This week, the Padres have acquired Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers. There is a chance that they keep all three and play them side by side as their 2015 outfield. It would be an experiment in testing the limits of the offense/defense balance, essentially betting that fielding matters very little in relation to hitting the ball over the wall yourself. If the Padres keep all three in the outfield, they’re likely to have one of the best offensive and worst defensive outfields in baseball next year.
They wouldn’t the first team to try this, however. For fun, I decided to look back through the years for which we have UZR data and find teams that have punted outfield defense to maximize their own HR totals. To do this, I took all the team seasons since 2002, and looked for teams who ranked at the top and bottom of the league in home runs and UZR in the same season. Here are three examples of teams that have tried this same strategy in the last 13 years.
2005 Cincinnati Reds: 122 HRs, 119 wRC+, -41 UZR
On the fairly regular days when Wily Mo replaced Kearns in right field, this was maybe the worst defensive outfield of our lifetime. Griffey was 35 and breaking down while Dunn era the worst defensive outfielder of the UZR era; and Wily Mo was a DH in the making. Kearns gave the group a little bit of diversity, but this still an outfield primarily consisting of lumbering sluggers.
From 2002-2014, no outfield has hit more home runs than the 122 launched by the 2005 Reds, and they finished with the ninth worst outfield UZR in the 13 years that we have the data. This was perhaps the peak of the experiments in trading outfield defense to get as much power hitting into one line-up as possible. And the team won 76 games.
2004 New York Yankees – 111 HRs, 119 wRC+, -68 UZR
The Yankees stuck with Williams in center long past the time he should have moved, and then flanked him with two bat-first sluggers who could barely move. Their -68 UZR was the second worst of the era, only bested by themselves the next year when they tried it again. In 2004, though, the sluggers slugged, and the Yankees bombed their way to 101 wins. The all offense/no defense plan can work, if you have enough offense and a great pitching staff. The 2004 Yankees did.
2013 Seattle Mariners – 84 HRs, 98 wRC+, -55 UZR
This is essentially the absolute worst case scenario for the Padres. Like San Diego, the Mariners tired of lousy offenses in a big pitcher’s park, so they punted corner outfield defense and stretched to put a couple of corner guys in center, neither of whom proved capable of handling the position. Despite playing half their games in Safeco, the Mariners outfield did lead the majors in home runs, but they were lousy at everything that wasn’t hitting home runs, producing league average offense and league worst defense.
The Mariners finished second in home runs overall in 2013, dramatically changing the type of offense they’d had of late. They still won just 71 games, however, as their defensive ineptitude took away all the gains that they made in hitting the ball over the fence.
Clearly, as the 2004 Yankees show, a terrible outfield defense can work, as long as the rest of your roster is full of quality player as well. OF defense is not so critical to winning that you cannot sacrifice it entirely and still put a good team on the field. Puting outfield defense won’t doom the Padres season in and of itself, especially if Kemp, Upton, and Myers hit more like the Reds or Yankees than the Mariners.
But neither is this clearly a market inefficiency. Leading the league in outfield home runs is fine as long as you are strong everywhere else on the roster; the 2005 Reds and 2013 Mariners were not, and so they ended up as pretty lousy teams. The 2004 Yankees got a +7 WAR season from Alex Rodriguez, +5 WAR seasons from Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, and their pitching staff ranked #4 in MLB in WAR that season as well. Matsui, Williams, and Sheffield combined for +7 WAR between them, so they were reasonably productive, but it was the other parts of that team that made the Yankees great.
If the 2015 Padres are going to win, they’ll probably have to follow a similar model. Kemp, Upton, and Myers might give the team +10 WAR between them, but they’ll need the rest of the roster to perform at a high level if they’re going to avoid the path taken by the 2005 Reds or 2013 Mariners.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.