It seems like the Cardinals are seeking a center fielder so that they can move Randal Grichuk to left. The only question is: why?

John Mozeliak is one of the best general managers in baseball. Mozeliak always seems to know when the time is right to buy or sell. He is great at getting the guy that his team needs in that moment. He is also really good at evaluating the talent on his own team. That last part had me wondering why he would say something like this:

“What can we do to upgrade in center versus keeping [Randal] Grichuk there?”
Or this: “There’s a version of this where if you put [Randal] Grichuk in left, you become a much better outfield.”

To be clear, he isn’t saying that he will move Randal Grichuk to left. Nevertheless, it sure does seem like that is the preferred option for Mozeliak. The Cardinals outfield defense was weak last year. However, Grichuk was not a part of that problem. The Cardinals ranked 19th and 22nd in terms of outfield defense according to DRS and UZR, respectively. However, there was one bright spot out there, and his name is Randal Grichuk. In other words, it makes no sense to seek out a way to put this guy in left field.

Grichuk has the most range

To begin with, Grichuk actually excels in most areas in the field.  In determining whether or not he is fit to play center, I started with his range metrics. Using DRS numbers, Grichuk has saved the Cardinals 18 runs with his range in the outfield across 1932 innings (stat also called rPM). If you take just his center field numbers, he is 6 runs above average in about a year’s worth of innings.

Technically, his range numbers are better in left. However, range is more important in center field than it is in the corners. That isn’t to say range isn’t important in the corners, but rather that your rangiest player should go in the middle. Players with good arms can make up for a lack of range in the corners, but not in center.

Grichuk has amassed 1260 career innings in center field. This past year, 15 players recorded more than 1000 innings in center. Of those 15, only 3 got to at least 6 range runs above average. Taken literally, this would seem to indicate that Grichuk is in the top quartile in range amongst center fielders. As it turns out, that number is on the conservative side. Going back to 2002, there have been 240 seasons in which a player recorded more than 1000 innings in center field. Of those 240, only 59 recorded at least 7 range runs above average.

So now that we are talking about someone who is perhaps in the top sixth of center fielders, let’s see who would be better than him. The three center fielders that had more rPM in 2016 than Grichuk does in his career are Kevin Pillar, Ender Inciarte, and Jacoby Ellsbury. Inciarte is likely viewed as one of the Braves’ building blocks, and there is no price low enough that makes Ellsbury a good acquisition. That leaves just Kevin Pillar. If there is a trade that works for Pillar in which the Cardinals genuinely improve, then go for it. Otherwise, Grichuk has the most range and is the most logical choice for center field.

What about his arm?

Grichuk led the Cardinals in 2016 with 3 arm runs above average. Brandon Moss was the only other regular above average. When a player has great range and a really good arm, it’s hard to pick anywhere but center field for him. Of course, none of that means that the Cardinals can’t do better. Pillar, Inciarte, and Kevin Kiermaier are definitely better fielders. There are more to add to that list too, but the whole list isn’t that long. However, let’s say for the sake of argument that the Cardinals do get their hands on one of those players. The Cardinals still should not move Grichuk to left.

Grichuk’s arm would be somewhat wasted in left field. On the other hand, Stephen Piscotty is wasting his range in right. I have no idea how this happened, but Piscotty went from -2 rPM in 2015 in left field to +12 rPM in 2016 in right field. UZR backs up the idea that he increased his range a lot, as well.

Now, playing left field is virtually the same as playing right field except for one key difference: your arm matters less. In left field, you rarely have to worry about a runner going first-to-third on a single. In right, you always have to be aware of such opportunities. Piscotty cost the Cardinals roughly 5-7 runs with his poor arm in 2016. In left field, that number would go down just due to fewer opportunities. On the other hand, Grichuk could still use his strong and accurate arm to help the team in right, even if the team feels the irrational urge to move him from center.

But you said his range was better in left. Shouldn’t they put him there anyway, then?

Grichuk has shown better range numbers in left field than in center. However, the effect of his arm being more useful balances out that difference. In other words, this move is not really something that can actually maximize Grichuk’s defensive value. In fact, whoever the Cardinals do go with as the third outfielder will likely perform better in left than in center. Most outfielders do.

So what should they do?

The idea of upgrading the outfield defense is a smart one. I just don’t buy that moving Grichuk helps accomplish that goal. Again, if Kiermaier falls into their lap then it does. Unless that or the next best thing happens, Grichuk is the best available center fielder. Instead, the Cardinals can focus on finding a left fielder or just a good defensive fourth outfielder. Shane Robinson just elected free agency, and he certainly fits that bill, and excels in the field at all three outfield spots. The Cardinals could have paid Josh Roddick less than $15 million per year and had another really good outfielder. Instead, they whiffed on him.

Reddick won’t be the last opportunity to improve the outfield. And there are many ways to do it. But I think it is an inefficient use of resources to seek out a way to move Grichuk to left field. After all, he was not part of the defensive problem in 2016. Why not just leave him alone?

Photo credit: Robert Hanashiro – USA TODAY Sports

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