“If he was such a good outfielder, why doesn’t he play center field?” This is a common refrain echoing around the hallways of UZR Incorporated, a not-entirely baseless question that generally pertains to highly rated corner outfielders. If they’re such defensive dynamos, why not put them in the most important outfield position?
Those in the know recognize that their high advanced stat scores are relative to their peers, so a collection of bad outfielders can help prop up a good corner OF glove. But the question still demands an answer, an answer I think it deserves in the case of Jason Heyward – what’s stopping the Cardinals from playing him in center field every day?
In the past, the biggest reasons to keep Heyward in his right field corner related to his teammates. Michael Bourn was in place in for 2011 and 2012 and then the B.J. Upton signing kept Heyward mostly away from center field. The 6’5 Heyward did manage to find some reps in center in 2013, mind you. And when he was there, he did this:
Heyward played in the middle of the outfield for a few weeks at the end of July and then spent more time there at the end of the season and into the playoffs, as Heyward patrolled center field during Atlanta’s four game division series loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Sunk costs being what they are, Heyward didn’t see his name on the lineup with an “8” beside it once in the 2014 season. But with a new team, might he get the chance to spread his wings in center?
A sneaking suspicion won’t leave me alone when it comes to the reasons Heyward hasn’t got his shot in center field – his height. Keith Law mentioned Heyward “outgrowing” the position in high school and conventional wisdom supports the claim. Only two other players standing 77 inches high or taller qualified for the batting title while playing every day in center field: Von Hayes and Alex Rios. Both players came up as right fielders but, after trades created opportunties, both lanky men got their shot in center.
Hayes was also 25 when he was moved to the Philadelphia Phillies in a huge trade. Hayes was the Phils regular center fielder for three years before he moved to the infield (he was usurped by Milt Thompson, acquired in a deal from the Braves.)
Rios was blocked in center by Vernon Wells during his time in Toronto. After the White Sox claimed him on waivers, he prowled center for the White Sox in 2010 and 2011. Like Heyward, Rios was known as a terrific defensive right fielder with a cannon arm.
Considering the best player in baseball is also a center fielder who has more physically in common with J.J. Watt than A.J. Pollock, there is no reason to think Heyward’s tall frame can’t stand up to the rigors of everyday center field. The days of assigning players positions based on their body types are in the past, aren’t they?
By moving Heyward to center field every day (rather than just the platoon situation Mike Axisa suggests here), the Cardinals would be freed up to move either Peter Bourjos or Jon Jay. Jay is an unusual player, a high average hitter with no power and generally neutral splits; he also plays a nice center field in his own right. Bourjos’ defensive value splits opinions on his ultimate role, as some believe he can fetch a decent return in trade. Randal Grichuk is an interesting player, one the Cardinals do not want to give up on quite yet.
With just one year of Heyward’s services at their disposal, moving Jay might not be an immediate option. But he represents a league-average starting center fielder, one who sprays line drives around the field in a distinctly Cardinalsy fashion. But the drop off, as projected by Steamer, between Jay and the twosome that would replace him (Grichuk/Bourjos) is quite steep.
Bourjos’ defensive reputation suggests that, given a full season of playing time, his glove makes him nearly Jay’s overall equal at the everyday center fielder (2.2 WAR for Jay versus 2.1 WAR for Bourjos), though the Cardinals might not withstand the offensive drop-off on a team predicated upon contact and long rallies. Throwing the position over to Grichuk and prospect Stephen Piscotty involves a great deal of risk for a deal clearly built to win now.
Heyward’s superlative defense gives the Cardinals flexibility more than anything else. The flexibility to make a move with one of their cost-controlled outfielders or the flexibility to seek further upgrades in the outfield.
The knock on Heyward is he doesn’t hit like a corner outfielder, which is to say he doesn’t hit like many expect him to hit. While a breakout at the plate appears possible, his current offensive line might suit him better in the middle of the diamond, where his defense can truly shine.
The makeup of the Cardinals roster doesn’t necessarily give the Cardinals much reason to experiment with Heyward in center, though he could probably handle the position just fine. In 2013, the team won 90 games with a far, far worse defensive player taking the majority of CF reps. If the Cardinals are really going for it in 2015, they can certainly pursue moves to upgrade other positions with their glut of center fielders, knowing Heyward is back there. At the very least, it’s something to consider. If Piscotty or Grichuk force the issue, it’s a nice luxury to room for a great defender to allow more offense into the mix.