by Matt Wilkes

Outfield defense a potential weakness for the Reds

#GetTheHitting was the mantra of the Reds’ offseason, and boy, did the front office meet its goal. With the signing of outfielder Nick Castellanos, the club capped off a spending spree unlike any seen before in team history. In addition to Castellanos, the Reds also brought in outfielder Shogo Akiyama and second baseman Mike Moustakas.

The additions should go a long way in boosting what was one of the league’s worst offenses in 2019. The downside: it may come at the cost of defense.

Last year, the Reds were average to above average in the field, depending on the metric. They were seventh in Defensive Runs Saved as a team and 17th in UZR. They ranked eighth in infield Outs Above Average and 15th in outfield Outs Above Average.

In the infield, the Reds should be fine. Jose Iglesias, their best fielder last year, departed via free agency. However, his replacement, Freddy Galvis, is equally talented with the glove, according to OAA, which essentially nullifies the loss of Iglesias defensively. UZR and DRS feel Galvis is merely average. Eugenio Suarez and Joey Votto also rate as average. Moustakas is a question mark at second base, but there are reasons for optimism. The Reds’ projected starting infield was worth 14 OAA, 5 DRS, and -0.4 UZR/150. Behind the plate, the Reds shouldn’t have any issues. Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali are solid pitch-framers, even if their ability to throw out baserunners leaves something to be desired.

The outfield is picture is murkier, to say the least.

Assessing the Reds’ outfield defense

Assuming good health, the group will consist of Aristides Aquino, Phillip Ervin, Castellanos, Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, and Akiyama. The group, minus Akiyama, was worth -7 OAA, -4 DRS, and -21.5 UZR/150 last year. None of them are known for their defensive reputations, although Aquino, Ervin, and Senzel were at least average or slightly above in 2019, depending on the metric of choice. The Reds shouldn’t have many glaring issues with those three, especially if Senzel improves in his second year as a center fielder.

The problem, from a defensive standpoint, is those three aren’t likely to be in the lineup at the same time very often.

Castellanos and Winker are on the wrong side of the scale, rating among the worst defensive outfielders in baseball. They’ve been poor no matter the metric chosen. Winker has played a fairly even amount of left and right field, performing slightly better at the former position — though still well below average. Castellanos has largely played right field since switching from third base full-time in 2018. Here are their ranks among outfielders with 1,000 innings played in those two seasons:

  • Castellanos: -28 DRS (3rd-worst), -18.1 UZR (2nd-worst) in 2,441 innings
  • Winker: -17 DRS (12th-worst), -10.0 UZR (11th-worst) in 1,306 innings

Statcast’s Outs Above Average doesn’t view them in a much better light, although it should be noted that Castellanos improved slightly in 2019, his second full season as an outfielder. Winker was worth -8 OAA in 2019; only 11 outfielders with 100+ opportunities were worse. Castellanos was barely better at -7 OAA. Considering how poor Winker’s defensive metrics are despite the time he’s missed, it’s clear Castellanos is the better outfielder — but neither brings a lot of positive value defensively.

Akiyama is a wild card. Scouting reports have been mixed on his center field defense during recent years. The former Gold Glove award winner in Nippon Professional Baseball has likely lost a step or two at age 31, and Japan’s advanced defensive metrics felt he was roughly average in center field last year and is on the decline. Soon to be 32 years old, Akiyama probably can’t cover as much ground as he used to, but he reportedly still has above-average speed — enough so that other scouting reports believe he’ll be an above-average center fielder in MLB. At any rate, Akiyama should bounce around the outfield, and he’ll be able to handle left or right field without much issue.

The playing time combinations

It’s headache-inducing to try discerning the Reds’ probable outfield alignment right now. But let’s try anyway. David Bell loves playing matchups, so platoon splits seem like the natural starting point. Here are the career splits for each outfielder:

*Only 2019 stats included due to limited data available

Castellanos figures to start almost every day. Akiyama seems like a safe bet as well, given his fairly even splits and ability to play all three outfield positions. From there, the Reds could divide playing time based on platoons. Jesse Winker is elite against right-handed pitchers and will likely draw the majority of starts against them while sitting against lefties. Nick Senzel crushed left-handed pitching last year, and the former top prospect will likely get plenty of starts against right-handers, too.

Phillip Ervin and Aristides Aquino figure to be primary options off the bench. Ervin will get most of his starts against left-handers, while Aquino could get mixed in against starters who throw from either side. There’s also the possibility that Aquino gets optioned to Triple-A Louisville to start the season so he can get steady playing time.

On most days, the outfield alignment will probably look something like this — at least to start games:

  • Winker (LF), Akiyama or Senzel (CF), and Castellanos (RF) vs. RHP
  • Akiyama or Ervin (LF), Akiyama or Senzel (CF), and Castellanos (RF) vs. LHP

Against left-handed pitchers, the Reds will probably be OK. They won’t have the best defensive outfield in the league, but they can probably live with Castellanos in right field if some combination of Ervin, Akiyama, and Senzel make up the rest of the outfield. However, the alignment against right-handers — who make up the vast majority of starters in the league — could put the Reds in a precarious situation defensively.

With Winker and Castellanos in the corners, the onus is on the center fielder — whoever it may be on the given day — to cover a lot of ground. The primary reason those two rate as below average is their limited range. Per Statcast, Castellanos covers 2.4 fewer feet than the average outfielder on batted balls that require more than a mere jog to catch (defined as a 90% catch probability or lower). Winker is even worse at 3.5 feet below average. Among 128 outfielders who saw at least 25 opportunities, Castellanos and Winker ranked 115th and 125th, respectively. Neither excel in arm strength, either. Winker is basically average for his career (1 Outfield Arm Runs Saved), while Castellanos is poor (-6).

How Akiyama fares in center field remains to be seen, with reports conflicting about his current abilities at the position. If he has truly declined and is now average or below average in center field, the Reds’ outfield defense could get ugly if he starts alongside Winker and Castellanos. With Senzel between Winker and Castellanos in center field, though, the Reds may get by. Senzel was basically average in his first year in center, adapting well to one of the toughest positions on the field and showing surprising athleticism.

  • DRS: -1
  • UZR/150: -2.7
  • OAA: 0
  • Jump: 0.1 feet above average

With Senzel’s athleticism, there’s no doubt he can cover some ground. He ranked in the 96th percentile in sprint speed at 29.4 feet per second. For reference, Billy Hamilton was at 29.5 ft/s last year. If Senzel improves his jumps — particularly when moving to his right, where he was worth -5 OAA — and routes in his second full season at the position, he can develop into an above-average center fielder. That would alleviate at least some of the burden of having two poor defenders in the outfield at the same time.

Does any of this matter much?

Defense certainly matters and always will. But in today’s game, there’s at least an argument that it’s never mattered less with strikeout rates continuing to climb. And the Reds certainly have a pitching staff that racks up its fair share of Ks.

It should also be noted that existing defensive metrics — while better than evaluating players based on fielding percentage or the eye test alone — are still flawed. UZR and DRS are problematic because they don’t account for where the defender was actually positioned. They also require manual input to calculate, opening the possibility of human error. (And frankly, those two metrics could start going out of style now that Statcast measures both infield and outfield defense.)

Statcast does account for the fielder’s starting position. It also factors in more precise batted ball data (exit velocity, launch angle, etc.) to determine how far a fielder had to go and how long they had to get there. But its newness means it’s not entirely clear how reliable it is. And sample size remains an issue with all defensive metrics, with some studies showing up to three years of data are necessary before reaching any conclusions about a fielder’s true ability. But they do provide a starting point, and the eye test certainly confirms that Winker and Castellanos don’t have good range.

Fortunately, the Reds’ depth and versatility should help them tremendously, giving David Bell plenty of late-inning defensive replacements who can also handle the bat. Ervin can play corner outfield spots at an average level, and Aquino — if he makes the roster — was impressive in his short stint as the everyday right fielder in 2019. Akiyama can also slide to the corners on days he starts in center field, letting Senzel take over.

This should give David Bell the option to start the game with Winker and Castellanos against right-handers and sub them out without much worry if the situation dictates it. Although the three-batter minimum rule complicates things somewhat, Winker will surely see his fair share of lefty relievers, meaning he may not play full games anyway as he gets lifted for pinch-hitters.

The team’s embrace of shifting can also hide some of the outfield deficiencies. While four-man outfields still aren’t commonplace, it’s common for the center fielder to shade toward the side of the field the batter tends to hit the ball toward. That means less ground to cover in the gap for the corner outfielder. The Reds shifted on 7.3% of pitches in 2019 (15th in MLB), up from 2.7% in 2018 (29th). That rate could very well increase again in 2020.

Bottom line: Defense matters, and the Reds’ outfield defense probably won’t be great when Winker and Castellanos are on the field at the same time. But there are plenty of ways for the team to combat it and minimize the damage. Or the Reds can just score a whole lot of runs — that would work, too.

Photo Credit: Ian D’Andrea

Matt got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Columbus. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

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Jefferson Green
Jefferson Green
1 year ago

Thanks, Matt. I will be curious to see whether Castellanos sees time at 1B, particularly if Joey gets banged up. Health will matter a lot in how playing time shakes out. While I certainly want Nick and Jesse to stay healthy and produce like they projected as they were originally rising through the minors, the odds don’t seem to favor that. And even though Steve has laid out good reasons for Nick’s shoulder to heal well and more quickly than some other shoulder injuries, he will have to demonstrate that on the field before we can get comfortable with him out there.

Thomas Green
Thomas Green
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Wilkes

Joey commenting yesterday ( ‘He doesn’t have any statistical goals this season, he said, except games played. Votto wants to play all 162 games. He wants to prove that he deserves to be in the lineup each day.’ … ‘I’m going to put (manager David Bell) in a position where I’m just always the best option. That’s my goal this year.’
I highly doubt that it is good for any player’s production, especially an older one, to push to play every game of such a long season. And I hope that he is proving that he is the best option every day; that would help the team immensely. However, if Joey’s season mimics last year or he gets hurt, I hope that Nick gets proficient with a 1B mitt in short order.