Every season one of my favorite debates revolves around which big league team has put together the best outfield trio. This season the debate is as heated as it’s ever been, with contenders from both the American and National Leagues. So without further adu, let’s break down the strongest outfield units to see what we can find.
The biggest surprise team in baseball has been powered by their excellent outfield play thus far. Billy Beane absolutely stole Yoenis Cespedes for a bargain price in the offseason and all the young Cuban has done is destroy the baseball to the tune of a .302/.363/.502 (138 OPS+) triple slash. Cespedes has hit some hit 14 homers this season and some of his blasts have been moon shots, hit over 430 feet deep into the Oakland night. He still needs work defensively in the outfield and he will probably end up as a left fielder for the majority of his career. Cespedes has a strong arm and is fleet of foot, so the tools are in place for him to develop into a plus defender. He just needs more experience. Even with injury, the Cuban import has 2.7 oWAR, and if not for the phenomenal Mike Trout (more on him later), he would be a very strong Rookie of the Year contender.
In another stroke of unforeseen offensive genius, Billy Beane swapped closer Andrew Bailey to Boston for Josh Reddick. Bailey has yet to throw an inning in front of the Fenway faithful, while Reddick has developed into an All-Star caliber talent. Reddick is hitting .251/.322/.495 (123 OPS+), showing huge power, hitting 25 homers in the cavernous Coliseum. Reddick is also an elite defensive right fielder with a powerful arm and great instincts reacting to the ball off the bat. He’s totaled 2.9 oWAR this year, which is fantastic for a player who deserves a Gold Glove.
In centerfield, Oakland has been playing Coco Crisp, a speedster with an excellent glove on defense. Crisp is on the downslope of his career and his offensive game has started to fall off just a bit. He’s hitting .253/.318/.370 (91 OPS+), which is a below average line, but his real strength on offense has always been his speed. He’s a fantastic 25 for 28 in steals, and has made the Oakland offense more multi-dimensional. Crisp has contributed 1.1 oWAR to the 6.7 total oWAR that the Oakland outfield has posted this season. With both Cespedes and Reddick both locked up until at least 2015, the A’s have an excellent offensive core to build around for the coming seasons.
St. Louis Cardinals
The front office in St. Louis has done a marvelous job assembling a highly productive outfield with plenty of All-Star potential. Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran have made numerous trips to the Midsummer Classic, and Jon Jay looks like he may find his way to a game or two before his career is over. Holliday in particular is having what may turn out to be the finest season of his 9 year career. He’s hitting .315/.395/.544 (153 OPS+) with 23 homers and 81 RBI, all of which rank in the top 10 in the National League. In terms of offensive WAR (wins above replacement), Holliday ranks 5th among all National Leaguers, having accumulated 4.2 oWAR thus far. He’s just so-so on defense, which is typically for a 6’4″, 235 pound player, and he absolutely brings it on offense, which more than makes up for the occasional lapse.
Left fielder Carlos Beltran is also a MVP candidate, and he leads the National League in RBI with 83. The rest of his batting line is solid as well, as Beltran has posted a .281/.351/.540 (139 OPS+) slash with 28 homers, which is good for 2nd in the National League. Beltran has accumulated 3.0 offensive WAR this season and has proven to be an adequate defensive outfielder, which makes the Cardinals 2-year/$26 million investment look brilliant.
In centerfield the Cardinals have deployed Jon Jay, who’s having the finest season of his young career. He doesn’t hit the ball with quite as much authority like the two corner outfielders do, he gets on base just fine. Jay is hitting .315/.392/.421 while mostly hitting in the #2 hole in the St. Louis lineup. His run scoring ability, and his defense in centerfield have provided the Cardinals great value this season.
It is worth noting that the Cardinals don’t exactly have a wonderful defense to watch. They turn batted balls into outs at a league average rate, and none of their three outfielders figure to make any short lists of the best defenders in the league. While this isn’t the most defensively strong outfield grouping, their offensive production as a unit may be 2nd to none. If you add Jay’s 2.0 oWAR to Holliday’s 4.2 and Beltran’s 3.0, you get 9.2 total oWAR, which gives you the most productive group in the National League, at least on offense.
Los Angeles Angels
Boy oh boy have things sure changed in the Los Angeles outfield during the 2012 season. The Angels opened the season with a starting unit consisting of Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, and Peter Bourjos, which has since been upgraded in a big way. Mark Trumbo couldn’t quite figure out the hot corner, but he has acclimated nicely while playing the outfield, and Mike Trout has been called up and been the best player in baseball ever since.
Trout is currently on pace to be just the 3rd rookie of all time to win the MVP award. He leads the American League in hitting (.341 average/179 OPS+), and he leads all of baseball in stolen bases (37), runs scored (91), and jaw dropping catches. Trout has done all of this despite spending the entire first month of the season in the minor leagues. He’s a guarantee to win the Rookie of the Year Award and his defense will probably net him a Gold Glove as well. Trout leads all of baseball in oWAR at an absurd 6.3 due to his multi-faceted offensive game, which includes his base running, where he’s 37-40 in steal attempts.
Mark Trumbo has also acclimated to the major league outfield nearly as well after finishing in the top-5 in the AL Rookie of the Year award as a first baseman a year ago. Trumbo is hitting .287/.340/.559 (150 OPS+) with 29 homers and 74 RBI, but he has tailed off big time since the All-Star break. His batting average has plummeted 20 points over the last month and he’s only has 8 extra-base hits after crushing 40 during the first half of the year. His excellent start of the season has allowed him to accumulate 3.1 oWAR, which helps to make up for his poor defense, which is expected for a converted 1st baseman.
The Angels have used a revolving door for the final outfield spot, using Peter Bourjos occasionally in centerfield for his excellent defense and Torri Hunter in right, where he provides a veteran presence. Hunter has gotten a little more of the playing time, and has proven that even after 16 seasons he can still play, hitting .296/.348/.443 (124 OPS+) with 12 homers and 56 RBI. If you take his 2.2 oWAR added with Trumbo’s 3.1 and Trout’s 6.3, they have accumulated more value than any other outfield unit thus far. The flexibility that Bourjos provides on defense as a 4th outfielder makes this unit 2nd to none.
San Francisco Giants
Much like the other Bay Area team, the Giants made a shrewd offseason trade and came out as the big winners, acquiring Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez. Cabrera has been phenomenal in his first year in the orange and black, hitting a robust .346/.390/.516 (158 OPS+) with a league leading 159 hits. The Melk Man has taken advantage of the spacious gaps that AT&T Park has to offer, racking up 25 doubles and 10 triples thus far. If last season was Melky’s breakout year, than 2012 has been the year he announces the fact that he may be turning into one of the best players in baseball. He’s accumulated 4.6 oWAR thus far, ranking as the 2nd most valuable player in the Giants’ offense.
The Giants have also been pleasantly surprised with the play of the centerfielder Angel Pagan as well. Pagan has always had a reputation as a strong defensive player, and this season his offense has caught up. He’s hitting a very solid .280/.332/.414 while swiping 16 bases and racking up 36 extra-base hits. His defense has been solid and the 2.8 oWAR he has already accrued has tied a career high.
The last piece of the outfield puzzle for San Francisco was only just recently put into place with the acquisition of Hunter Pence. Pence is arguably having the worst season of his 6 year career so far, but he is still an above average major league player. He’s hitting .260/.321/.429 (102 OPS+) with 18 homers and 70 RBI splitting time between Philly and San Francisco. Pence has a shot at setting his career-high in homers and RBI, and he’s been worth 1.0 oWAR this season, due mostly to a low batting average on balls in play since coming over to San Francisco. His play should improve as he gets more comfortable, which will give San Francisco an outfield to rival almost any in baseball.
While there are a few other strong outfield units to consider (Colorado, Boston, Milwaukee, and Toronto to name a few), I think that these 4 listed above are the cream of the crop. St. Louis offers fantastic offensive production and tons of big game experience. Oakland is phenomenal on defense and has a nice mix of power and speed. San Francisco has 3 players who can spray the ball all over the field, and Los Angeles is led by the 2nd coming of Mickey Mantle. I would take any of the trios in a heartbeat, but if you held a gun to my head and told me I had to pick just one, I would take Los Angeles. Trumbo, Hunter, and most importantly Trout are unparalleled in today’s game in terms of all-around production.