The 2021 Replacement-Level Killers: Corner Outfield

For the full introduction to the Replacement-Level Killers series, follow the link above. While still focusing upon teams that meet the loose definition of contenders (a .500 record or Playoff Odds of at least 10%), and that have gotten about 0.6 WAR or less thus far — which prorates to 1.0 WAR over a full season — this year I have incorporated our Depth Charts’ rest-of-season WAR projections into the equation for an additional perspective. Sometimes that may suggest that the team will clear the bar by a significant margin, but even so, I’ve included them here because the team’s performance at that spot is worth a closer look.

As noted previously, some of these situations are more dire than others, particularly when taken in the context of the rest of their roster. Particularly in this batch of left and right fielders, a few of these situations include midseason turnarounds where returns to normalcy are camouflaged by early-season struggles; MLB’s crackdown on pitchers’ use of foreign substances may be a point of inflection in more than one case. I don’t expect every team to go out and track down an upgrade before the July 30 deadline. As with previous entries in this series, won-loss records and Playoff Odds are through yesterday (July 21, in this case), but statistics through the day before (July 20).

2021 Replacement Level Killers: Left Field
Yankees .230 .294 .368 82 -7.6 -1.3 -3.9 -0.5 0.5 0.0
Mariners .202 .292 .383 91 -4.1 1.3 -7.9 -0.2 0.2 0.0
Cleveland .243 .293 .370 80 -9.1 1.9 0.8 0.2 0.8 1.0
Giants .218 .294 .399 91 -4.2 -2.4 2 0.4 0.6 1.0
Blue Jays .267 .300 .414 92 -3.7 -0.9 -0.5 0.3 0.8 1.1
Mets .249 .310 .398 96 -1.8 -2.4 0.9 0.5 0.8 1.3
Statistics through July 20. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Yankees (50-44, 3rd in AL East, 43.9% Playoff Odds)

For the Yankees, this season was supposed to mark a changing of the guard in left field, with Clint Frazier having hit and fielded well enough in late 2020 to take over regular duties from the aging Brett Gardner. Like so much else in the Yankees’ lineup, however, things haven’t worked out. Frazier hit just .186/.317/.317 (83 wRC+) with -0.8 WAR and lost his starting job before being sidelined in early July by what was originally diagnosed as vertigo but is now considered to be a vision problem, possibly related to his previous concussion-related issues.

Meanwhile, the alternatives have dwindled. Mike Tauchman was traded away in April. Gardner was pulled into regular center field duties due to Aaron Hicks‘ season-ending left wrist injury; he’s hit just .191/.305/.309 (75 wRC+) overall. Miguel Andújar, who took over the starting left field job in June, has hit just .253/.284/.383 (82 wRC+) and is now sidelined by a left wrist strain that could keep him out until early August. Tim Locastro, recently acquired from the Diamondbacks, played just nine games before tearing his right ACL, ending his season. Ugh.

While the Yankees have hesitated to put Giancarlo Stanton in the outfield due to his history of lower body injuries — he hasn’t played there since October 12, 2019, when he suffered a quad injury that shelved him for most of the remainder of the ALCS against Houston — the team has been ramping up his defensive work, and his return could come as soon as this weekend in Boston. Stanton is too valuable to make that a regular occurrence, however, and so the team really needs an upgrade. As mentioned last week, the Rangers’ Joey Gallo would be a great fit for the team; he’s in the midst of an All-Star campaign, has experience at all three outfield spots, and would not only provide a lefty counter to a lineup that tilts too heavily towards the right side but offer an additional year of club control. The Cubs’ Kris Bryant, who has plenty of outfield experience but swings from the right side and will hit free agency this winter, would provide a welcome boost with his bat, though he doesn’t fit the roster as neatly as Gallo. With center field also an issue, expect the Yankees to do something substantial, outfield-wise.

Mariners (51-45, 3rd in AL West, 3.5%)

Ten different players have staked out left field at one point or another for the Mariners, who are making their fourth appearance in this series. With top prospect Jarred Kelenic starting the season at Triple-A, they cycled through six players, most notably Taylor Trammell, but he’s now hit his way back to Triple-A not once but twice. Kelenic, who debuted on May 13, wilted in the spotlight created by the Mariners’ mismanagement of his service time situation, hitting an unfathomable .096/.185/.193 in 92 PA before being sent back to Tacoma in early June.

The Mariners brought Kelenic back after the All-Star break. So far, he’s off to a 3-for-20 start with nine strikeouts, suggesting the bumpy ride isn’t over. Still, between the team’s long-shot status for a Wild Card spot and the 22-year-old left fielder’s centrality to the Mariners’ future, this should probably a sink-or-swim situation unless he’s totally overwhelmed, particularly given the lineup’s other holes.

Cleveland (48-45, 2nd in AL Central, 4.7%)

In the 2018-20 iterations of this series at FanGraphs, covering nine separate outfield spots, I have included no fewer than six entries from Cleveland’s lineups, and they’re going to maintain that .667 average this season. At least in left field, this time they can’t be accused of complacency. Eddie Rosario did not have a great 2020 season with the Twins, hitting .257/.316/.476 with 13 homers and a 110 wRC+ (just two points below his combined 2017-19 wRC+), but even so, his 0.9 WAR prorated to 2.4 over a full season, double his 2019 mark. The Twins, unwilling to pay him the $10 million-ish salary he would have commanded in his final year before free agency, responded by non-tendering him. Cleveland, which got a ghastly 45 wRC+ and -0.7 WAR from the nine players it tried in left field in 2020, only two of whom (Jordan Luplow and Josh Naylor) even took more than 25 PA in that spot, quite rightly viewed Rosario as an upgrade and signed him to a one-year, $8 million deal.

Even Rosario’s .254/.296/.389 (85 wRC+) line and 0.3 WAR constitute an improvement on Cleveland’s 2020 left fielders, and Rosario had actually heated up somewhat, hitting .294/.315/.461 (107 wRC+) from June 1 to July 5 before suffering an abdominal strain that still has him sidelined. Harold Ramirez, who’s started five times in Rosario’s absence and 54 games in the three outfield positions in all, has hit respectably enough (.280/.324/.445, 107 wRC+) to offer an alternative if Rosario can’t maintain that recent performance, though that would still leave Cleveland with issues to overcome in center field, where — spoiler alert — Bradley Zimmer’s play has landed the team on yet another Killers list, and right field, where Josh Naylor’s season-ending fibula fractures helped Ramirez get more playing time in the first place.

Giants (60-35, 1st in NL West, 94.1%)

Left field for the Giants has been an ongoing problem. Since the start of 2015 — the post-championship era of Giants baseball — the 46 players who have toiled there have netted 2.1 WAR, with five exceeding 1.0, and 24 below 0.0. Of the leaders, current regular Alex Dickerson is tied with Norichika Aoki — who spent only 2015 with the team — at 1.3. Alas, that’s Dickerson’s total for three seasons; this year, he’s started 47 games in left and hit .234/.305/.424 (101 wRC+) overall, but negated that value with lousy defense (-3.0 UZR, -3 DRS), yielding 0.1 WAR. Eight other players have seen time in left, with Tauchman making 19 starts, Austin Slater nine, and Darin Ruf eight. The last of the bunch homered three times in just 22 PA and produced 0.4 WAR, outdoing the rest, but in the absence of Brandon Belt, he’s been playing first base against lefties while LaMonte Wade Jr. handles those chores against righties.

The Giants still own the majors’ best record, but the Dodgers have pulled within striking distance, serving to remind that every weakness San Francisco can shore up could mean the difference between playing a do-or-die Wild Card game or getting a bye until the Division Series. In an infield where Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Evan Longoria are on the Injured List and Donovan Solano among the second base Killers, the Giants may have higher priorities, but an upgrade here — even if it’s just a Wade/Ruf left field platoon, with a late-inning defensive replacement for the latter — would be beneficial.

Blue Jays (48-44, 4th in AL East, 31.9%)

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. broke out to hit for a 128 wRC+ with 3.0 WAR in about half a season of play in 2019 and all of the shortened ’20 season. He started the 2021 season slowly, hitting just .249/.265/.367 (68 wRC+) through the end of May, that while walking in 2.2% of his plate appearances, striking out in 20.4%, and barreling the ball just 6.3% of the time. Since the start of June, he’s turned things around, batting .292/.333/.515 (127 wRC+) while boosting his walk rate to 6.4%; his barrel rate has risen to 9.5%. His turnaround has coincided with MLB’s crackdown on sticky stuff, and a closer look reveals that he hit .212 and slugged .231 against four-seam fastballs through the end of May, but has boosted that to .250 and .459 since. Though his batted ball stats and overall numbers could certainly be better, he’s trending in the right direction, so this probably doesn’t rate as a major concern for the Blue Jays.

Mets (50-43, 1st in NL East, 74.1%)

By hitting .299/.366/.571 (148 wRC+) in 396 PA in 2019-20, Dominic Smith made the case that his bat belongs in the Mets’ lineup, and he’s worked hard enough to make himself playable in left field. But while he started 72 of the Mets’ first 92 games at the spot, Smith hit a tepid .253/.323/.399 (101 wRC+), with a 6.8% barrel rate, just over half of last year’s mark. That said, like Gurriel, he’s heated up along a timeline that coincided with the crackdown: after bating .248/.305/.333 (78 wRC+) through the end of May while producing an average exit velocity of 87.0 and a hard-hit rate of 33%, he’s hit .259/.341/.469 (124 wRC+) since June 1, with a 90.9 mph exit velo and a 50% hard-hit rate.

As if to underscore the turnaround, on Wednesday Smith went 2-for-4 with a grand slam, numbers not reflected in the table or stats above. Thus, this probably isn’t the Mets’ most pressing need, but if by chance they do land the versatile Bryant without giving up J.D. Davis, Smith will have to keep this up if he’s going to maintain his playing time.

2021 Replacement Level Killers: Right Field
Athletics .204 .279 .372 83 -7.5 -1.1 -1.4 -0.2 0.5 0.3
Mets .200 .304 .374 92 -3.5 -1.3 1.1 0.4 1.3 1.7
Dodgers .224 .318 .369 92 -4.5 -1 -2.6 0.2 2.3 2.5
Statistics through July 20. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Athletics (55-42, 2nd in AL West, 52.7%)

At the outset of the season, we projected Stephen Piscotty to get the bulk of right field work for the A’s, but left wrist woes that have required at least three cortisone shots dating back to last September, including a sprain that cost him about two weeks in late June and early July, have cut into his time. Piscotty has hit just .196/.259/.340 (69 wRC+) overall while making 44 starts in right field, 28 of them against lefties. Beyond his offensive struggles, his defense there has been atypically dreadful (-2.4 UZR, -6 DRS), dragging his WAR as a right fielder to -0.5.

Seth Brown, whose 33 starts in right (and all but one of his 47 starts total) have all come against righties, has been somewhat more effective while filling in (.212/.290/.483, 110 wRC+, 0.6 WAR). He owns just a career 49 wRC+ against lefties, so expanding his role to full-time play won’t work. While the A’s could complement Brown with a lineup that includes Jed Lowrie at second base and either Tony Kemp or Chad Pinder (who’s now on the IL with a hamstring strain) in the outfield — all of them have hit lefties well this year — this situation is why they’re apparently prioritizing adding a bigger outfield bat before the deadline ahead of upgrading at shortstop. For most teams, intradivisonal dealing is rare, but just within the past year we’ve seen the A’s and Rangers make deals involving Elvis Andrus and Mike Minor, so we know those phone lines are open. The Marlins’ Starling Marte would require some positional juggling, as his big league outfield experience is in center and left, but the A’s can make that work if need be.

Mets (Again)

While Smith was scuffling through the first two months of the season in left field, Michael Conforto wasn’t doing much better in right, hitting just .230/.356/.336 (103 wRC+) with two homers in 135 PA before straining his right hamstring on May 16. After missing more than five weeks, he collected two hits in his return, then fell into a 3-for-42 skid; his .183/.330/.394 (103 wRC+) line since returning is propped up by four homers in a six-game span from July 11-19. That’s a far less reassuring arc than that of Smith, and what’s more, a lack of space on the 40-man roster led the Mets to trade Billy McKinney, who hit .221/.312/.515 (124 wRC+) during Conforto’s absence while taking most of the right field reps, to the Dodgers on Wednesday.

Thus, even with center fielder Brandon Nimmo, who missed two months due to a torn ligament near the base of his left index finger, now back and apparently in working order, the Mets could use some outfield insurance of a type that part-timers Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr. can’t provide.

Dodgers (59-38, 2nd in NL West, 99.6%)

As should be clear in cycling through these positions, some of them qualify as nothing-to-see-here situations, worth acknowledging but not obsessing over. This is one of them. Between a fractured left fibula and a left hamstring strain, Cody Bellinger missed over two months, and during that time, Mookie Betts helped carry the load in center field, starting 22 times, with Chris Taylor starting 30 times. The right fielders who have filled in for Betts, both during that stretch and since — primarily Zach McKinstry, Matt Beaty, and Luke Raley — have combined to “hit” .157/.237/.222 with one homer in 169 PA en route to -1.3 WAR, with McKinstry’s .103/.175/.138 in 63 PA “leading” the way.

Betts, who has battled a series of nagging injuries and only recently got hot, has hit .268/.369/.465 (129 wRC+) with 1.5 WAR in 268 PA while playing right field, plus .271/.366/.565 (150 wRC+) with 1.2 WAR in 101 PA while playing center. He may not be up to his 2018 AL MVP form, but his overall 139 wRC+ is now his third-highest mark after that season and 2020. Move along, folks.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

Don’t think it’s fair to blame Kelenic’s struggles on service time manipulation. I’m not suggesting that the Mariners had actual baseball reasons in mind by keeping him down, but he’s looked so lost up here that you almost wonder whether they DID have legitimate reasons. Plenty of guys have had service time manipulated but it didn’t force them to hit .041- Bryant, Vlad, Springer ,etc.

2 years ago
Reply to  cwood41

This x 1,000,000. If ever a performance validated the $$$Millions saved by doing so, it’s this one. Unless you want to Psyco-Babble it into having caused the poor performance. In which case I eagerly awaits posts arguing how the good call-up performances were motivated by service time manipulation (‘See how it motivated him!!!’)

2 years ago
Reply to  Richie

Kelenic, Trammell, Bauers, White, Long. The Mariners prospect hitters have underperformed spectacularly this year. And yet the Ms have overperformed in W-L. What a mess.

2 years ago
Reply to  bookbook

I would hardly put Bauers into the same bucket as the others.