Nats or Phillies Outfield – Who Ya Got In 2020?

So you just opened the best present ever – that thing you wanted that does that thing you want it to do better than the other things – and you are over the moon. Nobody you know actually got that thing you got and you know your friends will be jealous, but most of them are already saying how the thing isn’t as good as everyone said it was, and you find a little bit of doubt creeping into your mind about your gift. You ask yourself if your friends are correct or maybe just jealous that you got the thing instead of them, because you know they asked for the thing too. Then you start using the thing and people REALLY start ripping your present saying how getting it was a huge mistake. So you find yourself defending the thing but feeling a bit sick until the talk quiets down because your friends have moved on to complaining about something else. Last off-season the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to be their cool new thing and that’s pretty much what they went through. In 2020, they have to hope that the noise about their outfield takes on a different quality after a disappointing 2019. Harper is theirs for quite some time and the Nationals just won the World Series with a revamped outfield after Harper left so, the question is, which team will have the better outfield in 2020 – the Phillies outfield or the Nationals outfield?

Bryce Harper wasn’t the only outfielder the Phillies signed in 2019. They also signed Andrew McCutchen to a three year deal with a team option for a fourth year. In his age 24 season through his age 28 season, Cutch finished in the top five in MVP voting each season, including winning the award in 2013. McCutchen has aged gracefully enough and maintained some of his power and all of his on-base ability. In fact his walk rate has gone up quite a bit over the last two seasons peaking in 2019 at 16.4% – 3.2% above his career rate of 12.2%. Durability has also been a big part of McCutchen’s game until last season when he hurt his knee and missed more than half the season, managing only 262 plate appearances for the year. When healthy, 33 year old McCutchen is a solid 3.0 WAR player and anyone expecting the 7.0 WAR Cutch is being strongly affected by the off-gassing from the plastic seats in Citizens Bank Park. In his prime, you could count on McCutchen to post a slash line around .310/.405/.500 with 24 homers and 20ish steals from the centerfield spot. While that ship has sailed, a health Andrew McCutchen should be counted on for .260/.370/.450 with a wRC+ of 120, so about 20% better than the average player in the majors. The biggest knock on him has been his defense in centerfield, but now that he is mostly in left field he is putting up good defensive numbers. Cutch will be back in the Phillies outfield and hopefully fully recovered for 2020.

The Nationals have a youngster in left field by the name of Juan Soto. In his first full season in the majors as a 20 year old, he slashed .282/.401/.548 and now owns a career slash line of .287/.403/.535. His 2019 was a 4.8 WAR season driven largely by his 142 wRC+ which was 12th in the majors and 6th in the NL. There are a lot of things to love in Soto’s game but what separates him from most players his age is his incredible strike zone judgement. His 16.4% walk rate placed him 6th in the majors in 2019 and when matched with his power (34 home runs in 2019), it makes him a terror to pitchers. Not surprisingly, Soto’s overall swing rate as well as his swing rate on balls out of the zone are both well below league average – 6.2% below and 8.2% below respectively. If you watched the 2019 postseason, you saw that it was really difficult for pitchers to get him to chase pitches out of the strike zone. That kind of plate discipline means pitchers are forced to throw him pitches over the plate or risk walking him, which they did (walked him that is) 108 times last season. The point of all this is that Soto is already one of the best hitters in baseball and he is about to play only his second full season at the age of 21. That is flat out terrifying. If there is a knock on Soto, it would be his defense which the numbers say was pretty close to average or a bit below. His DRS was at 1 but his UZR/150 was -1.3 so pick your poison. The eye test says he is going to be fine and his tremendous bat can cover a lot of sins. As good as McCutchen is, Soto is establishing himself as one of the three best left fielders in baseball, if not the best, so the Nationals get the nod in left field over the Phillies.

Finding a top notch center fielder is not an easy thing to do. Many teams face the choice of running a defense-first guy out there who they have to hide at the bottom of the batting order, or using a bat-first guy who they hope doesn’t stink up the joint too badly with his glove. The Phillies came into 2019 with former Rule 5 golden ticket, Odubel Herrera as their starter, but lost him to an 85 game suspension for violating the league’s domestic abuse policy. Herrera’s first two seasons showed him to be an excellent defender with speed and a bit of pop and a good bat. His wRC+/WAR numbers in 2015 and 2016 were 111/3.8 and 110/3.7 respectively so Herrera looked like one of those rare players who could defend and hit. He was basically free talent and a minor star – quite a find, especially in the Rule 5 Draft – and entering the 2017 season he was still only 26 with bright skies ahead. While Herrera’s boat didn’t sink in 2017, there was a decline as his on base percentage fell from .344 and .361 in 2015 and 2016 to .325 in part due to his return to his suboptimal walk rate. The low walk totals exposed his reliance on a high batting average to get on base. So in 2018 when his average fell to .255, it dragged his wRC+ down to 96 – just below average – and his WAR down to 0.9. His decline in  WAR wouldn’t have been as precipitous had the defensive metrics not fallen out of love with him. He went from 9.6 defensive dWAR to -9.0 dWAR between 2017 and 2018. Still, Herrera played almost every day, so there was hope that he could right the ship in 2019 in his age 27 season, but the opposite happened. Herrera slashed .222/.288/.341 in 139 plate appearances before his season ended in suspension. A -0.4 WAR (wRC+ of 64) season is hard to come back from, but a suspension for domestic abuse added to the mix might make it hard for Herrera to get another chance to reclaim his starting job. Up steps Adam Haseley.

Haseley was a first round pick in 2017 and debuted in the majors after only 78 plate appearances in triple-A after the loss of Herrera and his backup, Roman Quinn (lost to injury). Haseley will play the season as a 24 year old and did a decent job in his almost half a season audition. All five of Haseley’s homers in the bigs came against righties against whom he hit .282. He only received 52 plate appearances against lefties so his .212 average shouldn’t be taken too seriously, although it wouldn’t be surprising to see him carrying the bigger part of a platoon situation until he shows he isn’t a pushover against lefties. Haseley is a good defender with some speed who hasn’t shown the power one would expect from a starting outfielder – 10 homers in 2018 split between double-A and triple-A are his season high. If he finds the power everyone expects him to develop, then he can remain a starter. If he doesn’t, then Haseley is only a stopgap as a starter, or an excellent fourth outfielder. He only has 1136 professional at bats so there is still plenty of room for growth. Haseley has shown the ability to hit for average and take walks. If he only turns into a good glove, leadoff-type hitter, then the Phillies have a starting center fielder for the future. If he adds power to his game then there is some star potential there.

Having two starting outfielders under the age of 23 who have established themselves as valuable starters is a magical situation for a major league team. That one of them is a superstar and the other is a potential perennial Gold Glove center fielder with speed and developing power is enough to make a GM’s head explode with joy. Victor Robles was a top 10 prospect for a couple of years before earning a full-time job in center field in 2019. Robles is already an excellent defender in center (24 DRS in the outfield in 2019) but his offensive game is still a bit raw. He swings at a lot of pitches but also makes contact with pitches in and out of the strike zone. He has always had a thrilling combination of power and speed which was on display last season as he hit 17 home runs and stole 28 bags in 37 tries. His slash line has room for improvement as his .255/.326/.419 shows some impatience. He walked 5.7% of the time and struck out in 22.7% of his plate appearances so his strike zone judgment could definitely improve. His 91 wRC+ isn’t bad for a defender of his caliber, but his hit tool is excellent so the .255 average was a disappointment. He will likely never walk as much as Soto so at his peak he will probably be a high average/low walk totals hitter with great speed and good power. Hitters who are dependent on a high average to carry their on base percentage can be frustrating and volatile, but Robles has so many tools that he should be valuable even in years where his average is low. The Nationals expect him to improve on his rookie 2.5 WAR campaign and be a fixture in center for years to come. At this point, the Washington club has a big edge in center field but that is all reliant on how close Adam Haseley can get to his full potential.

Bryce Harper used his bat and glove to give the middle finger to his detractors and they didn’t even know it. The narrative that Harper was a disappointment was ludicrous. The right fielder for the Phillies had his third best season in terms of WAR (4.6), with his second highest home run total (35) while putting up good defensive numbers (9 DRS and 11.0 UZR/150) after hearing all offseason that he was a liability in the outfield. He even had 13 assists! It wasn’t an MVP year but it was excellent by any standard. His walk rate was high, but so was his strikeout rate as Harper swings at  and misses a lot of pitches. Harper had a much better second half than first half, so that bodes well for an even better age 27 season from Harper. When you slash .260/.372/.510 and there are signs that it will get even better, someone has to get excited for you!

Adam Eaton plays right field for the Nationals now that Victor Robles is the starter in center. 2019 was the first season since 2016 in which Eaton managed to get through the year without sustaining a major injury that cut his season short. The former Diamondback and White Sox player just turned 31, and in 656 plate appearances last season slashed .279/.365/.428. Those numbers are clearly in line with his career numbers, but his wRC+ of 107 was his lowest since 2013. Eaton’s defensive numbers were down too with both DRS and UZR showing him to be slightly below average. So while it was great for the Nationals to be able to run Eaton out there to right field most every day, one has to wonder if all of his injuries have sapped some of his skills. Don’t get me wrong – Eaton was still good, but instead of being a minor star like he was in 2016 and the first half of 2017, he was only a solid starter. He still hits around 15 home runs a season and steals bases efficiently if not that frequently, and his BABIP was almost 20 points below his career average, so don’t be surprised if he hits .290 in 2020 and puts up a 3.0 WAR season. There is a lot to like about Eaton, but he isn’t a game changing force like Bryce Harper, so the edge goes to the Phillies here.

If I had to choose an outfield for the 2020 season I would pick the Nationals. It isn’t because the Phillies have a bad outfield – they are quite talented even though there are some questions to be answered in center field. But moving forward, the Nationals could have a great outfield as Soto – gulp – gets better and Robles continues to develop. The Phillies will get some growth from Haseley, but Cutch is in the decline phase (even if it is slow) of his career, and Harper is already great and probably about done growing, although who knows with that kind of talent. Obviously teams don’t win with just their outfield, but these two teams won’t go anywhere without good seasons from their talented outfield core. It is worth noting that each club has at least one legitimate MVP candidate in their outfield, so while it is exciting to look at that part of the roster, the Phillies and Nationals both have the depth in their lineups to get to the post-season which would be the best present ever for the fans of either team.

Bryce Harper Without a Curly ‘W’ On His Chest

What would the Nationals outfield look like without Bryce Harper? Would it look like sadness, or the death of hope and joy? Well, neither actually, which is why the Nats should say goodbye to their fashion model superstar and embrace their exciting new future.

Yes – Bryce Harper is exciting and a great draw as well as a productive offensive force. Losing him from any roster will hurt. But the Washington Nationals are one of the few teams who are in position to move on gracefully from his departure. This may be better suited for a discussion of the Most Valuable Player Award, but if you think about teams absorbing the loss of a single player and what that would mean to their ability to compete, it would seem to be an important part of the MVP discussion. Since the term, “valuable”  is part of the name of the award, context comes into play. If the award was the Best Player award then there would be no need to look at the team at all and one large layer of context would become moot. But value is a context dependent term so there are many pieces that define value from the most obvious – performance – to the more esoteric like positional scarcity and organizational depth (which is tied to scarcity), as well as things like strength of the team around the player. If I am a 7 WAR player surrounded by two 6 WAR players and a 5 WAR player then am I as valuable to a team as a 6 WAR player on a team with no other players with a WAR value above 4? The answer to that question depends on your own personal beliefs – kind of like how you feel about pineapple on pizza and probably equally likely to incite passionate argument. The Nationals have to be thinking about all of these things as the day comes when they have one last chance to sign Bryce Harper after he has received a number of contract offers from other teams – other teams with more money than the Nationals. So let’s start with Harper, using WAR and wRC+ to analyze him as a hitter and as a whole player. Once we are clear about what he is then we can look at what a post-Harperian outfield would look like.

Starting with WAR, Harper has been a regular since he was 19 in the 2012 season so we have 7 seasons to examine.

Season (Age) WAR WAR Ranking
2012 (19) 4.4 45
2013 (20) 4.1 57
2014 (21) 1.6 264
2015 (22) 9.3 1
2016 (23) 3.0 111
2017 (24) 4.8 33
2018 (25) 3.5 78

The outliers are his 2015 season when he produced 9.3 WAR and lead all of baseball, and his 2014 season when he was only good for 1.6 WAR. He is about to play a season as a 26 year old so there may very well be improvement left in him. However if you just look at what he is now then he is a 4 WAR player which is Hall of Fame level production. Let’s say Harper plays for 18 seasons and averages 4 WAR – that puts him around 72 WAR – that’s Derek Jeter, Jim Thome, Frank Thomas, Reggie Jackson territory. WAR includes all aspects of his game, and Harper’s WAR is hurt by his mixed defensive metrics, but his offensive profile is a bit mixed too as his batting average has varied quite a bit from a high of .330 in 2015 to a low of .243 in 2016. Harper now has two seasons above .310 and two seasons below .250 – and that’s just in his last four seasons! Remember that Harper just played his age 25 season so he is still somewhat of a work in progress – weird, I know to talk about a player with 184 home runs that way, but that is why Harper’s contract situation is so unusual. We don’t often see players reach free agency with so much more development potential. For a finer look at just his offense, let’s look at Harper’s wRC+ and only take into account his ability to create runs in a neutral environment.

Season (Age) wRC+ wRC+ Rank
2012 (19) 121 56
2013 (20) 137 26
2014 (21) 115 81
2015 (22) 197 1
2016 (23) 111 76
2017 (24) 155 7
2018 (25) 135 17

Harper’s “offense only” profile still has a lot of up and down to it with the outlier happening in 2015 when he created 97% more runs than the average major leaguer. At this point in his career, Harper can be counted on to produce somewhere around 140 wRC+ which would make him a top 20 hitter in most seasons, with the possibility to be the best hitter in all of baseball or drop to the top 75.

Let’s quickly address Harper’s defense. It is generally agreed upon that defensive metrics are the least accurate of all the statistics. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful, just that it is important to look a little deeper and take attempts to turn defense into just one number with a grain of salt. So let’s look at two of those grains of salt first. Here is Harper’s defensive career as an outfielder (mostly in right) reduced to three stats.

Season (Age) dWAR (all outfield positions) DRS (In right only) UZR/150 (in right only)
2012 (19) 6.7 -1 6.3
2013 (20) -1.3 2 23.6
2014 (21) -3.5 1 15.0
2015 (22) -10.2 6 -5.1
2016 (23) -1.7 -3 5.9
2017 (24) -2.0 4 4.6
2018 (25) -18.1 -16 -15.4

All three stats above reduce fielding to runs saved so that you can compare. Negative values mean the player cost the team that many runs. Depending on which number you peruse, Harper looks like an average defender in most seasons – maybe a little better at times and sometimes not so great. Last season looks like quite a large outlier on the negative side of the ledger. So here is one more stat to look at to give that ugly 2018 some perspective. Since 2012, Nat’s pitchers have increased their strikeout rate by about one k per nine innings cutting into the number of balls hit to Harper in right field. So Harper’s chances have dropped making any slips in play stand out even more. Looking at one more set of numbers – Inside Edge Fielding which puts every ball hit near a fielder into buckets based on their perceived difficulty. There are six groups ranging from “Routine” to “Impossible”. Over the last two seasons, Harper has made all 295 plays that were categorized as routine. In 2018 there were only 17 balls in total that fell into the next three most difficult categories – “Likely”. “Even”, and “Unlikely”. That means that not making a couple of those plays for whatever reason would have a disproportionately large impact on his defensive numbers. In fact, he had his worst numbers in two of those three categories. Basically, yes, he had a rough year with the glove, but it wasn’t the disaster that his DRS, UZR, and dWAR made it out to be. It is likely that Harper will return to his average numbers next year unless he gets unlucky – it is unlikely that he turned into a horrible fielder as a 25 year old. Basically, he is an average fielder who is a bit volatile as a hitter, but who has a very high floor and a tremendous ceiling. So that’s Harper. But if we are looking at what it would mean for him to leave, then we need to look at the likely starting trio and 4th outfielder if Bryce takes his fabulous hair to Philly, or somewhere else that’s not DC.

If you followed baseball at all last season, then you know about Juan Soto, the rookie left fielder who played the 2018 season as a 19 year old. He destroyed minor league pitching, completely skipping over triple-A, then mashed big league hurlers by accumulating 146 wRC+ in 116 games and 494 plate appearances. His 3.7 WAR placed him 42nd in all of baseball even though he only spent about 2/3 of the season in the bigs. His wRC+ was good for 10th. He gets on base, hits for average, and has tremendous power (not to mention one of the coolest nicknames in recent sports history – Childish Bambino). His defense wasn’t great, but you could chalk that up to small sample size. He is very athletic but will likely be a corner outfielder. Let’s say he is an average defender or slightly below at the moment, but he has a chance to be more. He is already a starter and possibly somewhere between starter and superstar.

Victor Robles has hovered between the 1st and 10th best prospect in baseball for a couple seasons now and only an injury stopped him from making a real debut last year. He was kept to 65 games and 265 plate appearances including 66 in DC for the Nationals. 0.5 WAR and 131 wRC+ in a very small sample has everyone excited because that is what his profile has looked like for a while. You can’t exactly extrapolate to 660 plate appearances and say he is already a 5 WAR player, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that Robles could put together a 4 WAR season in 2019. Robles isn’t just a bat and can legitimately hold down center field. He is an old man compared to Soto playing last season as a 20 year old, but if Harper moves on it is almost certain that Robles starts the season in the Nationals outfield.

Then there’s the veteran, Adam Eaton. The old man – he played at 30 in 2019 – is a fantastic leadoff hitter. He has lost a lot of time the last two seasons to injury but when he was on the diamond he was a star. Eaton doesn’t have much power but he gets on base by hit and by walk amassing a .394 on-base percentage last season. In 370 plate appearances in 2018 he put together a wRC+ of 123 and contributed 1.9 WAR. His last two full seasons – 2015 and 2016 – he had wRC+ numbers of 121 and 116 respectively with WAR of 5.8 and 4.5. At 30, and taking into account his injuries, it would be fair to expect a 3 WAR season out of Eaton either at a corner or in center. If Robles takes the center field spot and the Nats send Eaton to left, then the veteran will likely be an above average defender.

Michael Taylor is a free agent as of this writing. At 27 he has already exhausted his prospect status and after a breakout 2017 where he produced 3.1 WAR and his only wRC+ above 100 (104), he disappointed enough in 2018 to make it unlikely that he would be handed a starting job by a contending team. He would, however, make an excellent 4th outfielder for the Nationals based on his speed, his power, and his excellent defense. Taylor is a legit centerfielder and could start for almost any team in center if defense was the only requirement. Taylor’s problem is that he strikes out a lot – 31.4% of the time in his career which now extends to just over 1600 plate appearances. So let’s say Taylor signs somewhere else and the Nationals are forced to sign or trade for some outfield depth as their triple-A club comes up short after Robles. There are a lot of 4th outfielder types available – maybe not as talented as Michael Taylor – but it won’t be hard for them to fill that spot. It is unlikely that the Nationals would flip shortstop Trea Turner back to the outfield after a good defensive season at shortstop considering that his one year in the outfield was ugly, from a statistical standpoint. Carter Kieboom is only 21 and just finished a solid season at double-A, so Turner won’t feel any pressure from below for at least another season, but it depends on how the Nationals view the speedy Turner moving forward and whether or not they see Kieboom as their shortstop of the future.

An outfield of Eaton, Robles, and Soto, relies on two young players to develop into steady producers and a veteran to stay healthy. It looks like a good bet from here. Yes, Robles could take some time to become a start but even if he is just average, the Nationals outfield would still be one of the top 10 outfields in baseball. If Robles puts up a 3 WAR season in centerfield and Soto is even close to what he was last year, then the Nationals could have the best outfield in baseball. Harper is going to be expensive – possibly more expensive than any player in the history of baseball. The Nationals could do a lot with that money if they spend it elsewhere or even spend half of it elsewhere. They just signed Patrick Corbin to bolster their rotation – money that clearly makes it harder to sign Harper to a long term deal widely expected to be the highest in the history of baseball. As hard as it will be for DC to cut ties with Bryce Harper, there is no way they should try to outbid one of the deep pocket teams to sign him. Say goodbye to Bryce Harper, Nationals fans, and embrace your new, exciting outfield.