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What we know about the Rockies’ outfield play through the Dodgers series

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The data suggests that the Rockies should use a different outfield lineup

In a grim weekend series with the Dodgers, some rare moments of hope occurred on outfield plays, like this gorgeous Sam Hilliard catch in Game 1.

Then there was this Garrett Hampson stunner, also from Game 1:

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

(Get that man a Bud Light Seltzer if that’s what he wants.)

Breath-taking catches, while exciting, don’t reveal much about a player’s defensive performance over the course of the season. With this in mind, it’s worth exploring how the Rockies’ outfield is doing in 2020. To do so, I used two Statcast metrics, “outfield catch probability” and “outs above average.” (If this sounds familiar, I did a similar analysis in 2019; you can read it here.)

To summarize, outfield catch probability “expresses the likelihood for a ball to be caught by an outfielder based on opportunity time, distance needed, and direction” with a five-star catch being the most difficult and a one-star catch being the easiest. Outs above average (OAA) “is the cumulative effect of all individual Catch Probability plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, making it a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them.” So these are metrics for measuring and then ranking how outfielders react in a variety of defensive situations.

As a baseline, in 2019, the Rockies finished 27th in baseball, with -10 outs above average. (The Nationals led MLB with 20 OAA.) Last year, Raimel Tapia was the 28th best outfielder in baseball with a final OAA of 5; Charlie Blackmon finished 278th with -9 OAA.

Keep in mind that I’ve not included any data from the Arizona series.

Defensive numbers: Outfield catch probability and outs above average

Before we look at the numbers, remember that 2020 is a weird, shortened season that has provided limited data, even though the season is almost half over. So any comparison is imperfect. Also, even though Chris Owings has spent some time in the outfield, I did not include him in this analysis given that he has primarily been used an an infielder.

Here’s what we know so far:

2020 Rockies Outs Above Average (as of 8/24/20)

Player Outs Above Average 5 Star (0-25%) 4 Star (26-50%) 3 Star (51-75%) 2 Star (76-90%) 1 Star (91-95%) Total MLB Rank Defensive Innings Played
Player Outs Above Average 5 Star (0-25%) 4 Star (26-50%) 3 Star (51-75%) 2 Star (76-90%) 1 Star (91-95%) Total MLB Rank Defensive Innings Played
Garrett Hampson 2 0/1 2/4 1/1 3/3 2/2 8/11 8 113.1
Raimel Tapia 2 0/1 1/1 1/1 6/6 1/1 9/10 16 121
David Dahl 0 0/5 2/3 1/2 2/2 3/4 8/16 59 150
Sam Hilliard 0 0/2 0/1 3/4 5/5 5/5 13/17 68 85
Charlie Blackmon -1 0/2 0/0 0/3 4/4 2/2 6/11 138 211.1

What can we learn? A few things. First, the Rockies’ two best outfielders — Tapia and Hampson — have played significantly fewer defensive innings than Blackmon and Dahl, who have shown below-average defensive performances (so far) in 2020.

In addition, the Rockies have yet to make a five-star catch after having had 11 opportunities with five of those going to David Dahl. To be clear, a five-star catch is by definition difficult, but the fact that the Rockies have yet to make one is not encouraging. Although the Rockies are making routine catches, they are less successful in more-challenging situations.

Blackmon has become comfortable in right field, and Garrett Hampson appears to be settling in as an outfielder, making a case for his permanent home in center field.

Raimel Tapia and Garrett Hampson are in a contest to be the Rockies’ best outfielder. (Their ranking in terms of OAA kept shifting throughout the weekend series.) At this point, it’s too soon to draw any conclusions about Sam Hilliard’s defensive abilities because he simply hasn’t played enough. At this point, we know he’s an average defender in terms of OAA.

As a team, the Rockies are ranked 7th in baseball with an OAA of 3. (The Dodgers lead baseball with an OAA of 5.) So far, the Rockies are having a strong defensive season in the outfield.

It’s worth noting that Charlie Blackmon is not a fan of defensive metrics. According to Thomas Harding, Blackmon told the media on Saturday: “Honestly, I think the defensive metrics are worthless . . . anything that’s park-adjusted is garbage, in my opinion.”

He continued, “I think I’ve been a pretty good outfielder for a while. I feel very comfortable in right field now. It took me a while to get to that point. There are some balls I should have made plays on and I didn’t.”

Blackmon added:

“It’s very hard to go from Coors Field to on the road. Balls act differently off the bat. That is something I constantly have to adjust; same thing with hitting.

“I’m looking and seeing players who I know are a certain caliber defender, and I’m seeing them graded out all over the map — compared to other defenders who I know how good they are, and it just doesn’t add up.”

Consider that an opposing perspective on defensive metrics.

Offensive numbers: Slashlines

After sorting through the defensive numbers, I wondered where the outfield players were faring offensively. Clearly, Charlie Blackmon is having a terrific season, but I wondered where the other outfielders fit in offensively.

Rockies Outfielders Slash Lines (Through Aug. 24, 2020)

Player Slashline Plate Appearances fWAR
Player Slashline Plate Appearances fWAR
Charlie Blackmon .405/.442/.568 120 1.2
Raimel Tapia .281/.382/.333 69 0
Garrett Hampson .257/.317/.392 85 0.1
Sam Hilliard .240/.321/.480 56 0.4
David Dahl .189/.238/.243 80 -0.6

The Rockies’ best outfield lineup, in terms of offense and defense, is Charlie Blackmon, Raimel Tapia, and Garrett Hampson. Blackmon’s offensive production outweighs his defensive liabilities. In fairness, so far, he’s having a better (albeit still below-average) year defensively. We can debate whether he should be moved to the DH position. (Blackmon has been clear that he hates not playing in the outfield.) Tapia and Hampson should both be playing more — a lot more.

Coming off an All-star season, David Dahl is struggling in 2020. He may be dealing with a lingering injury given that the Rockies placed him on the 10-day IL last week, but he has become a liability for the Rockies — both offensively and defensively. Another lineup would involve Tapia, Hampson, and Hilliard in the outfield while Blackmon serves as the DH, despite his feelings on the matter. Hilliard is an average defender with offensive possibilities.

★ ★ ★

The Rockies need to make the most of their defensive opportunities. The baseball sees a unique carry in an already-expansive Coors Field outfield, which makes OAA even more important in Colorado.

It also remains to be seen if the Rockies’ outfielders will fare better in a shortened season with a reduced Coors Field effect. We’ll have a better idea soon.