Cannons in the bushes: Part 3, the left fielders

This is the third and final part of the series. In the first issue, we outlined the methods to evaluate minor league outfielder arms and proceeded to compile a top-10 list of the right fielders; the second time we looked at the center fielders and at a really impressive performance. Today we conclude with the left fielders.

My choice of evaluating left fielders in the last installment is probably a poor one. A good writer should save the best for last, and the outfielders patrolling the port side are hardly the best throwers out of the infield. Since third and home are the places where most of the throws coming from the outfield are aimed, Ted Williams’ heirs are required to make the shortest tosses; so it often happens that a right fielder who is losing his cannon is moved to the opposite corner … or does it?

I perused the precious files from the Lahman Database, Retrosheet and Sean Smith’s WAR; following, I’m going to share the results of my quick querying, before going into the top 10 minor league left fielder arms.

Here are the MLB outfielders who, in consecutive seasons, changed their primarily role. An example will explain how I defined them: Moises Alou played more than 100 games as a right fielder in 2001; the following year he played more than 100 as a left fielder; thus I considered his 2001 and 2002 seasons as transition ones. By choosing to limit the field to the last season in one position and the first in the new one, I hoped to minimize the aging effect when evaluating throwing performances; nevertheless, I’m aware that, in doing so, I exposed the results to the random fluctuations of a couple of seasons of data.

MLB outfielders who changed their primary role

Arm rating in the last season at one position compared with arm rating in the first season at the new position.

Note: Arm rating difference is based on the outfielder arm ratings you can find in Sean Smith’s WAR data. His rating method is very similar to the one used in this series. Positive value means an improvement after the position change.

Thirty-three players have moved (according to the definition above) from right field to left field since 1957; the position switch happened at an average age of 29.

Anyway, an additional 30 have made the opposite move at a mean age of 30. On average*, the players going to the easiest throwing position improve their arm rating, while those who have to increase their shooting range suffer.

* Let’s not forget that here I’m showing a very simple table, without correcting for anything—for example a change of team concurrent to the change of role.

The switches that involve the central position show results that are not as straightforward as the ones relating only to the corner outfielders. I’m confident that, most of the time, moving either to or from center field has something to do with speed.

In this sense we could have expected that players moving from the corners to center are younger than those moving the other way—and this seems to be supported by the table above.

In a couple of instances it seems that age has something to do with the improvement/decline of throwing performance. Look at the following chart, in particular left to center and center to right:


Back to the minors

Well, this should have been an article on minor league leftfielders arms, after all. So let’s see the top ten list for 2009.

Remember the disclaimers: no park corrections, no regression toward the mean, no MLB translations, no specific run environment for each league.

In parentheses: arm rating (bold), Sean Smith’s TotalZone fielding runs, batting average, on base-percentage and slugging percentage

10. Alfredo Silverio (4, -12, .284/.320/.457)
A 22-year-old right-handed Dominican who plays in the Dodgers system (A-ball), Alfredo has plate discipline troubles: He walked 26 times in 2009, nearly quadrupling his 2008 mark, and went out on strikes 104 times. He had already shown a good arm in 2008 with 12 assists.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

9. Tyler Kuhn (5, 2, .289/.335/.361)
A lefty hitter, Tyler also played his share of games at second base last season for the White Sox at the Single-A level. In 2008 he was only manning the infield, prevalently at shortstop.

8. Trent Oeltjen (5, 7, .303/.362/.500)
Starting on Aug. 6, Trent began his major league career on a roll: He ended his first game 2-for-6 with a homer and two steals. He then proceeded to homer in his third and fourth game as well, then flirted with the cycle on Aug. 11. During the winter he packed his suitcases, leaving the D-backs for the Brewers, signing a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training with the top club. He’s from Australia and represented his nation in both editions of the World Baseball Classic; he was also on the 2004 silver medal Olympic team.

7. Cyle Hankerd (5, -3, .266/.344/.393)
The righty from the University of South California had impressive offensive numbers (OPS over 1.000 in 72 games) in 2006 as a 21-year-old. He has consistently delivered his share of assists from either corner outfield position in his four-year minor league career. He is in the D-backs system.

6. Lucas Montero (5, 8, .260/.365/.368)
The 25-year-old Dominican has been playing all the positions in the outfield in the Indians organization. He had 60 stolen bases in 2008, but that number dropped to 35 the following season, while the number of times he was caught stealing went from 13 to 16. He has worked on his plate discipline, raising his walks to 70, but he also increased his strikeouts to 97. Given his ability to play all three positions and that he’s a switch-hitter, he would make a useful fourth outfielder.

5. Thomas Neal (6, 11, .337/.431/.579)
Here we have another San Jose Giant (in Part 1 we listed Roger Kieschnick at No. 5 as well), so we may start to suspect that the ballpark favors the throws from the outfield—or that the Giants coaches are good at spotting and training good arms. Anyway, forget the park and the arm, because Neal’s offensive numbers are outstanding and he hasn’t lost a step as he progressed up the ladder in the minors. He is just 22 and bats from the right side.

4. Scott Thorman (7, -12, .288/.342/.489)
Scott is 28 and has made a career in the minors at first base. In 2009 he played prevalently in left field and showed a good arm, gunning down 10 baserunners. He has been a full-time Triple-A player since 2005, when he was a Brave. Now he is a Royal after having played 20 days in the Rangers organization last April. After getting his first taste of the bigs in 2006, he had a full season in the Show the following year, appearing in 120 games.

3. Todd Frazier (8, 6, .292/.351/.481)
A Little League World Series champion in 1998, Todd is now 24. Drafted 34th overall by Cincinnati, he has climbed the minor leagues from Rookie to Triple-A level in three years, without seeing big drops in his numbers. He used to be a shortstop; though he played most of his games in left in 2009, he had appearances at first, second, third and DH as well.

2. Adrian Ortiz (8, 6, .241/.267/.299)
The 23-year-old Puerto Rican has played some games flanking Pat Norris: The Burlington Bees, for those games, might have been the team with the best outfielder arms ever. Like his teammate, Adrian doesn’t have a good bat to complement his strong defense; anyway he recorded better offensive numbers in the previous years.

1. Steve Brown (8, 9, .242/.289/.410)
Steve is a 23-year-old Colombian right-handed hitter in the Astros organization. He played mostly as a center fielder in previous seasons, but was moved once Jay Austin came on board on the Lexington Legends. His scout, Andres Reiner, is responsible for having signed Bobby Abreu and Johan Santana in the past—Steve will hardly be another gem by him.

This series ends here, but not before having mentioned the worst left fielder arms in the minor leagues: Edgar Quintero (-6), Wendell Fairley (-5), Dee Brown (-4), Alfredo Marte (-4) and Cody Johnson (-4).

References & Resources
Sean Smith’s TotalZone first work and its adaptation to minor league baseball.

John Walsh’s outfielders arm rating.

Minor League Stats from, FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, Minor League Splits.

Retrosheet, Lahman’s database and Sean’s WAR data, all mentioned in the article.

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Sean Smith
14 years ago

Good series Max.  I missed the CF so just read it, and commenting is noly available here.  I was amazed by the +20 rating for Patrick Norris.  I don’t think I have any MLB player rating that well, in the whole retrosheet era, probably because coaches will tell you to stop running.  In the minors, they might not do that because they are more interested in seeing what players can do than winning ballgames.  My guess is if every baserunner went only one base at a time and never got thrown out the OF would be saving 10-15 runs at most.  So to get a rating that high you have to throw people out.

And Norris did.  In 108 games, he had 26 assists.  Good speed (45/54 in steals), but no bat at all.  Hit 244/304/272 in low A at age 23.  Despite listing at 6’2, 190 he has no power whatsoever, not only 0 homers but only 3 doubles!

Perhaps the Royals should take his impressive arm and see if he can pitch.

Paul Moehringer
14 years ago

Kind of an unrelated comment, but if left field is the easiest outfield position to play, then why did Barry Bonds play his entire career at the position, when he could have easily played the other two at an exceptional level?

I’m not questioning anything in the article, or the difficulty in playing the various outfield positions.

It’s just something that’s always kind of bothered me, and I wonder if there’s anyone out there that might have some insight.