Operation Center Field: Home, Home on the Range

When last we examined the center field situation, we formulated a series of questions to consider before moving forward. Now we’ll look at the first of these: What do the Padres need in a center fielder? Today we’ll cover the defensive side of the equation; tomorrow we’ll hit the offense. I think you see my priority for the position already.

Why Defense First?

Maddux Returns

Greg Maddux has agreed to a 1-year, $10 million contract with the Padres. MB offers analysis of the deal, while I’ll just say, “Woo-hoo!”

We’ve now had four years to watch the Padres play at Petco Park. We saw Jay Payton do an adequate job patrolling center in 2004, Dave Roberts struggle mightily in 2005, and Mike Cameron play it beautifully (except for the first 5-6 weeks of 2007) these past two years. With 81 games at Petco, and 9 more each at the challenging Coors Field and PhoneCo, the Padres ideally should have a center fielder who can cover a lot of ground, and preferably someone who is durable.

The defensive metrics currently available make my head spin. Not only are they sometimes confusing, but often they are contradictory as well. None of this, of course, is a valid reason for ignoring the available data. With that in mind, here are the top big-league center fielders of 2007 according to various metrics, with a few other names thrown in for good measure:

Revised Zone Rating

The Hardball Times’ revised zone rating (RZR) is “the proportion of balls hit into a fielder’s zone that he successfully converted into an out.” There were 17 qualifying center fielders in 2007; here are a few of interest:

  1. Andruw Jones .921
  2. Curtis Granderson .921
  3. Carlos Beltran .915
  4. Melky Cabrera .910
  5. David DeJesus .910
  6. Coco Crisp .909
  1. Mike Cameron .894
  1. Torii Hunter .891
  1. Aaron Rowand .861

Out of Zone

Out of zone (OOZ) represents “the total number of outs made by a fielder on balls hit outside of his zone.” This is a counting stat, not a rate stat:

  1. Ichiro Suzuki 97
  2. Curtis Granderson 85
  3. Andruw Jones 80
  4. Aaron Rowand 69
  5. Chris Young 66
  1. Coco Crisp 58
  1. Mike Cameron 53
  1. Torii Hunter 47
  2. David DeJesus 46

Ultimate Zone Rating

Ultimate zone rating (UZR) was devised a while back by Mitchel Lichtman. It’s a bit complicated — read the full explanation if you’re so inclined.

Complete rankings are unavailable for 2007, but Tango et al. at The Book have provided the top and bottom three from each league by position. Here are key center fielders:

  • Grady Sizemore +26
  • Curtis Granderson +18
  • Aaron Rowand +14
  • David DeJesus/Coco Crisp +13
  • Calros Beltran +8
  • Mike Cameron +7
  • Gary Matthews Jr. -8
  • Dave Roberts -26 (shock)

Range Factor

The original. Range factor (RF) is (assists + putouts)/game. ESPN lists 18 qualifiers at center field for 2007. Again, we examine the usual suspects:

  1. Coco Crisp 3.07
  2. Curtis Granderson 3.04
  3. Melky Cabrera 3.02
  4. Nook Logan 2.98
  5. Ichiro Suzuki/Gary Matthews Jr. 2.90
  1. David DeJesus 2.70
  2. Torii Hunter 2.68
  3. Andruw Jones 2.67
  1. Aaron Rowand 2.64
  1. Mike Cameron 2.52

Scouting Report, By the Fans, For the Fans

This isn’t a defensive metric; this is based on visual observation and might help provide a counterpoint to all the other madness. From Tango’s 2007 report for center fielders (n = 52):

  1. Ichiro Suzuki
  2. Carlos Beltran
  3. Felix Pie
  4. Andruw Jones
  5. Torii Hunter
  1. Mike Cameron
  1. Curtis Granderson
  1. Coco Crisp
  1. Aaron Rowand
  1. David DeJesus
  1. Dave Roberts
  1. Juan Pierre

Okay, So What?

First off, we’re looking at only one year of data. You could repeat this exercise for previous seasons and really make a mess of things, er, I mean, gather more evidence, but we’ll stick with ’07 numbers for now. They’re the most recent available, and I doubt that additional data points would help enough to offset the cost of looking for them.

Second, I’m not satisfied with any of these metrics. That said, we can’t just bury our heads in the proverbial sand. It is my belief (hope?) that by attacking the question from multiple angles, using different tools that make an honest attempt to measure what we’re looking for, we’ll see some patterns.

Those bulky caveats out of the way, here are a few observations I’m comfortable making:

  • I don’t see evidence that Andruw Jones has slipped defensively. Although he isn’t universally regarded by available metrics as an elite defender, there’s nothing here that should be cause for alarm. His numbers were roughly the same in 2006 and 2007, both of which marked improvements over 2005. I’m not dismissing claims of a decline out of hand, just saying that if it’s happening, he’s doing an excellent job of disguising it.
  • Curtis Granderson can play center field. Also, he’s young and he can hit. This isn’t the first time I’ve wished we were the Tigers.
  • For all his other failings, Coco Crisp did good work in the field in ’07. Depending on which metric you use, his performance fell somewhere between above average and great. The downside is that this is out of line with his previous defensive numbers. Did he improve because he stayed healthy most of the year? Did he come into his own at age 27? Was it a fluke? We don’t know. We just know he played a good center field this year.
  • Torii Hunter’s reputation probably exceeds his ability at this point, and he ain’t getting younger. Fine ballplayer, but for the money he’s likely to command, he should be at the head of the class as a defender. He isn’t.
  • Aaron Rowand is all over the map. Look at his numbers to understand why I hate defensive metrics.

I could keep going, but you get the idea. Tomorrow we’ll deal with the offensive side of the equation.

Winter Leagues

  • Saguaros 4, Surprise 1 (box | recap). Nick Hundley batted fifth and DH’d; he went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and a sac fly. Will Venable started in right field, singling twice and doubling in four trips to the plate out of the #6 hole.

Dominican scores weren’t available as of this writing. No games were scheduled in Mexico or Venezuela.