Center field is the king of the outfield. Most of the best defenders in baseball history have played center field. Having a good defensive center fielder is extremely valuable to a team. Preventing runs from scoring can be just as valuable as the ability for the player to produce runs. An interesting metric to look into in regards to center fielders is their defensive positioning. Some players like position themselves deep and run in on balls, while others feel more comfortable starting shallow and running back on balls. Here is a look at the difference between 2016 and 2017 average center field starting distance:
Most players tended to stay put in their position. There are however, a few players who have dramatically altered their starting positions. Adam Jones has gotten much deeper in center field. Jones currently ranks last among qualified center fielders in UZR by over double the next worse. Last year he finished 3rd last in UZR. In about the same number of opportunities Jones made 66.7% of 3 star plays as opposed to 52.4% this year. He has diminished in just about every defensive category since moving back.
Another interesting move is Andrew McCutchen. He was moved out of center field at the beginning of the season due to his poor defense last season. This season, he has moved back on average 14 feet. He still ranks 2nd last in UZR this season but his -5.8 UZR this season is a massive improvement from the -18.3 he posted last season. Unlike Jones, McCutchen has improved in both 3 star and 2 star catches. He went from 41.7% of 3 star catches made in 2016 to 66.7% in 2017 and 66.7% of 2 star catches made in 2016 to 87.5% in 2017. He is now making 3 star catches at the rate he was making 2 star catches in 2016. McCutchen’s defense is by far not elite, but it has become respectable to the point where the Pirates have kept him there once Marte returned.
Billy Hamilton is the last player I want to touch on as he has made the biggest leap forward in positioning. He is the closest to the hitter of any center fielder being 5 feet closer than the next closest. Hamilton has been an elite defender throughout his career so far but he may have just gotten even better. He leads qualified center fielders in UZR this season, and finished 2nd last year only to Kevin Pillar. On average, Hamilton has moved forward 8 feet. Last season he was tied for the league with 11 5 star outs with a success rate nearly double of those who he was tied with at 42.3%. This year he is only 2 for 19 in 5 star opportunities. Now, we cannot fault a guy for not making plays he isn’t supposed to make in the first place, and there are many other factors that could go into this. But it is a noticeable decrease. Where he is losing ground in highlight reel catches, he is gaining in his ability to hold base runners. His ARM rating on Fangraphs has increased from 1.9 to 9.0 which leads baseball by almost double the next best. ARM refers to the amount of runs above average a defender saves by not allowing runners to advance. Hamilton is tied for most kills this season and his hold percentage is among the top this year at 50.8% compared to last year when it was at 45.4%. Teams are seeing Hamilton as more of a threat this year from the outfield. Since Hamilton is the fastest outfielder in baseball and has elite range, moving forward helps him improve at the only spot he could really improve in. He is sacrificing success on 5 star plays for keeping base runners put. This is the more consistent option.
Positioning is such a big part of baseball today as more information is available on hitting trends. Some players make adjustments while others do not. It is interesting to see how players differ from year to year defensively and if it correlates with a defensive positioning move. It is clear at this point in the season that the same trend continues with Adam Jones being terrible in center field while Billy Hamilton puts up another Gold Glove Caliber season.