When Is a Gold Glove Worth Its Weight in Gold?
by Jim Silva
The Rockies outfield is big. By “big” I mean spacious, not inhabited by large humans, although I can’t speak to what goes on there at night. They have more fair territory than any ballpark in the majors – .18 acres larger than the average park. It is almost a third of an acre bigger than Fenway (according to Cork Gaines on Business Insider’s website). Outfielders in Coors Field have a lot of ground to cover. Perhaps Rockies’ outfielders should be allowed to play using roofless golf carts, or hover boards just to make it fair. So the question is, should the Rockies pay more attention to outfield defense than other teams who play in wee bandboxes? And that other question that you were just thinking – can a stellar group of defensive outfielders plying their trade in Coors Field have a significant impact on the pitching staff – more of an impact than a similar outfield playing in Fenway (the smallest park in the majors by area), for example? I don’t have the tools to answer either of these questions definitively, but the logic test seems to say that yes, a great defensive outfield should have a greater impact playing in Colorado than anywhere else AND the pitchers would very likely incur a significant benefit from superior fly-chasers. While it is tempting to fill the lineup with big, beefy dudes who can hit the ball very, very far and just hope for the best when they put their gloves on, logic dictates that the Rockies need to pay a lot of attention to outfield defense. Good outfield defense will make it easier for their young pitchers to develop because they won’t get shellacked quite as often, and their pitchers are more likely to stay healthy because the improved defense will decrease their pitch counts. Again, tough to prove, but let’s assume that having the biggest park in the majors means you need to have outfielders who can cover a lot of ground, especially in center-field. Keep that in mind as we explore the 2016 Rockies outfield.
The Rockies’ center-fielder last season, and most likely in 2016, is Charlie Blackmon. “Chuck Nazty” is fast, as evidenced by his 84 career stolen bases and 76% success rate when he attempts to steal. He went 43 for 56 last season – 77%. He has some power and hits for average, as evidenced by his 17 home runs to go along with a slash line of .287/.347/.450 last season. His offensive numbers the last two seasons have been pretty similar, except for this year’s increase in triples (from three in 2014 to nine in 2015) and a smaller increase in walks from 31 to 46 in the same time frame. Blackmon almost always bats in the leadoff spot, so the extra walks help. A .347 on-base percentage is serviceable from a leadoff hitter, but not star level.
But how does Blackmon fare defensively? I compared his range factor per nine innings last season to the league average for other center-fielders. It is a simplistic stat that adds putouts and assists, and then divides them by innings played. Blackmon’s range factor per 9 innings last season was 2.35. That means that he averages a combination of 2.35 putouts and assists per game. By comparison, the average center-fielder in the NL put up a range factor of 2.41 – a touch better than Chuck’s numbers. Looking at Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Blackmon actually cost the Rockies 7 runs with his glove, so using those two numbers to look at Blackmon’s defensive work makes him look a bit below average. To put Blackmon’s defensive numbers into perspective, perhaps a bit unfairly, let’s compare him to Kevin Keirmaier, the center-fielder for the Rays. Let’s look at the same two statistics, range factor per nine innings and DRS. Kiermaier put up a range factor of 3.26 in Tropicana Field (and the other parks he visited – most likely including National Parks). That’s a big edge over Blackmon who again posted a 2.35 range factor. That’s an extra play a game for the whole season. It’s Kiermaier’s DRS that really puts Blackmon’s season in perspective. The Ray’s center-fielder saved his team 42 runs last season – that’s 49 more than Blackmon. If you use the rule of thumb that 10 runs is a game, Kiermaier won the Rays five games with his glove as compared to Blackmon. That’s huge. The unfair part of the comparison is that I compared Blackmon to the best centerfielder in the game. Not many pitchers would like to be compared to Clayton Kershaw.
What the comparison does is point out a mistake the Rockies are making – focusing on offense at the cost of defense at a position they desperately need to be a stellar defensive spot. I understand that there are not a lot of Kevin Kiermaiers out there – his season was the best in terms of DRS of any player at any position in the 10 years that John Dewan and his crew have been measuring it. You would, however, expect that the Rockies would run someone out to center-field every year who finished with positive defensive numbers considering how much they have struggled with pitching, and how important center-field defense is to supporting pitchers.
The Rockies seemingly put themselves in a position of outfield wealth this off-season when they signed Gerardo Parra to a four year deal – the fourth year being an option year. Parra has consistently been one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball posting DRS numbers of 13, 14, 9, and a whopping 37 from 2010 through 2013. The last two seasons have been very un-Parra-like as he has posted DRS score of 0 and -10. The Rockies are banking on a return of the old Gerardo on defense. They just traded starting left-fielder Corey Dickerson for closer Jake McGee, ensuring a starting job for Parra, who is 28. The question is where will they play him now that they have him? If the Rockies are truly expecting his defensive numbers to jump back up to the level they were at through 2013, then it would make sense to move Blackmon to left and install Parra in center. If the Rockies don’t believe that he is a Gold Glove defender (he won the award in 2011 and 2013) then why did they sign him for four years?
Looking at career numbers, it is clear that Parra is the superior defender, in spite of last season. Offensively, Parra had his best season ever putting up a slash line of .291/.328/.452 for the season split between two teams – very similar to Charlie Blackmon’s season. Parra doesn’t walk much – 28 times last season, and strikes out about as often as Blackmon, about 100 times a season for the last two years. So really, Blackmon and Parra will probably put up similar numbers on offense with Parra besting Blackmon with the glove, meaning you have to start them both – Parra in center and Blackmon in left most likely.
That leaves right-field. Last season, Carlos Gonzalez was the right-fielder for 151 games. He and Nolan Arenado are the faces of the franchise since Troy Tulowitzki was traded, and he has won three Gold Gloves in the outfield. Last season he was finally healthy enough to come to the plate 608 times, the second highest total of his career. His fragile health is the reason the Rockies are considering moving him from right field to first this season. Assuming they don’t, Cargo is the right-fielder. Honestly he is not a Gold Glove outfielder – last season his DRS was 5, which is solid. Put him in the outfield with Blackmon and Parra and you have a good, not great, defensive outfield, although improved over last season’s outfield, as the now traded Corey Dickerson, who put up a DRS of -6, will be replaced by Gerardo Parra.
Offensively, there is no outfielder on the Rockies major league squad or at AAA who can contribute anything close to what Cargo can, but neither can they field a first baseman who can hit like Cargo. Kyle Parker cleared waivers and was recently sent back to AAA – nobody claimed him – after an uninspiring 2015. Parker hit like a pitcher, with a .179 batting average and .311 slugging in 112 plate appearances. He is better than that, but disappointingly for a 2010 first round pick, not a major league regular. Brandon Barnes logged a lot of playing time because of Corey Dickerson’s injuries, but that didn’t go well for the Rockies. Barnes makes a lot of outs. Last season he posted an on-base percentage plus slugging (OPS) of.655 which is pretty awful for a left-fielder. Barnes’ season was an improvement offensively, including his first on-base percentage above .300 (.314). Barnes is most likely a 5th outfielder or AAA option on a good team. He is an average to slightly below-average glove in all three outfield spots and has a wee bit of power. That leaves two options to replace Gonzalez in the outfield – Mark Reynolds and Ben Paulsen. Neither man is much of an outfielder and both have significant offensive limitations. Reynolds is a power-hitting, out-making, strikeout machine, while Paulsen is a nice fourth outfielder/backup 1st baseman who is not a championship level starter at any position.
There is not really a good answer for the Rockies until some of their young outfielders, particularly David Dahl and Raimel Tapia get past AA. There is still time for Colorado to sign a low cost, short-term free agent to hold the spot warm at 1st base or in left, until the youngsters get there. Most likely the Rockies will have an easier time finding a 1st baseman – there are rumors about a Pedro Alvarez deal – than an outfielder, who can beat what the Rockies have. That would leave Paulsen as a strong bench player, and keep Barnes riding pine until someone gets injured. That said, you can expect the Rockies to stick Cargo back in right and cross their fingers. If they keep Cargo in right-field, employ a flotilla of sports medicine experts, and move Parra to center, shifting Chuck Nazty and his tats to left field then we can test the theory of improved outfield defense helping Rockies pitching (which it will, dammit!).