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Arizona Diamondbacks Hopes for 2017: #6, Outfield Stability

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As we head into the new year, let’s keep our fingers crossed for various way in which it might be better.

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The May 9th game last year at Coors Field was a poster-child for the issues which plagued the Diamondbacks outfield last season. For that contest saw Arizona start two converted infielders and their back-up catcher: Brandon Drury in left-field, Chris Owings in center and Chris Herrmann in right. Herrmann was the sole member of that trio with any outfield experience in the majors prior to this season, and had started there only 31 times. By the end of 2016, the D-backs had started no less than 10 different players in left-field [trivia question: how many starting LF on the 2016 Diamondbacks can you name? Answer at the end]

That sounds like a lot. But to see if it is, I took a look at all 15 National League teams, across all eight non-pitcher positions, and counted the players who started at each position for each team. Obviously, this is a high-level overview, which will see a split of 161 starts for Player A, and one for Player B, the same as 81 for each. But it does provide an overview of “roster churn”. Here are the results, which also include the total used across all positions for the teams (note: if a player appears at more than one spot, that will count as more than one], and the average at each position.

2016 NL Positional Stabilty

Team C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF Total
Team C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF Total
NL West
ARI 4 3 3 3 3 10 7 9 42
COL 4 7 4 3 3 9 5 5 40
LA 4 5 6 6 4 10 6 9 50
SD 4 3 10 5 6 10 4 10 52
SF 2 3 5 8 5 6 5 5 39
NL Central
CHC 4 5 4 4 2 9 4 7 39
CIN 4 4 6 5 4 7 6 9 45
MIL 4 5 6 7 4 7 8 6 47
PIT 6 7 6 4 3 5 3 5 39
STL 5 6 4 5 5 7 5 5 42
NL East
ATL 3 4 7 8 5 10 6 4 47
MIA 3 6 4 4 2 9 3 6 37
NYM 3 5 5 8 4 8 6 6 45
PHI 4 4 4 2 3 9 4 7 37
WSN 3 3 4 4 3 7 6 6 36
Average 3.80 4.67 5.20 5.07 3.73 8.20 5.20 6.60 42.47

Overall, the Diamondbacks ranked about average in stability, using 42 players, which is actually slightly below the league average of 42.5. But that conceals a sharp split between the infield and outfield. For the former, the D-backs used 16 players across the five slots, with NL average being 22.5; second-base was the position where we were furthest below average. But in the outfield, Arizona started 26 players, the most in the NL (even more than the horribly-injured Dodgers, who used 25), and 30% more than the average of 20. Right-field turned out to be the spot where Arizona’s usage was highest, compared to the mean.

That’s because there are dramatic differences in stability between the positions, and left-field shows the highest degree of churn. The average National League team last season used 8.2 different left-fielders, more than twice as many as they used at either catcher or shortstop. Generally, there’s a good correlation between how “difficult” a position is and how few players are used: the harder spots, up the middle generally see more stability. 2B appears to be an aberration, being higher than either corner infield, but I’m blaming San Diego for this. They used 10 different players, the most of any team at any infield spot; no other side had more than seven there.

Arizona’s churn of 26 in the outfield was dramatic compared to previous years. 2015 saw 16 players used there, and in the two seasons before that, the figures were 22 and 17 respectively. There’s no way in which this is a good thing: it typically means you’re running out fifth- and sixth- string choices, and that is unlikely to improve your team. I note that the six teams with overall churn in the thirties included two of the three division winners (Cubs and Nationals) and a wild-card team (Giants). Though it also included the Phillies, who barely finished ahead of the D-backs; I guess, if your front-line players suck, it doesn’t matter much whether or not they get hurt!

It also shows how important it is to have depth. Just as in the rotation, you’re not going to get through the season with five starters, so you’re not going to get through the season with eight positional starters. Having backup players who can be effective at multiple different spots is particularly useful. Even if their production falls short of what your front line can provide, the ability to plug in to a number of locations can help make up for that. We saw this with both Chris Herrmann and Phil Gosselin in 2016, who each started at four different spots (not counting the latter’s game at DH!).

But in general, you want your best players to start each game, and that’s something which was completely non-existent for the Arizona outfield in 2016. Even discarding entirely the question of whether Yasmany Tomas should be counted among the “best”, we never once had David Peralta and A.J. Pollock in the same line-up: Peralta’s last start was August 5, three weeks before Pollock made his first appearance of the year. Avoiding that kind of thing in 2017, as well as not having to convert athletic but utterly inexperienced infielders, will be a significant help to the Diamondbacks in the coming season.

[The players who started in left for Arizona last year are as follows, with their number of games in brackets: Brandon Drury (52), Yasmany Tomas (51), Rickie Weeks Jr (25), Peter O'Brien (13), Mitch Haniger (6), Michael Bourn (4), Chris Herrmann (3), Socrates Brito (3), Kyle Jensen (3), Phil Gosselin (2)]