Center field has been a revolving door for the Braves since Andruw Jones left. Fifteen different players have started at least 1 game in CF in the past 4 seasons, but none of them started 85 games in CF in a season.
The 2011 season was, sadly, not much different. Braves CFs earned a total of 2.0 WAR (FanGraphs version), which placed them in a tie for 26th out of 30 teams. Only the Indians, Blue Jays, and Mariners were worse.
The worst part is that this isn't really that surprising, since the Braves entered the season without a true center fielder. They seemed to be hoping that Nate McLouth would both rebound from his dismal 2010 with the bat and be decent with the glove in center.
The team eventually turned to former top prospect and current struggling AAA player Jordan Schafer to fill the CF void. Unlike McLouth, Schafer's defense in CF was credible. Unfortunately, also unlike McLouth, Schafer could not be relied on to get on base at an adequate rate (a flaw that was only exacerbated by Schafer's continual presence at the top of the lineup).
The Schafer experiment was clearly a failure after a few weeks, but with no other real options, the team kept running him out there until Frank Wren acquired--finally!--a real center fielder, Michael Bourn. Bourn didn't exactly light the world on fire during his 2 months in Atlanta, but his defense in CF is phenomenal, and he possesses enough on-base skills to be a real threat at the top of the lineup. Hopefully, Bourn's presence in center field for the entire 2012 season will finally end the Braves' struggles at the position.
After the jump, I review the seasons of each of the 3 main CFs in more detail, including a graphical look at each player's plate discipline.
McLouth got off to a decent enough start, posting a good OBP that helped offset his lack of power. Through May 16th, he was hitting .262 / .355 / .379, which is just fine for center field. Of course, his fielding was inadequate, but at least CF wasn't a black hole for those first 6 weeks.
After that, everything went wrong for McLouth. He went 1 for 19 in the next 6 games and then was placed on the DL for almost a month with an oblique injury. Upon his return, he was mostly relegated to left field, and while his on-base skills remained sharp (.362 OBP from then on), his power numbers were abysmal for a corner OF (.320 SLG from then on). Then, after just 6 weeks back, McLouth developed a sports hernia that eventually required season-ending surgery.
The graphic below looks at McLouth's plate discipline:
Keep in mind for all these graphs that a few percentage points makes a fairly large difference. For each stat, nearly all players were within 10% of the MLB average. Any ranking in the top 100 should be considered above average in that metric (note that "above average" does not equal good, especially in passive rate and aggressive rate). A ranking in the 200s is below average in that metric. See the footnote* for more on the terms used in the graphic.
Let's dissect this a bit. The 52% zone rate tells us that McLouth saw more strikes than average. This makes sense, because McLouth was often reluctant to swing the bat, as his very low 39% swing rate attests. When he did swing, though, he made contact on a fairly high 85% of swings.
Presumably, McLouth's selectiveness helped him maintain that contact rate. The "Swing Judgment" metric tells us that 77% of the pitches he swung at were in the strike zone. Only 12 players out of 289 did better. The "Take Judgment" metric shows that 65% of the balls he didn't swing at ended up out of the strike zone, which is right at the league average. Putting those two figures together, you'd have to say that McLouth's strike zone judgment was very good.
The final two metrics prove that McLouth was one player who definitely did not buy into the "aggressive" philosophy espoused by former hitting coach Larry Parrish. He swung at only 19% of out-of-zone pitches, which was the 11th-lowest mark in baseball. Unfortunately, McLouth was also a bit too passive on pitches in the strike zone, taking 42% of the time, well above the league average of 38%.
His final offensive stat line for 2011: .228 / .344 / .333 (.306 wOBA). That's up from his terrible 2010 season, but not really good enough.
On the plus side, McLouth led the Braves' 3 CFs in walk rate (13.7%) and even isolated power (.105). He hit 4 home runs, which was 2/3 of the Braves' season-long CF total. (Yes, the Braves only got 6 homers from their CFs all year.) McLouth also added value on the bases, posting +4.2 baserunning runs, a mark that led the Braves and was tied for 16th-best in the majors.
On the down side, McLouth had only a .228 batting average, although that was influenced by a low-ish .270 BABIP. Part of the reason for that low BABIP is that McLouth hit a huge number of infield fly balls--over 20% of his fly balls. That .105 ISO really isn't very good, either, despite being the highest of the Braves' 3 CFs. And of course, his biggest flaw was that he just didn't cover enough ground in center field.*
* I'm not going to quote any single-season defensive numbers; they're all but useless. Still, I don't know anyone who thinks McLouth is even average in CF, though he did seem to be pretty good in LF.
Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference WARs agree he was above replacement level, but worth less than 1 win: 0.2 fWAR, 0.7 brWAR.
At this stage in his career, McLouth seems like just a bench player. With his Braves career mercifully at an end, I hope that he can latch on with another MLB team in that capacity. His on-base skills and good baserunning could make him a real asset for someone as a 4th outfielder.
When McLouth was placed on the DL in late May, Schafer was hitting just .255 / .308 / .321 in AAA. The previous year, he hit just .200 / .254 / .253 in AAA (in about 200 PA). Simply put, there was no reason to expect Schafer to be able to hit enough to be a major-league regular at that point.
Of course, many Braves fans (and the Braves' front office) remember the great promise that he once showed, despite the fact that he hadn't really showed much of it in more than 2 years. So when Schafer got off to a fairly hot start (.292 / .433 / .333) in his first 6 games, many were seduced into thinking that maybe this time, he'd figured it out. Predictably, though, that success didn't last.
From then on, Schafer struggled to hit for average, get on base, or hit for power. He hit just .233 / .286 / .314 in his last 46 games with the team. Luckily, the Braves got plenty of offense from other sources during that period, so Schafer's struggles didn't really hurt the team. His job was basically to provide some defensive value in CF, and he did do that. He was truly miscast as a leadoff hitter, but the blame for that is placed on Fredi Gonzalez's shoulders, not Schafer's.
Here's Schafer's plate discipline graphic (it's for his full season, not just with the Braves):
Schafer's plate discipline, as you can see, was pretty much average all around, aside from being perhaps a bit more likely to swing than the average player. However, he made significant strides in one area when compared to 2009. That year, he made contact on only 66% of all pitches he swung at; this year, he was at 82%, which is actually slightly above average.
Overall, Schafer finished with a line of .240 / .307 / .316 for the Braves, very similar to his AAA numbers at the time of his call-up. That works out to a .298 wOBA, which is even lower than McLouth's.
As mentioned before, Schafer's main asset was his defense. To my mind, he's just average in CF, but an average CF has quite a bit of defensive value. He also did quite well on the bases, posting 15 steals in 19 attempts (79%) and adding +0.9 baserunning runs (the latter figure doesn't include steals).
That defensive and baserunning value just wasn't enough to compensate for his poor offense, though. His final WAR totals with Atlanta: 0.6 fWAR and 0.0 brWAR. Overall, he was roughly as valuable as McLouth, which is to say, not really very valuable.
In the end, Schafer's biggest value to the Braves was his trade value. The Astros needed a placeholder CF if they were going to trade away Bourn, and Schafer fit that bill. After the trade, Schafer posted almost exactly the same numbers with the Astros that he had with the Braves, so if he received any benefit from the change of scenery, it hasn't shown up yet. His future no longer seems to hold much promise, but he'll play next season at age 25, so there's still time for him to develop. Either way, I'm sure most Braves fans are happy to have Michael Bourn instead.
At the time of his trade to Atlanta, Bourn was having perhaps his best offensive season. He was hitting .303 / .363 / .403, all of which would have been career highs. Couple that with his phenomenal defense in center and his great baserunning and you have an elite player. So Braves fans were right to be excited for his arrival, even if he didn't play at the same level for Atlanta.
After the trade, Bourn hit .278 / .321 / .352 with a .305 wOBA. Obviously, that's not very good--especially the OBP--but it was just 2 months, and he should do better next year.
Bourn's defense was as good as advertised. He covers a ton of ground in the outfield, and unlike some other speedy CFs, he seems to take good routes to the ball nearly every time. He also stole 22 bases for the Braves in 29 attempts, for a good 76% rate, and added +1.7 baserunning runs, too.
Put all that together and you get a pretty good player: 1.2 fWAR and 0.6 brWAR. That's just for his 2 months in Atlanta, and that includes strangely low defensive metrics. Frankly, I think those metrics are full of crap in this case, which means that those WAR values should really be higher. At any rate, he was still the best of the 3 CFs the Braves tried this year.
Let's see how Bourn stacks up with the others in terms of his plate discipline (these are his whole-season numbers, counting his time in Houston):
Much like McLouth, Bourn did a good job of judging when to swing (74% of swings at pitches in the zone). He wasn't very aggressive, swinging at out-of-zone pitches just 24% of the time. Unlike McLouth, though, Bourn wasn't particularly passive on pitches in the zone, taking 39% of them, which is roughly the league average. All in all, this adds up to pretty good plate discipline. It's not an elite skill for Bourn, but it is definitely an asset.
Overall, counting his time in Houston, Bourn posted a 4.2 fWAR and a 4.4 brWAR. He also led MLB with 61 steals, and finished 2nd with +7.2 baserunning runs
What can we expect from Bourn next season? I think a duplication of his overall 2011 stat line is feasible: an OBP around .350 and a SLG in the .350 to .380 range. Add in around 2 wins of defensive and baserunning value, and you've got a 4-5 WAR player. Even if he slumps with the bat all year, Bourn should still put up the best season of any Braves CF since Andruw Jones in 2006.
Frankly, I can't wait for the 2012 season to start so that we can all finally forget all about Josh Anderson, Mark Kotsay, Gregor Blanco, and the rest of the awful centerfielders we've had to endure for the past 4 seasons. I'm sure I'm not the only one who is sick of these depressing CF season recaps.
* For those of you who want to know where these numbers come from, they are based on the new plate discipline statistics at Baseball Prospectus. The BPro stats are conceptually the same as the ones at FanGraphs, but they use PITCHf/x rather than subjective data, so they are considered to be more reliable.
Anyway, the three stats on the top row are taken straight from BPro's numbers. They are (from L to R) Zone Rate, Swing Rate, and Contact Rate. The other 4 stats are variations on Z-Swing Rate (swing rate for pitches in the strike zone) and O-Swing Rate (swing rate for pitches out of the zone). Here's the formula for the 4 terms, if you're interested:
- Swing Judgment: ZSwingRate / SwingRate
- Take Judgment: (1 – OSwingRate) / (1 – SwingRate)
- Passive Rate: (1 – ZSwingRate) / ZoneRate
- Aggressive Rate: OSwingRate / (1 – ZoneRate)