Do the Miami Marlins Have the Best Outfield in Baseball?
Last year, there were eight MLB outfielders who finished the season with Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) ratings greater than 3.5 that were under the age of 26. It just so happens that three of them donned the same uniform.
The Miami Marlins have established an embarrassment of youthful riches in the outfield. With Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna, the Marlins already have three top-notch outfielders, and they're only going to get better.
This brings up a fair question -- do the Marlins have the best outfield in baseball?
According to ESPN's Buster Olney, they do. Buster is 10 bajillion times smarter than I am, but I wanted to take an analytic angle to this to see whether the numbers agree. Let's start things off by looking back at what happened in 2014.
Among the League's Best
If you take a look at each team's composite fWAR for all of its outfielders from last season, the Marlins ranked favorably. In the chart below are the team's fWAR along with their Offense and Defense Ratings, via Fangraphs. For both the Offensive and Defensive Ratings, a league-average score would be zero.
First takeaway: my sweet lord the Royals' defense was good. Second takeaway: this whole Marlins argument doesn't look too bad.
The Orioles lost Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis, who combined to add 6.4 wins to their total of 20.2. Luckily for them, they've still got that Adam Jones dude who I've heard is pretty decent at baseballing and Steve Pearce, whose value I adore in fantasy baseball this year.
The Royals essentially swapped Norichika Aoki for Alex Rios. While this could give Kansas City a slight boost offensively, Rios has become almost a liability on defense. That said, I'm pretty sure Jarrod Dyson could cover both center and right, so that'll help.
With both Ben Zobrist and Wil Myers gone via trade, it would be difficult for the Rays to replicate this ranking. On the positive side, Kevin Kiermaier is disgusting defensively, and Steven Souza is an intriguing new piece.
Based on all of this, if the Marlins want to be known as the top outfield in baseball, their stiffest competition will be the Pittsburgh Pirates. Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte combined for 10.9 fWAR last year. Josh Harrison is most likely due for a regression this year after 2014's huge breakout. Even so, his defense will be good when he is asked to play the outfield, and he should be at least a serviceable hitter.
If we're going to mention youthful outfielders, though, we can't go through this without gushing a little bit over Gregory Polanco. After the Pirates traded Travis Snider to Baltimore, it looks as though Polanco should have a starting spot on Opening Day. Sure, he struggled while he was in the Majors last year, but if he can channel that stroke he had before he debuted at the MLB level, brudduh could be unreal.
So with the Pirates looking like the top 2015 competition for the young gunners in Miami, let's take a look at the projections for each of these teams to see who should have the edge on Opening Day.
Raise the Jolly Roger
At least based on Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections, it does indeed look like the Pirates deserve to get the nod here. This is not a knock on Miami; Pittsburgh is just teeming with filth.
The Pirates' 2015 ZiPS have McCutchen doing McCutchen things, bopping 24 home runs while posting a .379 weighted on-base average (wOBA) and stealing 20 bases. In fact, all three of McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco are projected to steal at least 20 bases and belt at least 14 home runs.
Polanco is the big part of these projections as both McCutchen and Marte are well-known assets. Polanco is more of a mystery after his stints last year, but ZiPS sees him busting that door wide open in 2015.
In part because of a Defensive Runs Saved projection of 6, Polanco is slated to finish with a 3.3 zWAR if he records 612 plate appearances. ZiPS sees his offense jumping to a .259/.313/.401 slash with a .317 wOBA, which is more than enough if he plays that type of defense and actually steals 26 bases (he stole 30 last year between AAA and the MLB).
With the Marlins' ZiPS, the big reason the Marlins fall behind the Pirates is Ozuna. It sees Ozuna taking a slight step back at the plate, dropping to a .332 wOBA from .338. This makes sense as Ozuna had a .337 batting average on balls in play, which was well above his usual marks in the minors and 11 points higher than he hit in 2013.
As for Yelich, his projections are incredibly positive. ZiPS has him hitting four additional home runs this year at 13 total while posting a .356 on-base percentage. When coupled with his projected 10 defensive runs saved, Yelich is slated for a 3.8 zWAR.
This means you have a guy with a .356 on-base percentage hitting right in front of potentially the games best power-hitter, if the Marlins do indeed slide Yelich down to second and have Dee Gordon bat lead-off. That's a top-of-the-order with a boatload of run potential.
While I believe the Pirates will have the best starting outfield on Opening Day 2015, I still think I'd rather have the Marlins' group given the choice moving forward. Stanton is 25, Ozuna is 24, and Yelich is 23. While the Pirates aren't anything close to being old (McCutchen is the eldest at 28), there's a new level of potential for the Marlins.
If Yelich grows into more power (which is certainly possible with his 6'3" frame), that would give the Marlins a Gold Glove corner outfielder with a high on-base percentage and pop. Oh, and Stanton, who has 40-home-run potential year in and year out.
Ozuna finished 2014 with a slightly above average Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) in center field. When a guy gives me at least average defense in center with 23 bombs and a .455 slugging percentage, I don't just accept; I slobber all over it. If he's the guy providing you with the lowest fWAR in your outfield, you are going to be just fine.
In Stanton, Yelich, and Ozuna, the Marlins have one bonafide superstar and two that are going to be top-level players for the foreseeable future. They may not be the best outfield in 2015, but beyond that, I wouldn't bet a single penny against them.