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Sunday Bantering: Grichuk’s place in the outfield

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

There remains little in the way of baseball news, other than the bidding for Josh Donaldson seemingly soon to come to a conclusion. That slumber is of course a corollary of a return to busy Decembers, as it used to be that there was little news in the two months leading up to Spring Training. And with only about a dozen of the top 50 free agents left on the board, mostly at the back end, it’s not like there’s much left out there.

On that note, there’s now under six weeks to the start of Spring Training with pitchers and catchers reporting, and now just 48 days until the first game. Which will be exciting for about 10 days until the ennui of Spring Training sets in (though I remain of the opinion that a full week of games in February is ridiculous).

In the meantime, I’ve got another little nugget that caught my eye below. If you haven’t already, check out yesterday’s post on some smaller Blue Jays related transactions that went under the radar thus far this winter, and a look back as some old draft notes for recent and current Blue Jays.

So far this offseason the Blue Jays have remade their starting rotation, but not so the other areas of the roster. The bullpen definitely can use some bolstering, but it’s not unusual for that to be the case at this point (though fewer available targets this winter). The infield is pretty set with the troika of youngsters brought up last year, and the addition of Travis Shaw.

That leaves the outfield, which hasn’t been touched at all despite being an area which many see as an obvious area to upgrade. It’s certainly a curious and unsettled mix, starting with the enigmatic Randal Grichuk, whose extension four remaining guaranteed years ensures he’ll be front and centre. Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s time in infield seems over, with his strong finish to 2019 (and second half of 2018) seemingly cementing him into the starting mix.

Then there’s the glut of 2017-2018-2019 deadline acquisitions of Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney and Derek Fisher; all of whom have some merits, and all some real questions marks. Fisher is out of options, and given that the Jays gave up three players and more importantly about 11 years of control to get him, it seems very unlikely he doesn’t get at least 2020. Teoscar has an option year, but I don’t see the sense in consigning him at AAA, especially after his 126 wRC+ post June 6th recall. Conversely, if McKinney makes it though the offseason on the 40-man, he seems ticketed for AAA. And then there’s Anthony Alford, prodigiously talented yet unproven Anthony Alford, also out of options.

So that’s (at least) five players in the mix for three positions, one spot on the bench, and likely a significant amount of DH at-bats. At the same time, there’s not an unequivocal centrefielder. Alford theoretically would fit the bill, and while I want to see him kept around, I can’t see handing him the keys as a starter with the inconsistent track record.

So many have wanted to see the Jays in the market for both an upgrade in talent and to have a true CF. I don’t see it happened (and didn’t see it as likely at the outset), not only because there was a shortage of quality options, but moreso because strategically 2020 should be about sorting through the mix above and establishing who can perform as a regular on the next contender and who is surplus.

So if centrefield is to be filled internally, it probably comes down to Grichuk or Tesocar. The latter is really a wild card. He was unplayable in the corners in 2018, so the Jays made the unconventional decision to try him in centre, where he did have extensive experience in the minors and is at least not totally deficient from a tools perspective. But he graded out poorly (about -7 runs in 635 innings by both UZR and DRS).

Interestingly, he graded out reasonably in just over 350 innings in left. And maybe the Jays give it one last go in 2020, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea. But my inclination from the outside would be to go in the opposite direction, put him mostly at DH and see if not having to worry about defensive struggles unlocks the potential in the bat. Call it the Edwin Encarnacion template.

That would leave Grichuk, who certainly isn’t a “true” CF, but should be at least fringe-average defensively and not be a huge liability. Which leads to me to something that caught me by surprise.

The idea of positional adjustment factors is to account for the difference in difficulty between positions. Centefield requires more range than the corners to cover both gaps, as well a decent arm, whereas the corners are not so demanding, with a good arm required for cross-diamond throws in right. In theory, an average defensive corner outfield would be below average in centre, and an average CF would be well above average in the corner.

This is more or less what we see by UZR with Grichuk. In ~2,200 career innings in RF, he’s rated as +7 runs, and +5 in about 850 innings in LF. All told in the corners, it’s about +12 runs in just over 3,000 innings, or about +5.5 runs/150 games. By contrast, in just under 2,000 innings in CF, he’s -1.2 runs/150, with the difference of 6.7 runs being pretty close to generic adjustment reflecting the average difference.

But DRS is telling a different and more confounding story. In LF, he’s at +9 in those 850 innings. It’s worth mentioning that while UZR and DRS both have a zero average, DRS ratings have more dispersion so +9 from DRS is actually quite similar to +5 from UZR if it were standardized. In RF though, he’s at -7 runs, driven by a -10 run rating in 2019.

I don’t recall Grichuk being a significant liability in 2019, so I’m skeptical of that number. But in any event, combined that leaves him right around average (-2 runs) defensively career in the corners (and even adjusting the 2019 number wouldn’t fundamentally change things).

Based on that, one would think DRS would be pretty down in him in centre. But quite the opposite: he’s rated at +14 runs, or about +11 runs/150 games. That’s not only indicative of a very good defender, but actually much better than his corner ratings despite being compared with a stronger group of defenders.

Granted, most of that was accumulated early in his career with the Cardinals; with a -1 rating in ~700 innings the last couple years. But again, that compares favourably to -8 runs in right field.

To be frank, I’m not sure what DRS is seeing, at least relatively. Nothing in Grichuk’s skill set strikes me as a reason that he’d be an outlier who is better in CF than RF (or a corner more generally). I’d definitely side with UZR, that is, Grichuk is a good defender in RF, more fringe-average in CF. But at the same time, I’m sort of curious about what’s underlying this. It would clarify the picture significantly if Grichuk were a solid defender much less plus defender in CF.