The Diamondbacks Will Try to Create a Center Fielder

Last season, the Diamondbacks were one of the best defensive teams in either league. In the end, it wasn’t enough to get them to the playoffs, but it took a September collapse for them to fall out of first place. Arizona finished first by a large margin in Defensive Runs Saved. They weren’t quite so good by Ultimate Zone Rating, but that also doesn’t give them credit for their quality work behind the plate. Looking at Statcast’s difference between actual and expected wOBA allowed, the Diamondbacks finished behind only the A’s. It wasn’t a perfect season in the desert, but it wasn’t the defense that let them down.

Now we’re looking at a team in transition. There’s no easy way to lose Paul Goldschmidt. There’s no easy way to lose A.J. Pollock. There’s no easy way to lose Patrick Corbin. The expectations for the Diamondbacks aren’t going to be high, because of the talent they’ve already lost. Given that, they’ve turned into an easy team to overlook. But it’s interesting to see what’s been going on this offseason. After how good the defense just was, the Diamondbacks are moving forward without Jeff Mathis. They’re going to have Jake Lamb try to learn first base. Wilmer Flores is going to take over at second base. And Ketel Marte is moving to center field. For the second offseason in a row, a team is going to try to plug a hole in center with a second baseman.

Second basemen have had a weird winter. Jed Lowrie is going to be used as a utility guy. The same goes for DJ LeMahieu. The same will apparently also go for Jeff McNeil, and the same might apparently also go for Shed Long. Teams have never loved versatility more than they say they love it today, and teams have also never been more open-minded and creative. In a market flooded with second basemen, some second basemen have had to consider other paths. And so Marte will be bumped to the grass.

It’s not hard to figure out how the Diamondbacks wound up in this situation. They weren’t expected to keep Pollock around, and the only other internal, viable center fielder was Jarrod Dyson, unless you’re the world’s biggest fan of Socrates Brito. The perception of the center-field market is that it’s thin, with most good players already locked where they are. So with quality center fielders too hard to pry away, the Diamondbacks are looking to a 25-year-old middle infielder. He has all of 11 games — 94 innings — of professional center-field experience.

One of the first things you learn about Marte is that he’s athletic. You generally don’t get to be a middle infielder if you’re not. By way of Nick Piecoro, here’s Mike Hazen on the idea:

[Hazen] sees center field as more of an athleticism/instincts-centric position.

“We think [Marte’s] probably the best athlete on the team,” Hazen said. “He’s told us that he’s very confident that he can do it. I think those are two good starting points.

“Because he possesses all those things, that’s why we’re confident. There is a chance that we’re wrong, in which case he would probably settle somewhere in the infield. I think that at least allows us to be open-minded to the possibility.”

In center, you want someone to be quick, and you want someone who can react quickly. You’d think a young former shortstop would be a good candidate for such an opportunity. But one can’t forget that, a year ago, the Mariners believed the same things about Dee Gordon, who ultimately had to move back to the infield. Here’s Jerry Dipoto on moving Gordon to center:

Like Gordon, Marte is a former shortstop who worked hard to be good at second base. But Gordon and the outfield didn’t get along. I’ll point out that Statcast’s sprint speed can be useful here. Marte just ranked in the 87th percentile among all players. He ranked in the 82nd percentile among second basemen. He would’ve ranked in the 50th percentile among center fielders. Here’s a helpful graphic, from Baseball Savant:

Center field tends to attract the fastest of the fast. Gordon is even faster than Marte. On the other hand, for whatever it’s worth, here are some 2018 center fielders with lower sprint speeds than Marte just put up:

That foursome knows how to go and get it. Center field is a lot about top speed, but it’s not exclusively about top speed, and there are other traits that are going to come into play. We might as well examine some of the recent history of transitions.

Mookie Betts is one example of a young middle infielder who made a tremendously successful shift to center field. Billy Hamilton is another example of the same. Now, those shifts happened in the upper minor leagues. I’ve assembled a list of players who’ve shifted somewhat recently in the majors. It’s not the easiest thing to look up, so perhaps this list isn’t exhaustive, but, going back to 2002, I was able to find the following cases of new center fielders, moving from the middle infield:

It’s not that much of a sample, but, as a group in center, they averaged -3 DRS per 1,000 innings. They averaged -2 UZR per 1,000 innings. Of the eight players, the following year, only Upton remained in center full-time. Biggio and Taylor got some more center-field reps. Taylor works as the better comparison here, since he and Marte just posted the same sprint speed, and given that Biggio was trying to change positions in his late 30s.

Overall, it looks like a mixed bag to me, and all of these shifts happened because the players in question were selected for their assumed ability to make it work. The Diamondbacks also think Marte can make it work. There’s one more factor that makes me optimistic. One thing that makes me think Marte can get through a successful conversion. Excerpting from the Piecoro article linked above:

“[Marte] came by and told me, ‘If we need a center fielder, I’ll be the best center fielder on the team. I’ll do that for you right now,’ ” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo recalled. “I told him, ‘Well, you’re the best second baseman on the team, so don’t worry about it.’ So I think emotionally he feels like he can handle it.”

When the Mariners planned to have Dee Gordon move from second to center, Gordon said all the right things, and he did as the team asked, but Gordon was never wild about the idea. He’d won a Gold Glove at second before. The Mariners barely gave him any warning. Gordon didn’t join the team and volunteer to move to center. Marte, though, has volunteered to play center in the recent past. He’s pretty clearly not hurting for confidence. This is one of those soft factors, as opposed to something objective and easy to isolate, but it stands to reason that Marte is more motivated to serve as a good defender in the outfield. To whatever extent that matters, it should keep Marte more focused, and it should hasten his progress. He’s got all of spring training to figure it out.

You can go back and laugh at Marte’s brief 2015 trial if you want.

Even here, where Marte made the catch, I wouldn’t say he looked especially comfortable.

But those were Marte’s first two games at the position in the bigs. He got four chances to play in center in Triple-A in the previous weeks, and all the while, he was also still making starts at short. Marte was a major-league rookie, thrust into an unfamiliar role. He’s about to get more familiar with the outfield, awfully fast. He’ll be kept at one position as he works on his awareness and as he works on his reads.

The Diamondbacks couldn’t find an available center fielder, so they’ve opted to try to make one. It’s a gamble, and the team might possibly move forward having gotten worse defensively at several positions. But not only isn’t the team expected to stay in the race — there’s good reason to believe Marte will develop into an effective everyday answer. There’s little harm in Arizona’s finding out. If anything, teams might consider attempting more of these moves, as defensive identities continue to blur.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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doug frazier
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doug frazier

Any idea whether position changes such as these affect other aspects of the player’s performance?

lostatlimbo
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lostatlimbo

I’d love to see this as well. It seems like defense transitions correlate with dips on offense (suggesting that learning a new position distracts from focus on hitting or chips at a player’s confidence), but I’d love to see if there’s any statistical merit behind this or if it’s just confirmational bias.