. Jason Heyward, who is amid the best of his four seasons with the Cubs (111 wRC+, 1.5 WAR), has started 34 games in center field as well as 54 in right; when he shifts to the middle, it’s often with Kris Bryant taking right field and David Bote playing third base. While that’s something of a gain offensively — Bote has hit for a 96 wRC+ — Heyward’s defense in center has been subpar (-3.7 UZR, -6 DRS), and the small-sample numbers suggest Bryant’s a better third baseman than an outfielder, too.

Thus, a real center field option would help. While Ian Happ was just recalled from Triple-A Iowa for the first time this season after working on adjusting his swing, he was lousy in center last year (-5.0 UZR, -7 DRS in 63 games). The Diamondbacks’ Jarrod Dyson, who has consistently rated as an above-average defender in center (11.3 UZR/150 career) isn’t much of a hitter, but he’s one player mentioned as a potential trade target. Still, it’s a pretty shallow market, and it may make sense to secure a big right field bat such as Nicholas Castellanos and then grin and bear it with Heyward in center.

Indians

In retrospect, the turning point of the Indians’ season may have been the arrival of Oscar Mercado. Prior to the 24-year-old outfielder’s major league debut on May 14, the Indians were 21-19, and their outfield had combined for a 66 wRC+. Since then, the team is 39-23, tied with the Astros for the third-best record in the AL, and Mercado, who played all three outfield positions before replacing the struggling Leonys Martin as the starting center fielder on June 21, has hit .286/.335/.469 (108 wRC+). Under the circumstances — a dreadful .199/.276/.343 with -0.6 WAR from Martin — Mercado’s defense has been adequate (-1.5 UZR, 2 DRS); scouts view him as a plus center fielder. Given that he’s already been worth 1.1 WAR in 246 PA, this situation is probably as solved as it’s going to get, though the Indians may want to hedge against some regression.

Giants

Congratulations to the Giants on a Killer sweep across the outfield. They’ve combined for 0.5 WAR across the three positions, a total that somehow is only the majors’ sixth-worst, but 1.7 WAR less than the next-lowest contender, the Indians — who merely placed at two out of three spots on this list. The Giants began the season with Steven Duggar in center, but quickly traded for Kevin Pillar. At times, manager Bruce Bochy has played both, with one or the other in right field, but nothing has really worked well. Pillar has hit just .252/.282/.418 (79 wRC+) as a Giant, with fielding that’s been about average. Duggar has been even worse offensively (.234/.277/.343, 63 wRC+) but has the edge via both UZR and DRS (1.6 to 0.0 in UZR, and 5 to 2 in DRS). He was optioned to Triple-A in early July after missing two weeks due to a lower back strain.

Pillar has one more year of club control, though at his current level of production, he’s also non-tender bait. Duggar is a 45 FV prospect who has yet to fulfill that destiny. Even if the Giants have either or both in mind for 2020, they’ll need an upgrade if they intend to stick around the Wild Card hunt; amid the wheeling and dealing Farhan Zaidi probably has ahead of him over the next week, he should find himself a useful flychaser.

Replacement Level Killers: Designated Hitters
Rk Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR WAR
28 Red Sox .248 .316 .407 85 -9.1 -2.4 -0.7
27 Rays .230 .306 .381 84 -9.3 0.5 -0.4
25 Athletics .230 .304 .418 91 -4.8 -1.6 -0.3
24 Indians .249 .322 .455 101 0.3 -1.4 0.2
23 Yankees .223 .310 .475 101 0.6 -2.5 0.3
22 Angels .259 .337 .442 110 5.2 -0.7 0.9
21 Rangers .265 .350 .448 104 2.1 2.5 0.9
All statistics through July 25. Rk = WAR rank among all 30 teams.

Note here that I’m excluding the Angels and Rangers from this roundup. Shohei Ohtani has been worth 1.3 WAR since returning from Tommy John surgery on May 7; it’s the rest of the Halos’ DHs who have dragged them into this discussion. Likewise, Shin-Soo Choo and the just-recalled Willie Calhoun have accounted for 1.0 WAR in 205 PA between them, and the Rangers have far bigger problems than this if they’re even considering themselves contenders.

Red Sox

While J.D. Martinez is the Red Sox’s primary DH, the subpar production of both Andrew Benintendi (103 wRC+) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (90) has led to Martinez playing one outfield corner or another 25 times, and he’s hit far better while playing the field (.300/.386/.610, 154 wRC+ in 114 PA) than while DHing (.290/.353/.486, 111 wRC+ in 306 PA); what’s more, the other players that Alex Cora has used in 150 PA at DH have “hit” .159/.240/.242 with one homer, dragging the position’s overall production down to an 85 WRC+. Given the revolving door of injuries at first base — Mitch Moreland is back, but Michael Chavis just hit the IL with back spasms, and Steve Pearce is still out — the Red Sox need to land an extra bat, whether it’s Castellanos, Justin Smoak, Todd Frazier or somebody else.

Rays

Though it took awhile for his production to rebound after missing nearly three weeks in late April and early May with a right thumb sprain, Austin Meadows is amid a breakout season, batting .286/.359/.514 for a 131 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR, including 0.5 in his team-high 33 starts at DH. The other eight players the Rays have rotated through the spot are at net zero, and while the team does have an apparent surplus of corner bats they could slot in here in Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz (who’s currently on the IL), Avisail Garcia, Nathaniel Lowe, and Tommy Pham, if they want Meadows to play the field (he’s made 16 starts in left, 28 in right), they’ve been connected to right-handed hitters such as Castellanos, Jesus Aguilar, and Hunter Pence, suggesting that a shakeup may be afoot.

Athletics

Though he’s contractually obligated to hit for a .247 average with at least 40 homers, Khris Davis is batting just .225/.292/.395 with 16 homers and an 81 wRC+ while batting hip, oblique, and hand injuries. Worse, he’s hitting .141/.225/.155 in 80 PA this month, which, yikes. While the return of Stephen Piscotty from a right knee sprain offers an alternative, the A’s are already light at the outfield corners; Davis’ struggles only intensify the need for an upgrade.

Indians

They’ve got infield problems, they’ve got outfield problems, so hell, why wouldn’t they have DH problems, too? Manager Terry Francona has actually used a rotating cast here, with Jake Bauers and Carlos Santana getting 53 starts and 10 other players — including the departed Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez — accounting for the rest. Rookie first baseman Bobby Bradley went 8-for-45 in a three-week stint in late June and early July and could get another look, with Santana taking DH duty, but count this as another team that just needs to find some additional production out there.

Yankees

With Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees were supposed to have an extra outfield bat to plug in at DH. Even with Stanton being limited to the meager total of nine games thus far by biceps, shoulder, and knee injuries, the mid-June acquisition of Edwin Encarnacion was supposed to provide a good fallback. Encarnacion has hit just .197/.277/.479 (92 wRC+) in 130 PA with the Yankees, however. Even with Gardner on the IL, manager Aaron Boone has the luxury of slotting AL batting race leader DJ LeMahieu at first base, a vastly improved Giovanny Urshela at third, and Luke Voit at DH. All of which is to say that this team has enough depth to get through this problem, particularly if they bring Clint Frazier back from Triple-A.





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.

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emh1969
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emh1969

So the Indians were mentioned at 2b, 3b, corner outfield, center field, DH. Plus the rotation has been devastated by injuries. And yet somehow they´re only 2 games behind the Twins and 3 games in front for the top Wild Card spot…

ascheff
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ascheff

The American League in general is having a down year, and the AL Central in particular is having one of the worst years for a division ever. In an average division, this Cleveland team probably wins ~84 games and misses the playoffs, but getting to play a third of the season against the White Sox, Tigers, and Royals is enough that it might catapult them into the Wild Card.

emh1969
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emh1969

The AL Central is nowhere near as bad as last year. Yes, they’re still the worst division in baseball but their overall winning percentage (.466) isn’t that different than say the AL Central (.489). So yeah, the Indians would win fewer games if they played in a different division. But to say they would win 10+ fewer games in an average division seems a bit of an exaggeration.

emh1969
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emh1969

Just to add….

Indians are 31-24 in non-divisional games, a 91.3 win pace. Their overall win pace is 95.3 games. So they’ve benefitted a little from playing in a weak division, but not much,

isavage
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isavage

The AL Central is barely different from the AL East. NYY and Rays, about the same as Twins and Indians. KC and Detroit, identical to Toronto and Baltimore. Red are the better Sox, though the Indians are 5-7 against the White Sox and 2-1 against the Red Sox

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

The Reds are better than the BoSox? Is it 1975?

BradleyZimmernsBizarreHits
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BradleyZimmernsBizarreHits

The thing that’s helped is the issues haven’t exactly lined up.

They were dreadful at all these hitting positions but this is largely weighted in the first 40 games and besides Clevinger, their rotation was largely healthy at the beginning 40 although Kluber and Bauer were seriously struggling.

They got buy at first with awful hitting and meh pitching because of division games They were 2 above .500 when they shouldn’t have been

Cleveland’s hitting though is 7th in WAR since June 1st. Corner OF are 6th and 7th respectively and while CF is still 17th, that also includes Martin (and jumps up to 14 if you slide the window back to late June)

BradleyZimmernsBizarreHits
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BradleyZimmernsBizarreHits

The fact that Cleveland is actually been getting middle of the road play at all these positions since early-mid June, and even top 1/3 in some cases (corner OF 6th and 7th) and they are still replacement level Killers speaks to how bad so many pieces on that offense were to begin the year