When Ender Inciarte was traded for Shelby Miller, it was a swap of production — from the outfield to the pitcher’s mound — with an extremely high transaction cost. Inciarte was a 2-3 win outfielder while Miller looked like a 2-3 win pitcher and the Diamondbacks were short on productive arms with established track records. It was a terrible value move from the very beginning and everyone knew it. This wasn’t a case of “the national media hates the Diamondbacks.” It was a case of a team pushing most it’s chips in against the conventional wisdom, then pushing in some more. Losing Inciarte hurt, but the team still had an All-Star in centerfield, an unheralded star in one corner and plenty of options to fill the other.
Then A.J. Pollock reported a sore elbow early this spring and took some time off. Then he took more time off. Then he started hitting a little and he played in a couple minor league games. Then he tried to get in on the Spring Training action. That obviously didn’t go well and Pollock dealt his elbow the death blow we all feared. This elbow had caused him plenty of trouble in the past; it looked like the team knew he was doomed and were willing to roll the dice. They came up snake eyes and there went the team’s All-Star center fielder with a rookie and a converted infielder to pick up the slack.
So rather than flipping one outfielder for a pitcher, the team found itself down two elite defenders in the outfield before Opening Day. On paper, this was a problem. In the field, it’s an even bigger one. Despite the team’s emphasis on ground ball pitchers, opposing batters still hit the ball to the outfield and there’s limited capacity to field those balls. By losing Inciarte, the team was always going to see a drop off, but in pairing his departure with the loss of Pollock, the outfield has simply fallen off a cliff defensively. Now they’re saddled with the worst defensive outfield in baseball with really nowhere to turn. Socrates Brito was in over his head at the plate and there’s no easy fix.
Last season, the D-backs’ outfield was second in the majors in defensive runs saved (DRS) in the outfield. Only the Tampa Bay Kevin Kiermaiers bested Arizona, mostly because they had more chances to do so (thanks again to a ground ball approach by the D-backs). The Diamondbacks’ outfield was led by Inciarte defensively, who saved 29 of the team’s 44 defensive runs all by his lonesome. Pollock chipped in heavily with 14 while David Peralta was just below average with -2. The biggest offender was Yasmany Tomas who tallied -8 DRS over just 87 plays in a part-time outfield role. For all intents and purposes, this was a great unit that provided sneaky value to a team — to the magnitude of nearly four wins — on the brink of contention.
Then it all fell apart.
In just under 20% of a season, the team has fallen to the bottom of the ranks. The team’s best defensive outfielder is a converted infielder that had as much practice in the outfield before this season as I do fixing the the economy. Chris Owings has done a fantastic job of being thrown in the fire and holding his own. He still looks like an infielder in how he sets his feet and fires the ball back into his former home, but considering the adjustment that he’s been forced to make, he deserves a round of applause. But the cumulative results are just okay. He’s the kid who’s been moved up a grade and isn’t failing, but earning C’s on his report card doesn’t help the class average. To date, he’s been completely league average defensively.
It only gets worse from here, not counting Shelby Miller who is also a league average defender, thanks to making a grand total of zero catches in left field. Brandon Drury is another infielder-turned-sometimes-outfielder who’s had limited opportunities, but has proven to be just below average with -1 DRS in about 100 innings of work. Like Owings, the fact that he’s been adequate while providing some much-needed offense makes Drury another feel good story, but the devil is in the details and he’ll likely continue to rate negatively in the outfield.
David Peralta’s contributions are a little more difficult to analyze. Once Brito was sent down for another arm in the bullpen, Peralta has served as the team’s backup center fielder. Chris Owings does need days off on occasion and his bat is one that Chip Hale can afford to take out of the lineup from time to time. But the bulk of Peralta’s work has come in right, where he’s registered -2 DRS. Surprisingly, he is the only current outfielder with a positive UZR/150. This highlights the trouble dealing with defensive metrics in general — they’re wildly debated and, with just 33 games on the docket, pretty unstable. The disagreement here probably means that Peralta is close to average, maybe a tick below. He was worth -2 DRS in right over all of last season, so we can assume that he’s close to average.
Left field has been manned primarily by Yasmany Tomas and, well, it’s going about as well as it did last season. You’ll recall that Tomas started his D-backs tenure as a third baseman despite everyone and their brother saying he wasn’t adequate at the hot corner. He moved to the outfield once Jake Lamb was healthy (#FreeJakeLamb) it was, um, bad. To date, he’s been worth -3 DRS and it’s only early May. UZR/150 isn’t saving him — he’s been equally bad by that measure this season, too. Before Friday’s game, Chip Hale commented that left field has been the team’s biggest problem defensively and Tomas has four times as many innings there as anyone else. It was nice of Chip to not say “Tomas has been terrible,” but he might as well have. It’s yet another example of the D-backs playing a player out of position and making it work even when it’s not working. Hey, Peter O’Brien is still a thing. I rest my case.
If we take the current rates for what they are and assume the team will continue doling out playing time in a similar manner, this going to look awful by season’s end. The team as a whole has -7 DRS in the outfield thus far. The next worst team checks in at -4. Extrapolate that over the entirety of the season and we’re going to see something marvelously terrible. Tomas could be worth -12 DRS or more by himself. Peralta could be worth -4 and Drury might be worth -5, too. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Owings check in a bit below average and it’s not like Rickie Weeks or a call up of O’Brien will make things look any better. The team could lose three games with it’s outfield play by the time the season is done, a seven-game swing from what they did last season. Even if the team hits like we know they can, mixed with iffy pitching, the defensive output in the outfield might be enough to keep the team from tallying 81 wins. In a season where little has gone right since Opening Day, the trouble in the outfield might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
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