A few ideas may better introduce our topic than the title.
Three of the four players were Diamondbacks. The fourth was chosen because the Diamondbacks contacted his team to ask how he accomplished his feat of defending the outfield. After they defended the outfield (albeit they split their time between outfield and infield), each of the four players returned to an almost exclusive focus on infield defense.
After looking at each of the four players, we will look at results they have in common during and after the seasons when they defended the outfield.
Knowing something often requires measuring something. As we are looking at defense, the chosen measure of effectiveness is Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) per The Fielding Bible. Our specific measures of interest are infield DRS and outfield DRS.
In 2009, the Diamondbacks drafted him in the first round. Before the 2014 season, he was ranked in the top-100 prospects in baseball by MLB, Baseball America, and Baseball Prospectus.
He was a defense first player, with only two seasons of above average hitting (2013 & 2021). Starting in 2016, he defended the outfield for 4 consecutive seasons.
- In 2016 he defended center field, the first time he had ever played that position. The AZ Snake Pit fans appreciated his daring do and voted him that season’s Unsung Hero.
- In 2017 he defended right field.
- In 2018 he defended all three outfield positions.
- In 2019, he barely exceeded 100 innings in the outfield, so he pitched 1.2 innings to show his versatility.
During those four seasons, his total of 5 outfield DRS was good, but mostly cancelled by his negative 4 infield DRS. And because he averaged 5 infield DRS per season before defending the outfield, and averaged zero infield DRS per season after those four seasons, my conclusion is that the team should have kept the hero in the infield. However, my opinion may differ from Mike Hazen’s opinion.
“He [Chris Owings] was one of our best outfielders with no preparation last year... I would surprised if he went just about anywhere on the field and didn’t look pretty natural.” — Mike Hazen, February 2017
Like Owings, he started his career as a defense first player. In 2010, he was drafted in the 13th round. In 2013 he became a Diamondbacks as a throw in piece of the Justin Upton trade.
His career included some surprises:
- He reached the Majors. In January 2013, sonicuda (writer for AZ Snake Pit) questioned whether Brandon Drury would reach the Major leagues. He went further by writing that his ceiling was AA.
- After 6 seasons of below average batting, his next 2 seasons were well above average. He batted so well that in 2022 he won a silver slugger award.
- Prior to the 2022 season, he felt hurt by a lack of teams’ interested in signing him to a Majors’ contract. He signed a minor league invite contract. That changed. Prior to the 2023 season, he signed a 2 year, $17 Million contract with the Angels.
In 2016, he defended the outfield for the Diamondbacks. Possibly because of his youth (age 23 season) there was no impact on his infield defense. However, as you might expect, his outfield defense was shocking at negative 13 DRS.
Again in 2019 he defended the outfield for the Blue Jays. This time his infield defense changed from negative 1 before to negative 6 after defending the outfield. He had improved his outfield defense to a negative 5 DRS (bad but not shockingly bad).
“When you’re playing defense, that ball comes at you quick. It’s not fun playing defense with Stanton, and I know Judge is the same way. Those two guys going back-to-back in the order, that’s a joke.” — Brandon Drury, February 2018
Like Owings, he was a defense first player. Nevertheless, in 2014 and 2015 he batted above average. In 2015 he won a gold glove for defense and a silver slugger award.
During 3 months of 2018, he defended the outfield for the Mariners. His outfield DRS was negative 7. His infield DRS changed from 7 before defending the outfield to negative 1 after defending the outfield. After defending the outfield, his infield DRS never recovered. I am not the first person to point out that after a transition back to the infield, infield defense is negatively impacted. Mathew Roberson noticed that infield defense was lower when he transitioned from defending the outfield to defending the infield.
“By both FanGraphs’ Offensive and Defensive Runs Above Average metrics, 2018 was the first time that Gordon was simultaneously a negative presence with the bat and glove. Part of the porous defense is probably due to starting [the season] out of position [in the outfield], then having to transition back to the infield during the season. Still, Gordon made 10 errors in 676.1 innings at his natural second base position, one season after making 12 for the Marlins.” — Matthew Roberson
James Attwood wrote that last season was “Another year of struggle for Marte.” He talked about the need for, “Marte [to] rediscover some of the dynamic athleticism that he displayed in his career year of 2019.” What happened in 2019?
“He [Ketel Marte] feels like he can do anything in this game, and I love that. Last year when A.J. [Pollock] went down, he said, ‘I’ll be the best center fielder. If you need somebody, put me out there.’ That was our starting point with him this year.” — Torey Lovullo, 2019
Prior to the 2019 season, AJ Pollock became a free agent and did not re-sign with the Diamondbacks. Instead of acquiring a center fielder, the Diamondbacks shifted Ketel Marte to defending center field (albeit he split his time between the outfield and infield). To his credit, Ketel Marte was a good defender in center field with 4 DRS.
However, the following season saw two impacts: his batting fell from well above average to below average and his infield DRS changed from 11 DRS before to 3 DRS after defending the outfield.
In 2021, Ketel Marte again defended the outfield. This time his defense in the outfield was shockingly bad (negative 15 DRS). The following season his infield DRS changed from 3 DRS before to negative 6 DRS after defending the outfield.
One possible root cause of the impacts is that infield defense and outfield defense have conflicting timing requirements and mastering one by necessity negatively impacts the other.
Another possible root cause of the impacts is that infield defense and outfield defense require different balances of muscles and moving between the two roles can create injuries.
Ketel Marte’s injuries seem to have become troublesome after defending the outfield. Injuries listed on Fox Sports included:
- 2019 one hamstring injury and one leg injury
- 2021 two hamstring injuries (one each leg) and one hip injury
- 2022 two hamstring injuries
“I think going back and forth [between infield and outfield] is difficult. The reaction times are different. Plus from a health standpoint, the demands on the knees vs demands on the soft tissues and legs and back are different.” — Mike Fitzgerald, August 2021
What do these 4 players have in common?
With one notable exception (Ketel Marte in 2021), their negative outfield DRS indicated they were below-average outfield defenders.
With one exception (Brandon Drury in his age 23 season), when they returned to nearly exclusively defending the infield, their infield DRS was at a much lower level than before. Their large declines in infield DRS cannot be explained away by players’ aging curves.
“As an example, a typical player who peaked with 5 Runs Saved in their age 25 season could be expected to see that number decrease to 3 Runs Saved by their age 30 season, and to 0 by their age 34 season.” — Mark Simon, May 2020
How much will Ketel Marte’s infield defense improve?
Age may be a significant factor. Let’s look at the four players’ infield DRS based on their age. The purple markers indicate seasons when they played in the outfield more than 100 innings.
The following graph compares Ketel Marte to Brandon Drury and Dee Strange Gordon.
The following graph compares Ketel Marte to Chris Owings
Based on the two graphs, Ketel Marte’s infield defense DRS could improve to between zero DRS and two DRS.
Nick Piecoro wrote that an excellent defensive play made in spring training, “...was an early indication that Ketel Marte might have regained some of the athleticism from years past.” I hope that his athleticism will result in his defensive DRS surprising me to the upside.