A lot has been said over the past year or two about how Jose Bautista‘s fielding has taken a sharp dive (I’m no exception among the critics). So I asked myself a series of questions which eventually enabled me to make a determination on the ultimate question: should Jose Bautista play left field for the Blue Jays? The short answer: probably.
Let me walk you through my (somewhat scattered) thought process, which involved sifting through nine years of Statcast data (for the 2008-2016 seasons; all data that is currently available) to answer each of the following questions:
To which half of the field do batted balls predominantly travel?
Between 2008 and 2016, an average of 50.62% of all batted balls in Major League Baseball were to the left half of the field. However, over the last three seasons (2014-2016), an average of 50.87% of batted balls were to the right half of the field. I don’t believe that this is a trend that will continually increase (although the scaling on the above chart makes it seem so); given the short time period for available batted ball data, this may just be one end of a periodic fluctuation between left field and right field, with a mean of 50% in perpetuity. (It would be really interesting to examine the batted ball data for the history of the MLB, if it were available.)
You might be wondering: what’s the point of calculating batted balls to specific sides of the field?
Under the assumption that opponents hit predominantly to one side of the field, and that Jays pitchers give up hits predominantly to one side, it may be worthwhile to analyze the probability of a ball being batted to right field or left field depending on the batter/pitcher combination, and to appropriately assign fielders to each respective position.
For example, if we’re assuming Jose’s defense is bad, then based on this distribution, it may make sense to put him where there are fewer batted balls. However, we know that not all batted balls make it to the outfield – and some end up in the outfield but in center field – so looking solely at halves of the field in order to make a determination is unfair.
If the field were divided into thirds, were more balls batted to the left third or the right third?
Since we know that some batted balls go up the middle of the field, it makes more sense to divide the field into thirds, where we can examine which ones may reasonably be hit towards left or right field. In 2016, 40.39% of batted balls ended up in the right third, whereas 38.09% ended up in the left third; but again, although fewer balls seem to be batted towards left field, it would be unreasonable to assume that all would reach the outfield.
What is the split between batted balls to left field or right field specifically?
Here’s the spray chart of 2016 batted balls attributed to left field and right field (with a few obvious Statcast errors towards the bottom of the graph):
Between 2008 and 2016, an average of 17.09% of batted balls (per season) were attributed to left field, versus 16.74% for right field. Over the last three years, these averages have been 17.07% and 16.94%, respectively. So while the averages are moving closer towards one another (around 17%), it still appears that more balls are being hit to left field than to right field. However, this seems to run counter to the argument that Jose should play left field (again, assuming he’s a bad fielder) since there have recently been more batted balls to left field.
What are the left field/right field splits for 2017 opposing lineups?
Looking at historical batted ball data for position players on 2017 opposing rosters (based on rosters as of the date of this post) – between left field and right field only – a weighted-average breakdown shows that the Jays will face teams whose players, in aggregate, have historically hit slightly more to left field compared to right field; in fact, it’s almost an even split:
While, overall, 2017 opponents historically hit predominantly to left field, it should be noted that the LF-RF splits between Baltimore/Boston (predominantly left field) and New York/Tampa Bay (predominantly right field) may be significant enough to merit moving a better fielder to the higher-percentage-batted ball side for these series throughout the season. Moving the better fielder may work especially well against Minnesota (60.44% left field), and may also be worthwhile against Cincinnati and Atlanta, although those series are short enough that the batted ball samples may be too small to matter (that said, a win is a win and the Jays should absolutely try gain any possible advantage, no matter how small.)
What was the 2016 LF-RF batted balls distribution for each of the Jays’ current starters?
Between these five starters in 2016, of 806 total batted balls to either left field or right field, 52.48% were to right field. Furthermore, of 2,395 total batted balls to any location between the five starters, 52.57% were to the right half the playing field.
Breaking the splits down on a pitcher-by-pitcher basis for 2016:
|Pitcher||Batted Balls Against||% to LF||% to RF||% of Total to Right 1/2 of Field|
Except for Francisco Liriano, it clearly would have been beneficial to put a better fielder in right field for the rest of the rotation in 2016, since a greater percentage of batted balls were not only to the right half of the playing field, but to right field specifically. (The LF-RF difference for Liriano isn’t even that significant, either.)
What about the bullpen’s batted ball distribution?
The Jays’ bullpen pitchers (as the roster currently stands as of this post; refer to list below) collectively gave up 1,184 batted balls in 2016, 51.60% of which were to the right half of the playing field, and 18.76% were to right field specifically (versus 18.00% to left field). Here’s the breakdown (be mindful of smaller sample sizes in the bottom half of the list):
|Pitcher||Batted Balls Against||% to LF||% to RF||% of Total to Right 1/2 of Field|
Since this batted-ball research assumes that Jose is bad at defense; is he really that bad?
According to these defensive charts from Baseball Savant for his 2016, Jose wasn’t awful. Despite missing three easy catches (defined as catches made more than 60% of the time), he managed to make six tough catches (defined as catches made less than 40% of the time), and made all the other catches he was supposed to compared to league average, based on the ball’s hangtime and his starting distance from the ball’s landing spot.
However, the following defensive metrics from Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus paint a different picture (each is denoted with “f” or “p”, for Fangraphs and BP, respectively, where DRS = defensive runs saved; UZR = ultimate zone rating which factors in outfield arm runs above average, double play runs above average, range runs above average and error runs above average; FRAA = fielding runs above average):
While it could be argued that his arm injury significantly contributed to his poor fielding metrics in 2015 and 2016, this may not actually be the case. Fangraphs’ ARM (outfield arm runs above average) component of ultimate zone rating pins him at only -2.5 and -0.8 for each year, respectively.
The bulk of his negative UZR figures for both years came from his Range Runs Above Average (RngR), which was -8.0 and -4.8 in 2015 and 2016, respectively. In short, his bad fielding over the last two seasons stemmed primarily from his lack of range relative to other right fielders and not from his arm injury.
Was he that bad compared to the Jays’ other outfield options?
In 2015 and 2016, Jose was an objectively worse outfielder than both Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera based on these three metrics. Upton is especially interesting since he has generally been a positive ARM fielder and is and adequate RngR fielder (in left field); since his arm is better than that of the average left fielder, it may be strong enough for him to play right field. (For what it’s worth, for the games he played in right field, Carrera was slightly below average in terms of ARM, but was above average in terms of RngR.)
Pompey was an average ARM fielder (0.1 runs) and positive RngR fielder (2.7 runs) in his 167.0 innings in center field during the 2015 season. An argument can probably be made that he would be decent in right field despite the small sample (this previous post proposed that center fielders who move to corner outfield generally improve their defensive numbers).
Ceciliani realistically has little chance of seeing regular playing time, even as part of a platoon in corner outfield, unless Carrera or Upton get injured or traded.
Last but not least, a few other things should be considered (though some are more important than others):
- Familiarity with position: after playing a certain position for so many years, one gets accustomed to reading the pitch and the break of the ball off the bat, as well as throwing angles and locations; all of which should be taken into account before moving a player to the opposite corner of the field.
- Seniority/respect/entitlement: the argument that Jose is entitled to remain in his position because of seniority or experience is a weak one, but deference to veteran players nonetheless exists in baseball. That said, since Andrew McCutchen recently decided to accept a move to right field to allow his team to place its better outfielders, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, in PNC’s large center and left fields, if Jose were to insist upon staying in right field even though it was determined that he would be more help to the team in left field, he would probably face some level of backlash.
- Based on available defensive metrics, the Jays have two, possibly three, outfielders that are better defenders than Bautista;
- Four of the five slated starters gave up batted balls predominantly to the right half of the field in 2016 (as well as a higher % of batted balls to RF than LF);
- Overall, the bullpen gave up batted balls predominantly to right half of the field in 2016; and
- Seven of 20 opponents in the 2017 schedule (including two divisional opponents) have historically hit more frequently to right field than to left field.
Consequently, serious consideration should be given to moving Bautista to left field, at the very least on a game-by-game basis.
According to Rule 5.02(c), “Except the pitcher and the catcher, any fielder may station himself anywhere in fair territory.”
Why don’t teams move their stronger fielder to the probable-batted ball side throughout the game for high-percentage-side hitters?