During 2016, we talked a lot about outfield positioning, now that we can measure it with Statcast™. As you well know by now, William Fowler played deeper, Andrew McCutchen played shallower, and both moves had a large effect on their performances. But what about outfield positioning from the hitter's perspective?
During 2016, we talked a lot about outfield positioning, now that we can measure it with Statcast™. As you well know by now, William Fowler played deeper, Andrew McCutchen played shallower, and both moves had a large effect on their performances. But what about outfield positioning from the hitter's perspective? You'd expect power hitters to get more respect, but how strong is the relationship? Are there hitters who aren't being played like you'd think?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is "yes," to both questions. There's a pretty clear relationship between power hitters and the depth of opposing outfielders, and that shouldn't be surprising when you have things like Chris Davis averaging 346 feet on his fly balls, while Billy Burns averaged just 268 feet. Of course sluggers are going to get played more deeply.
Let's show that visually. What we're doing here is taking the 353 players who had at least 200 plate appearances in 2016, and comparing the depth of opposing center fielders against them versus the Isolated Power (ISO) of the hitter (to all fields). ISO is a very simple way to measure "power" by taking slugging percentage and subtracting batting average from it -- that is, removing "singles" and leaving "extra-base hits." The 2016 Major League average ISO for non-pitchers was .166, and the average center field depth was 316 feet.
As you'd expect, there's a clear relationship here. Guys who slug get respect, and guys who don't, well, don't. The dots in the bottom left are noted non-sluggers Ben Revere (302 feet, .083 ISO), Burns (303, .061), Billy Hamilton (303, .083) and Dee Gordon (303, .067). They get played extremely shallowly because teams just don't fear the idea that they can barrel up the ball over the outfielder's head, and they're willing to take the chance that won't happen in order to prevent bloopers from falling in. They actually fall well below the trendline simply because their reputations for little power precede them.
On the other side, well, absolutely no one should be surprised that the four players who get played the deepest -- Carlos Gonzalez, Trevor Story, Mark Reynolds and Nolan Arenado -- call Coors Field home. Coors has one of baseball's largest outfields, and it's far too easy to forget that it's not necessarily the homers that make pitching in Colorado so difficult, it's the hits that fall in because the outfielders are forced to play so deeply.
What about players who aren't wearing purple and black? The deepest center fields in 2016 against non-Rockies were against Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion (326 feet) and a group of players including Jose Cabrera, Josh Donaldson, and Giancarlo Stanton at 325 feet. Though Bautista had a "down year," it was still pretty good, and his .217 ISO was better than sluggers like Paul Goldschmidt and George Springer, which shows that teams still treated him like the hitter he's been for the last half-decade.
But as you can see, what's really interesting here are the three outliers highlighted at the bottom, three guys who crushed the ball yet were not played as deeply as some others who didn't produce nearly as well. That's Trea Turner, Gary Sanchez and Ryan Schimpf, and they all have one thing in common, which is that they came up in midseason and crushed the ball to likely-unsustainable levels. That being the case, it's easy to infer that they had to "earn" the respect of being played more deeply, and we can expect that they will be in 2017. But is that the right call for all three? Let's find out.
Turner -- .225 ISO, 309 feet
Of all the incredible facts about Turner's smashing 2016, perhaps none is more remarkable than the way he was positioned. At 309 feet from home, he was being played as deeply as slap hitters Andres Blanco, Ketel Marte, and Erick Aybar. He was being played so shallow that only 19 of our 353 players included here were seeing shallower center fielders, including hitters like Jarrod Dyson and Mallex Smith with our Hamilton/Burns/Gordon group. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, he doesn't look like a towering slugger, and his elite speed is well known. Maybe he doesn't feel like a slugger, leading no one to treat him like one.
Yet with a .225 ISO, Turner was generating as much power as Joey Votto and Mike Napoli. Of the 40 hitters who saw center fielders positioned 310 feet or shallower, he was the only one to top a .200 ISO. You'd think he was being played too shallowly, based on that, and the fact is that his 335-foot average on flies was tied with Evan Longoria and others for the 33rd-highest of our sample.
That said, there's more than one way to get to power, because when you have elite speed like Turner, you can turn singles into doubles, and doubles into triples. That looks to be at least part of what happened here, because a look at his hit chart shows he wasn't necessarily taking advantage of shallow fielders -- and a big part of his slugging was collecting triples.
Schimpf -- .315 ISO, 319 feet
It's a little different for Schimpf, though, isn't it? While part of Turner's power came from speed, Schimpf (who stole just one base) was all about crushing the ball in the air as hard as he could. Just look at his spray chart, and notice the near total lack of singles here -- to a historic extent.
So it might seem obvious that Schimpf should be played more deeply, right? But you might be interested to know that Schimpf's average fly ball distance of 328 feet was actually lower than Turner's, and part of that is because his 65 percent fly ball rate was essentially the highest ever. A ton of those were too high, as you can see from his batted-ball profile, and when he doesn't square the ball up, he tends to hit weakly struck flies, which don't go far and contribute to a .217 average.
Sanchez -- .358 ISO, 321 feet
Finally, we have the outlier to end all outliers. Though Sanchez shows up well below the trendline of our chart, he actually wasn't played all that shallowly: 321 feet is deeper than average, and it's up there with Todd Frazier, William Myers, and Victor Martinez. Sanchez was respected, at least in terms of distance, yet it didn't even matter, because his two-month tear through the Majors was basically a historic run we're unlikely to see again.
Remember when we talked about average fly ball distance for Turner (335 feet) and Schimpf (328 feet)? Sanchez was at a massive 371 feet, easily the most in baseball, with only three other players topping 350 feet. At Yankee Stadium, 371 feet is 50 feet past the foul poles down the corners, or roughly the warning track in the power alleys.
Should outfielders have played Sanchez a little more deeply? Yeah, probably. Would it have mattered unless they brought their gloves into the bleachers? Probably not. But you can bet that when 2017 starts, they're going to be taking a few extra steps toward the fence.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.