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How Much Does A Typical Fourth Outfielder Play?

Should D-backs fans be worried about their Gold Glove outfielder being buried on the bench? Not so fast.
Should D-backs fans be worried about their Gold Glove outfielder being buried on the bench? Not so fast.

One of the biggest stories heading into the year is how D-backs manager Kirk Gibson plans on juggling his outfield, with a quartet of solid players to rotate in and out in Justin Upton, Chris Young, Jason Kubel, and Gerardo Parra. Many have expressed concern that the so-called "fourth outfielder" - Parra - could get lost in the crowd and not receive as much playing time as his ability merits. However, with three outfielders to fill in for throughout the year, is Parra really going to be buried that heavily? These questions naturally made me look to see how much time a typical fourth outfielder sees for the average team in any given year.

The methods I've used are simple: for National League teams (for whom bench usage is materially different than for AL teams) with at least three regular outfielders - a difficult term to define, which we'll get to - how many games have been played in the outfield by the fourth, fifth, and maybe even sixth outfielders for those teams (min. 20 games played in the OF)? Is it reasonable to expect a fourth outfielder to play 100 games? It it completely unprecedented? Is it commonplace? The answers to these questions have huge implications for the D-backs in 2012, as the good fortunate Arizona had in 2011 with Parra, Young, and Upton each playing over 140 games is a concern that the Kubel addition was meant to address. Is that good fortune fleeting, or could Arizona have reasonably expected it to carry over into 2012 and instead allocated their money elsewhere? Hopefully, these are the questions we'll answer.

Now, as mentioned above, the term "regular outfielder" is something that needs to be addressed. It can't simply be the three outfielders with the highest number of games played, as that doesn't account for the fact that some outfielders slated for regular duty get hurt for extended periods of time, pressing fourth outfielders into extended duty. Since this extended fourth outfielder duty is exactly what we want to measure, it wouldn't make sense to include it in the "regular outfielder" sample. Further, this method is susceptible to errors made due to to rental players. For instance, I wouldn't want to include Carlos Beltran's playing time for San Francisco in 2011 as part of the fourth outfielder sample.

Additionally, using the Opening Day outfield alignment doesn't consider the fact that regular players could start the season on the DL before joining the team at a later date and getting the lion's share of the playing time. That would possibly skew the data such that the role of the fourth outfielder is exaggerated. To dismiss one final idea, using the most highly-paid outfielders as the three "regular outfielders" has an obvious flaw, as Xavier Nady would have been Arizona's third "regular outfielder" in 2011 under this criterion rather than Parra (or any pre-arbitration minimum-salary everyday player).

Because of this, the method is going to have to be somewhat subjective. The Opening Day alignment will be heavily considered, but obvious injury cases will also be factored in as I see them to try and make sure the sample is reasonable. Additionally, mid-season rental player acquisitions will be taken out of the fourth outfielder sample to the best of my ability. I doubt the sample will be perfect, but I am fairly confident that it will be better than using any of the un-adjusted objective methods mentioned above.

With that in mind, here's an vintage Dan Strittmatter Enormous Table (TM).

Team Regular OFs Rent Sell OF4 GP OF5 GP Rest GP Sum
ARZ '11 G. Parra, C. Young, J. Upton C. Cowgill 28 W. Bloomquist 25 53
ARZ '10 C. Jackson, C. Young, J. Upton R. Church C. Jackson G. Parra 119 C. Gillespie 40 R. Ryal 36 195
ARZ '09 C. Jackson, C. Young, E. Byrnes J. Upton 136 G. Parra 127 A. Romero 46 309
COL '11 C. Gonzalez, D. Fowler, S. Smith R. Spilborghs 71 E. Young 43 141
COL '10 C. Gonzalez, D. Fowler, R. Spilbor. S. Smith 104 B. Hawpe 63 167
COL '09 B. Hawpe, D. Fowler, R. Spilbor. C. Gonzalez 98 S. Smith 86 184
LAD '11 T. Gwynn, M. Kemp, A. Ethier J. Rivera J. Sands 64 T. Oeltjen 25 89
LAD '10 M. Ramirez, M. Kemp, A. Ethier S. Podsednik M. Ramirez R. Johnson 91 X. Paul 38 G. Anderson 35 164
LAD '09 M. Ramirez, M. Kemp, A. Ethier J. Pierre 109 109
SD '11 R. Ludwick, C. Maybin, W. Venable R. Ludwick C. Denorfia 111 K. Blanks 37 A Cunning. 31 179
SD '10 K. Blanks, T. Gwynn, W. Venable R. Ludwick C. Denorfia 99 S. Hairston 96 2 Others 66 261
SD '09 C. Headley, J. Gerut, B. Giles S. Hairston, J. Gerut T. Gwynn 113 W. Venable 90 4 Others 144 347
SF '11 P. Burrell, A. Torres, C. Ross C. Beltran A. Rowand 109 N. Schierholtz 104 B. Belt 32 245
SF '10 A. Huff, A. Rowand, M. DeRosa 3 Players* J. Bowker A. Torres 139 N. Schierholtz 109 J. Bowker 24 272
SF '09 R. Winn, A. Rowand, F. Lewis N. Schierholtz 86 A. Torres 75 E. Velez 59 220
CHC '11 A. Soriano, M. Byrd, K. Fukudome K. Fukudome R. Johnson 95 T. Campana 69 3 Others 110 274
CHC '10 A. Soriano, M. Byrd, K. Fukudome T. Colvin 132 X. Nady 29 161
CHC '09 A. Soriano, K. Fukudo., M. Bradley R. Johnson 59 S. Fuld 57 3 Others 83 199
CIN '11 J. Gomes, D. Stubbs, J. Bruce J. Gomes C. Heisey 116 F. Lewis 49 D. Sappelt 35 200
CIN '10 J. Gomes, D. Stubbs, J. Bruce C. Heisey 87 L. Nix 59 146
CIN '09 C. Dickerson, W. Taveras, J. Bruce W. Balentien L. Nix 87 J. Gomes 71 3 Others 116 274
HOU '11 C. Lee, M. Bourn, H. Pence J. Schafer M. Bourn, H. Pence J. Bourgeois 81 B. Bogusevic 53 4 Others 153 287
HOU '10 C. Lee, M. Bourn, H. Pence J. Michaels 57 J. Bourgeois 50 107
HOU '09 C. Lee, M. Bourn, H. Pence J. Michaels 48 D. Erstad 29 77
MIL '11 R. Braun, C. Gomez, C. Hart N. Morgan 132 M. Kotsay 59 191
MIL '10 R. Braun, C. Gomez, C. Hart C. Dickerson J. Edmonds J. Edmonds 60 L. Cain 40 2 Others 44 144
MIL '09 R. Braun, M. Cameron, C. Hart J. Gerut F. Catalan. 38 38
PIT '11 J. Tabata, A. McCutch., G. Jones R. Ludwick M. Diaz X. Paul 102 M. Diaz 60 A. Presley 53 215
PIT '10 L. Milledge, A. McCutch., G. Jones R. Church J. Tabata 106 R. Church 50 D. Young 21 177
PIT '09 N. Morgan, N. McLouth, B. Moss L. Milledge N. McLouth, N. Morgan A. McCutch. 108 G. Jones 54 D. Young 30 192
STL '11 M. Holliday, C. Rasmus, L. Berk. C. Patterson C. Rasmus J. Jay 150 A. Craig 49 S. Schuma. 42 241
STL '10 M. Holliday, C. Rasmus, R. Lud. R. Winn R. Ludwick J. Jay 97 A. Craig 35 2 Others 56 188
STL '09 R. Ludwick, C. Rasmus, R. Ankiel M. Holliday C. Duncan 68 S. Schumaker 56 N. Stavinoha 23 147
ATL '11 M. Prado, N. McLouth, J. Heyw. M. Bourn J. Schafer J. Schafer 51 E. Hinske 49 2 Others 66 166
ATL '10 M. Cabrera, N. McLouth, J. Heyw.
2 Players*
G. Blanco E. Hinske 50 G. Blanco 33 83
ATL '09 M. Diaz, J. Schafer, J. Francoeur 2 Players* G. Anderson 124 R. Gorecki 28 152
FLA '11 L. Morrison, C. Coghlan, M. Stant. M. Cameron D. Wise B. Peterson 74 E. Bonifacio 63 2 Others 56 193
FLA '10 C. Coghlan, C. Maybin, C. Ross C. Ross M. Stanton 98 L. Morrison 62 2 Others 57 217
FLA '09 J. Hermida, C. Maybin, C. Ross C. Coghlan 123 B. Carroll 77 200
NYM '11 J. Bay, A. Pagan, C. Beltran C. Beltran J. Pridie 77 L. Duda 46 2 Others 81 204
NYM '10 J. Bay, A. Pagan, C. Beltran J. Francoeur J. Francoeur 118 J. Feliciano 39 3 Others 74 231
NYM '09 D. Murphy, C. Beltran, R. Church J. Francoeur R. Church A. Pagan 87 J. Reed 70 5 Others 190 347
PHI '11 R. Ibanez, S. Victorino, B. Franc. H. Pence J. Mayberry 63 D. Brown 52 115
PHI '10 R. Ibanez, S. Victorino, J. Werth B. Francisco 45 45
PHI '09 R. Ibanez, S. Victorino, J. Werth B. Francisco J. Mayberry 30 30
WAS '11 M. Morse, R. Ankiel, J. Werth J. Gomes J. Hairston R. Bernadina 91 L. Nix 89 2 Others 68 248
WAS '10 J. Willingham, N. Morgan, W. Harris R. Bernadina 147 M. Morse 72 2 Others 77 296
WAS '09 J. Willingham, E. Dukes, A. Dunn N. Morgan W. Harris 109 A. Kearns 57 J. Maxwell 36 202
MEAN 91 186
MEDIAN 93 192

* Giants acquired rental outfielders Cody Ross, Jose Guillen, and Pat Burrell in 2010.

* Braves acquired rental outfielders Rick Ankiel and Matt Diaz in 2010.

* Braves acquired rental outfielders Nate McLouth and Ryan Church in 2009.

So, to go back to the title, how much does a typical fourth outfielder play? Answer: A lot. What does it mean? Simple: despite Arizona's incredible fortunes in having Parra, Young, and Upton play an enormous majority of the innings in the outfield a year ago, it was very optimistic to expect the same in 2012, if history is any guide (even if CY is an iron man). Now, to be fair, there are a fair share of issues with this study. The numbers can be affected by all sorts of things - injury, poor performance, roster shuffling - that skew the data one way or another. It's also reliant on a subjective identification of "regular outfielder," which assumes that I'm competent at making such a designation - surely a bold assumption to make!

However, all of those factors do need at least some consideration - much as we hope they perform well, neither Kubel nor Young is guaranteed to perform up to career standards, and Upton and Kubel carry some injury history. As such, the fourth outfielder spot was one that needed addressing for the 2012 season, and signing Jason Kubel was a great way to address that need while adding skills to the club that had previously been lacking - namely, left-handed power. Even if you only look at the average games played for the single most-used non-regular outfielders, 91 is a significant total, with a significant standard deviation of 31. Considering that Parra is one of the best in the business in that role, I would expect him to be on the higher end of that range, and would expect Arizona to still find a way to get him into 120 games or more this season.

The bottom line is quite simple: prior to adding Kubel, this team was taking a huge risk in heading into the season with just three reliable outfielders, particularly with Willie Bloomquist needed at shortstop and Collin Cowgill shipped out in the Trevor Cahill trade. A.J. Pollock and Adam Eaton are nice prospects, and Pollock has started 2012 with a bang, but I wouldn't want either of them anywhere near an everyday MLB job. Adding Kubel has greatly reduced the risk of this team having to endure replacement-level-or-worse performance in an everyday outfield spot, while giving manager Kirk Gibson the ability to mix-and-match skill-sets and lineups as he sees fit based on match-ups.