A Wild Idea
Who Will Be CF?
OK, we’ve hit the part of the off-season where I’ve thought through playing time scenarios enough that I’m probably starting to see mirages. It’s probably best for my mental health that MLB baseball comes back quickly. Luckily, we’re just a couple of weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Tampa, so I think I’m going to make it. in the meantime, though, I have a thought that I haven’t been able to shake from my mind.
A couple of weeks ago, I looked into the question of filling CF defensively until Aaron Hicks returns. Since I wrote that article, the question of CF has continued to stick in my mind. As part of that research, I showed that Mike Tauchman has exhibited strong range and plus sprint speed in the outfield. In fact, preliminary findings suggest that Tauchman had well above-average range in the outfield in 2019, even more than Brett Gardner at this phase of his career. While the research I did for that article showed that the Yankees have two very strong defensive options for CF, I think that I may have limited the search a bit too much.
Using all of the new defensive charts and metrics over at Baseball Savant, I think that someone else on the Yankee roster deserves consideration for time in CF. Before I go any further, here’s the chart:
Chart Courtesy of Baseball Savant
A few important notes about the above chart. First, the outfielder above made a significant number of plays that had catch probabilities of less than 50%. In fact, I expanded the southern limits of the catch rate slider down to 20%, which brought up 2 additional catches. All of the hits allowed would have been 2-4 star catches had the player made a play on the ball. Most impressively, the Sprint Speed Range for this player covers almost half of the field. For reference, here is what Tauchman’s Sprint Speed Range looks like last season:
Chart Courtesy of Baseball Savant
Tauchman’s Sprint Speed Range is excellent! That said, it’s still not as good as the other player. It’s probably obvious at this point, but do you know who the anonymous player shown in the first chart is?
That player is Aaron Judge. Now, I’m not saying that Judge should be the everyday centerfielder. Not by a long shot. However, what has become apparent is that Judge is an elite defensive right fielder. Judge even played a fair amount of CF while at Fresno State, so the position is not foreign to him either. Judge has an absolute rocket launcher for an arm, so he is able to both throw runners out and deter runners from taking an extra base. As the above chart shows, he also has exhibited fantastic range, and his sprint speed (79th percentile) is plus and only adds to his range. With range like this, there is little question but that Judge could probably hold his own in CF defensively. I admit that I am surprised by just how much ground Judge covers in the outfield, such that I really do think that Judge could probably make more than just cameo appearances in CF.
What really intrigues me is deploying Judge’s arm in CF. CF in Yankee Stadium is big. Not only does Judge have the range to cover it, but his arm can be an even larger asset in CF than it is in RF. Judge can make runners think twice about tagging up on sac flies. Judge also does not have to worry about clearing the mound on throws to the plate from almost anywhere in the outfield, so I think his ability to prevent runs would be impressive in CF.
If Judge could play even average to slightly above-average defensive baseball in CF, he would be even more valuable from a run production perspective, because he would get positional credit from the various publicly available valuation metrics for playing one of the most difficult and important defensive positions on the diamond. Additionally, the offensive threshold is lower in CF than it is in RF, so when all factors are considered, Judge might be worth even more WAR/600 plate appearances than he is in RF.
Even beyond the personal gains, I think there is real value for the Yankees if they could play Judge in CF once or twice per week. After all of the injury issues the Yankees had last year, it is in their best interest to do everything they can to keep everyone fresh. The Yankees could very easily rotate their outfielders between all 3 outfield spots and DH to get guys at-bats. Additionally, getting Judge in CF occasionally would also allow Stanton to play RF more frequently, his preferred defensive position. We also know that Tauchman and Gardner are elite defensively in LF, so playing Judge in CF can help maximize the output of their other outfielders as well.
Playing CF is widely considered to create more wear and tear than the corner outfield spots, so placing additional strain on the Yankees’ best player is certainly something about which the Yankees need to be cautious. As the saying goes: all good things in moderation. I think that playing Aaron Judge in CF 30-40 games this season could unlock additional value on a team that is already overflowing with talent. Maybe the long winter is getting to me, but I think that there is enough evidence to suggest that Judge can handle CF defensively.