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.