Stats show Engel knows what he's doing in CF

White Sox outfielder is analytics darling in field

January 30th, 2018

CHICAGO -- When was told of his 16 Outs Above Average recorded during the 2017 season, according to Statcast™, the White Sox center fielder didn't revel in the defensive success, which tied him with Boston Red Sox star for third in this category.

In fact, Engel looked at those numbers as a teaching mechanism more than a sense of accomplishment.

"I couldn't even tell you what most of that means," Engel said. "But at the same time, it's a tool that we can use, kind of like a thermometer, to see where I'm at and where do I need to work to get better. It's not just numbers to say these are my numbers."

One important point illustrated by Engel was the shallow center field he regularly plays. According to Statcast™, of the 64 players who spent at least 2,500 pitches in center last season, Engel's average starting distance of 305 feet from home was trumped only by (304 feet). The Major League average was 318 feet.

Looking just at road games and removing the Guaranteed Rate Field influence, of the 57 players who spent at least 1,500 pitches in center, Engel's average starting distance is still 307 feet. It ranked shallowest in that group.

Engel felt great pride in being so successful with such a shallow start, but he also thought it might be a mistake if only a couple of players were that shallow. The numbers ultimately backed up his positioning.

"I've had that conversation with the guys who break down the numbers for us, and they were like, 'No, the numbers say you are going back and making outs in places that other center fielders are as well so you don't need to scoot back,'" Engel said. "The mindset of the White Sox is also, 'We want to play to take away contact on a pitcher's pitch rather than take away contact on a mistake that a pitcher would make.'

"So, if a pitcher makes a good pitch and a guy taps it or has to go out of the zone for it and puts it in play, they want that out. They leave a pitch over the plate a little bit too much and a guy hits it well and it's going to the wall or whatever the case may be, they don't expect that to be an out because they didn't execute that pitch.

"Again, each club is different, but this club, that's what they want," Engel said. "They think that our pitchers are going to execute more than they are not going to execute so they want us playing in a position to take advantage of executed pitches."

Having an extra speed burst helps Engel get away with that shallow play. On the bases last year, again per Statcast™, his average sprint speed on max-effort plays was 29.3 feet per second, essentially tied for 10th in the Majors. That number helps explain his 15 catches ranked four or five stars by Statcast™ (catch probability of 0-50 percent), tying Michael A. Taylor and for fifth-most in the Majors.

It also helps explain how the numbers mean more than great results for Engel.

"That's where I play, and the numbers supported it," Engel said. "So it was OK.

"If the numbers are in a good spot for me playing as shallow as I'm playing, then obviously I'm just doing what they tell me to do. That was one example of the numbers really helping out from a confidence standpoint and believing in what we are doing."