Remember Joe Carter? If you do, you remember a 6-foot-3, 220-pound slugger with plenty of big home runs peppered into the 402 he put together over the course of his career. He won a World Series with one of them! He was also an outfielder — and, according to the evidence available to us, he was a bad one.
Carter wasn’t an anomaly, either. In the late 90s, teams were fine with putting a dude like him in the corners because he was putting up numbers at the plate that made the whole thing work. A look around baseball in 2016, however, reveals that teams are no longer doing that these days — outfielders are fundamentally different now. In fact, they’re different than they’ve been for almost the last 100 years.
The game is getting less offense from the outfield than it used to get. For the first time since the game became recognizable as the game we see today — in 1925, men were back from the war, and players started hitting for some power and parks were more uniform — for the first time since 1925, the outfield is only giving the game league-average production as a group.
There’s a lot of different ways that this sort of thing can happen, but check out the power production in the outfield over time. It’s basically the same chart.
Conversely, more baserunning value has come from the outfield over time. The four best years by outfielders according to that measure have occurred in the last six years. It really looks like we’re putting lighter, faster players in the outfield: for the first time since before World War I ended, the league-indexed weight for the average outfielder dropped below league average in 2008, and it hasn’t quite recovered. This is also weighted for playing time.
To reiterate: this indexed it to league average, so the fact that players’ reported height and weight went from five-foot-nine and 173 pounds in 1900 to six-foot-one and 201 pounds last year is baked into the numbers.
In any case, the next chart should reveal an obvious outcome. It should be a chart about outfield defense, and how it’s gotten better because we’re putting Adam Eaton in the corner outfield instead of Joe Carter. But that sort of thing is seriously difficult to measure, you might have heard. I resorted to comparing fly-ball batting averages to league batting averages as far back as my elbow grease would allow me. In this case, we can look at how fly balls to the outfield have done since 1990:
Hard to see an obvious trend here. It might have ticked up this year because of the added 1.1 mph of exit velocity we saw this year compared to early 2015, but even if you squint, you wouldn’t say that outfield defense has become demonstrably better over this time frame. And yet we’ve seen changes in outfield offense and player size over that same time frame. So why are outfielders getting smaller and faster?
As much as we weighted these numbers by plate appearances, perhaps the difference is bench players. Are our fourth outfielders more glove and legs instead of pinch-hitting power-and-patience guys? Let’s just look at the fourth outfielders in 1987 versus last year. I immigrated to this country in 1986 and immediately jumped into baseball, which will help me judge the fourth outfielders, but 1987 is also right in the middle of the more traditional period for outfielders in terms of power, offensive production, and speed, so it’s a good comparison.
It’s actually fairly difficult to judge who is a fourth outfielder, so there’s error involved in both my list for 1987 and my list for last year. I accept that. That said, it looks like we’ve really pushed defense and baserunning from our fourth outfielders in baseball recently, over the sluggard of old.
What does that mean this offseason? It’s a tough time to be Oswaldo Arcia or Michael Morse, is probably what it means — and maybe even Eric Thames. It’ll be easier to get a gig for Coco Crisp, Desmond Jennings, and Logan Schafer, though. But there might also be a team that can zig while others are zagging by going to get a more traditional slugger to fill in their fourth-outfielder spot — certainly Carlos Beltran won’t cost that much and will be the right fit for the right team, and Brandon Moss looks like he’ll be a relative bargain for the production his bat can give.
You can see that the average outfielder is getting skinnier and faster. What you do with that knowledge is another question.