Do The Braves Have The Best Outfield In Major League Baseball?

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

With the acquisitions of Justin and B.J. Upton, do the Atlanta Braves have the best outfield in baseball? And who else could possibly lay stake to that claim?

Ever since Atlanta's acquisition of Justin Upton, the entire baseball world has been abuzz over the Braves' young, athletic outfield. Many national writers have bandied around the idea that a second Upton gives Atlanta the best outfield in the majors. But who else could possibly challenge the Braves for that title? We'll start by looking at 4 other suitors for the title of "Baseball's Best Outfield" followed by various offensive and defensive statistics that can help shed light on who actually has baseball's best outfield going in to the 2013 season.

The Contenders

The Atlanta Braves - By now we're all quite familiar with the Braves' 2013 outfield, and it should be a force this year and for years down the road. With Justin Upton in left, B.J. Upton manning center, and Jason Heyward holding down right for his fourth year in a row, the Braves bring youth (Justin is 25, B.J. is 28, and Heyward is 23), speed, excellent defense, and prodigious power to all three outfield spots. And while B.J.'s ceiling is probably not too much higher than he's already shown, Justin and Jason both have MVP-caliber upside, so the sky's really the limit for the Atlanta trio.

The Los Angeles Angels - The Angels' outfield shows less balance than the Braves', but is anchored by two of baseball's biggest stars. Mike Trout, arguably baseball's most valuable player from 2012 (or easily the MVP, depending on your view of WAR) returns, and the Angels have signed slugger Josh Hamilton to play alongside him. Hamilton obviously represents a significant risk for the Angels with his history of injuries, off-the-field problems, and prolonged slumps, but when healthy he is one of the game's best power hitters (He led all outfielders in home runs last year with 43). Rounding out the Angels' outfield is speedster Peter Bourjos. Bourjos is easily one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, but has been mostly inconsistent with the bat during his 3 year career. Though he probably won't hit a lick, Bourjos's defense will be top-notch - and it will need to be playing next to Hamilton, who is a noted butcher in the field. As of now, the consensus opinion is that Trout will move to left to allow the speedy Bourjos to play center.

The Washington Nationals - Braves fans should be plenty familiar with at least 2/3rds of Washington's outfield this year. Rookie phenom Bryce Harper enters his second year, and will shift from center field to left field (though there's a chance he ends up playing more in right). Newcomer Denard Span, the prize of the Nationals' offseason, will immediately slot in hitting leadoff and playing center field, where he brings an excellent mix of defense and on-base skills. Jayson Werth, who missed half of last season with an injury, will return to play right field. Werth was an on-base machine after returning from his injury, and should be a force wherever he hits in the lineup.

The St. Louis Cardinals - The Cardinals are no strangers to good hitting, and their outfield for 2013 is no exception. Matt Holliday will man left field again for the Redbirds while hitting in the heart of the order. Though his defense is laughably bad, he boasts excellent offensive prowess with an ability to hit for a high average, get on base at a good clip, and hit for power. In the other corner spot is Carlos Beltran, who put together an MVP half-season before the 2012 All-Star break. Nagging injuries slowed Beltran's second half and may continue to pose problems in the future, but he is still a stellar hitter who, like Holliday, can hit for average as well as power. Rounding out the Cardinals' outfield is center fielder Jon Jay, who will be entering his 3rd full season with the big league club. Jay brings above average defense in center along with the ability to hit for a high average. Jay's defense will be especially key, as he'll have to help compensate for Holliday and Beltran.

The Los Angeles Dodgers - The Dodgers' outfield has an incredibly high ceiling, but it relies on several players regaining the form of season's past. Matt Kemp, after an MVP-caliber season in 2011, suffered through injuries for most of 2012 - a season that saw him miss over 50 games. The Dodgers new left fielder, Carl Crawford, has been through worse. Crawford, after putting up a 7 WAR season in 2010, had two horribly ineffective and injury-prone seasons in Boston before being shipped to Los Angeles at the end of last year. If Crawford can regain any of the success he had while playing in Tampa Bay, the Dodgers' outfield could be a force. Rounding out the outfield in L.A. is Andre Ethier, the Dodgers' right fielder. Ethier has always been a bat first player who will put up above-average offensive numbers but never be extraordinary.

Honorable Mentions - Milwaukee Brewers and Oakland A's. The Brewers and A's both lay claim to excellent big league outfields. For the purpose of this exercise, we limited the discussion to 5 for the sake of brevity, but you can definitely make a case that the Brewers or A's should be included as well.

Our 5 contenders for 2013's best outfield:

Left Field Center Field Right Field
Braves Justin Upton B.J. Upton Jason Heyward
Angels Mike Trout Peter Bourjos Josh Hamilton
Nationals Bryce Harper Denard Span Jayson Werth
Cardinals Matt Holliday Jon Jay Carlos Beltran
Dodgers Carl Crawford Matt Kemp Andre Ethier

Judging The Contenders: Offense

Now that we've established our contenders, we'll try to quantify them by looking at how they stack up both offensively and defensively. This exercise will primarily focus on the 2012 season to predict the 2013 season, but will make notice of outliers where they exist.

When comparing offenses, it's really hard to pick a place to start, as there are scores of statistics that, when taken together, help to paint a complete picture of a players worth. We'll start with weighted on base average, or wOBA. wOBA takes a weighted value for plate appearance outcomes, with that weight being based on the observed run value for each outcome. The goal of wOBA is to more accurately measure the worth of every possible plate appearance outcome - think of it as a more realistic version of OPS. So let's take a look at last year's wOBA for each of our five outfields.

2012 wOBA By 2013 Team Outfielder

Left Field Center Field Right Field
Braves .341 .323 .351
Angels .409 .272 .387
Nationals .352 .325 .362
Cardinals .378 .341 .355
Dodgers .333 .383 .350

Another excellent offensive metric is wRC+. wRC+ is a statistic that indexes a hitter's offensive value to league average, while adjusting it for park effects (thus attempting to eliminate the statistical advantage one has when playing in a hitter's park). wRC+ is based primarily on the wOBA stat (in that wOBA is the base stat it is adjusting), so our two tables should show some similarities, albeit a bit more normalized. As wRC+ is an indexed statistic, 100 should be considered the league average. Every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average. For example, a player with a wRC+ of 125 created 25% more runs than league average.

2012 wRC+ By 2013 Team Outfielder

Left Field Center Field Right Field
Braves 108 107 120
Angels 166 72 140
Nationals 121 105 128
Cardinals 141 116 125
Dodgers 105 146 124

So, after examining the wOBA and wRC+ of our five outfields, what caveats apply? The first, and most glaring for Braves' fans, is Justin Upton's numbers. Upton was hurt for almost all of last year, opting to try and play through a finger injury (sound familiar?). As such, his numbers took a sharp hit. Assuming Upton comes into camp fully healthy (and there's really no reason to expect he won't), a return to his 2011 numbers (.385 wOBA, 139 wRC+) seems likely; improvement on those 2011 numbers isn't out of the question either.

Moving down the list, Peter Bourjos' awful numbers immediately jump out, but there's some thought that perhaps they were caused by a lack of consistent playing time. He'll never be a great hitter, but there's reason to believe he could post league average numbers (or slightly better) if given a full time chance. Predicting Mike Trout's sophomore season is even more difficult, because we've never seen a player like him before. It wouldn't surprise me if he regressed to somewhere around a 140 wRC+, but then again, he could just as easily hold serve.

The Nationals' numbers seem fairly plausible, and more or less in-line with career averages. The same goes for the Cardinals, but it is worth mentioning that their outfield is easily the oldest of the 5 on this list. I'm not saying it's a given that regression is imminent, but if it happened to the 35 year-old Beltran or the 33-year old Holliday, I wouldn't be surprised.

As for the Dodgers, Carl Crawford is only 2 years removed from a .396 wOBA, 134 wRC+ season, so there's some reason to think he could improve on his dismal 2012 numbers. As good as Matt Kemp's numbers look, they were even better in 2011. It remains to be seen if he'll ever approach those career high numbers again (.413 wOBA, 168 wRC+), but if he does, he could challenge Trout as the best outfielder in baseball.

Based on offense alone, given past production and projection for future growth, this is how I see these 5 outfields stack up:

  1. Angels
  2. Cardinals
  3. Dodgers
  4. Braves
  5. Nationals

Judging The Contenders: Defense


Offense is only half the game, however. A comprehensive look at defense is also required to determine who has baseball's best outfield. From a statistical point of view, this is the hardest aspect of the game to quantify. Defensive metrics are notably rough around the edges and subject to large swings between seasons. Below, I'll list two advance defensive metrics - defensive runs saved above average (DRS) and ultimate zone rate per 150 games (UZR/150). But whatever insight into defense these metrics impart should also be taken with a grain of salt and considered hand-in-hand with defensive scouting reports and expert analysis.

2012 DRS By 2013 Team Outfielder

Left Field Center Field Right Field
Braves 2 -4 20
Angels 21 9 -9
Nationals 14 20 -12
Cardinals -6 2 4
Dodgers 0 -13 3

2012 UZR/150 By 2013 Team Outfielder

Left Field Center Field Right Field
Braves -2.1 -3.2 20.3
Angels 11.0 39.1 -15.5
Nationals 11.1 9.6 -21.2
Cardinals -4.3 5.2 0.5
Dodgers -9.5 -12.3 -2.9


Going down the list, we immediately notice that Justin Upton's numbers are a bit low. Again, this is likely mostly due to his injury, and there's no reason to believe he can't return to his 2011 form (8 DRS, 6.8 UZR/150) when he won the Fielding Bible Award for right field. B.J. has never graded well according to advanced metrics, but the general consensus is that he's an above-average defender in center with good speed and a good arm. Rounding out the Braves outfield, Jason Heyward is as good as billed on the defensive end, and looks poised to defend his Fielding Bible Award from 2012. Calling him the best defensive right fielder in baseball is not a stretch. Don't let the numbers fool you - the Braves very well may have the best defensive outfield in baseball, especially in terms of balance.

The numbers basically back up what we know about the Angels, namely that Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos are defensive studs, while Josh Hamilton is an atrocious fielder. There's no reason not expect Trout and Bourjos to continue performing at such a high level, but Hamilton really drags this unit down defensively. It will be interesting to see if the Angels employ shifts to try and take some of the weight off of Hamilton.

As for the Nationals, we already know Denard Span and Bryce Harper are above-average fielders, and the metrics back this conclusion as well. Jayson Werth got hammered by both UZR/150 and DRS this year, but I suspect a good portion of this is due to his small sample of games played in 2012. Werth has always graded out as average to above average, and while he may not be a boon in right for the Nationals this year, there's little reason to believe he'll be much of a detriment, either.

The Cardinals defense is anchored by Jon Jay, who's the only above average defender in the outfield. Carlos Beltran isn't terrible, but he's lost a step, and will turn 36 this year - it wouldn't surprise me if he continues to regress a bit. Matt Holliday is a walking laugh track in left, and will turn 34 this year, so we shouldn't expect any improvements from him.

Finally, we come to the Dodgers, who the advanced metrics universally dislike. Matt Kemp, despite what the metrics say, is generally considered an average to above average center fielder. Carl Crawford has been an excellent fielder for the majority of his career, but his success in the field will likely hinge on him being able to recover from his injuries and slumps of the past two years. Andre Ethier is slightly below average in right, and has been consistently so for the duration of his career.

Based on defense alone, given past production and projection for future growth, this is how I see these 5 outfields stack up:

  1. Braves
  2. Angels
  3. Nationals
  4. Cardinals
  5. Dodgers
Judging The Contenders: Conclusion

Looking at offense and defense, we get fairly clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of each outfield. Combining the two together, there is one final statistic we can look at in an attempt to combine offensive and defensive value for a player, and that is Wins Above Replacement (WAR). WAR aims to be a catch-all statistic, factoring in offensive, defensive, and basebunning statistics in an effort to determine a player's total worth to a team. WAR attempts to answer the question "How many wins is a player worth to his team over a replacement-level player?"

2012 WAR By 2013 Team Outfielder

Left Field Center Field Right Field Total
Braves 2.5 3.3 6.6 12.4
Angels 10.0 1.9 4.4 16.3
Nationals 4.9 3.9 1.0 9.8
Cardinals 5.1 4.1 3.6 12.8
Dodgers 0.4 3.5 3.4 7.3

WAR is highly affected by playing time, so players who missed time with injury or didn't start most games will have lower WAR that their true skill level. Peter Bourjos, Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford, and Matt Kemp all fall into this category. Further, as was previously discussed, we can expect Justin Upton's WAR to bounce back from his hand injury in 2012 (In 2011, he was a 6.4 win player).

So, what conclusions can we draw from all this data? In terms of total contributions to their team, I think that the Los Angeles Angels will have the best outfield in baseball next year. Anchored by the best outfielder in the game right now, the Angels bring a deadly mix of power, speed, and defense that pushes them over the top. I believe Atlanta is right behind them, and it is easy to see that the Braves have the most balanced outfield in baseball, with all three positions contributing above average offense and defense. Further, the Braves have the youngest outfield of the five, so it stands to reason that they have plenty of room for further growth and maturation without having to worry as much about the specter of regression. If you're looking at which of these outfields you'd take years down the line, it's not a stretch to want Atlanta's every time. But, as we are looking specifically at the upcoming season, I think Atlanta comes in a close second. That said, there is certainly a case that can be made for each of these five teams, and they should all be stellar outfields this year.

Here are my top five outfields for the 2013 season:
  1. Los Angeles Angels
  2. Atlanta Braves
  3. St. Louis Cardinals
  4. Washington Nationals
  5. Los Angeles Dodgers
So, what do you think? Vote in our poll and tell us who you think will have the best outfield this year, and feel free to explain your reasoning in the comments!

All statistics quoted in this post are taken from Fangraphs.com

Special thanks to @RotoPat, @GregCaiola, and @Gopherballs on Twitter, for their insight into the Cardinals' and Nationals' outfield.
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