Over the weekend, the latest rumor to emerge from a Cubs camp that has been more active in creating gossip than deals was that the Cubs are interested in acquiring Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado and moving Kris Bryant to center field, where the Cubs are lacking an everyday player. I find this rumor laughable since Bryant has all of 25 MLB innings of experience playing center field, and it’s unlikely the Cubs are going to acquire Arenado, who signed a lucrative extension with the Rox, when they’re looking to shed salary to get under the so-called luxury tax threshold.
However, the rumor did get me thinking about a young star corner infielder/corner outfielder who spent significant time patrolling center field last year – Joey Gallo of the Texas Rangers. Gallo has spent nearly half of his time as a position player on the infield corners but was shifted entirely to the outfield in 2019, with most of those innings spent in center field (309.2 out of 551.1).
Absolute HOSE pic.twitter.com/uUi3dcOpM3
— Starting 9 (@Starting9) May 18, 2019
He was a first-time All-Star in 2019 and had been putting together an MVP campaign before sustaining a season-ending hamate bone fracture in July. The lefty slugger finished the season with a slash line of .253/.389/.498, 22 home runs, and an OPS of .986 (145 OPS+).
How does he stack up versus Bryant in the outfield? Let’s break down their relative experience as well as their defensive stats.
Gallo has significantly more experience playing outfield at the MLB level than Bryant (1707.1 innings to Bryant’s 1054.0 innings). In addition, he has seen much more time in center field (409.2 innings to Bryant’s 25.0 innings).
Let’s start out with the standard numbers. Gallo has seven career outfield errors on a .983 fielding percentage with 19 assists. Three errors were committed in left, on a .988 fielding percentage, three were in center on a .975 fielding percentage, and one was in right on a .976 fielding percentage.
Bryant also has seven career outfield errors on a .969 fielding percentage with five assists. Four errors were in left on a .966 fielding percentage. One was in right on a .970 fielding percentage, and one was in center on a 1.000 fielding percentage (in limited duty).
Next, let’s look at some advanced stats, such as UZR/150 and DRS (defensive runs saved). UZR attempts to measure how many runs were saved or lost versus an “average” defender, and UZR/150 is scaled to 150 games, or one season playing full-time. DRS is calculated by The Fielding Bible and also rates players on runs saved/lost compared to an “average” defender.
Gallo’s career UZR/150 for all outfield positions is 8.4, rating him as a good, but not great, defender. Gallo was excellent in center field, with a 13.4 UZR/150, but a more pedestrian 4.9 in left field. He has a total of 11 DRS in the outfield over four seasons, which comes out to slightly above the baseline of zero for an “average” defender.
Advanced stats also show Bryant is a poorer defender than Gallo. Bryant has a career UZR/150 of -1.7 for all outfield positions, which is slightly below average. His worst rating is in right field, with -7.7. This is not surprising given that Wrigley Field has a reputation among fans of being a more difficult place to play right field.
Bryant has collected a mere 3 DRS in the outfield over five seasons. His best year was his MVP season of 2016, when he collected five. His positive totals in 2015 and 2016 have been offset by negative numbers in 2018 and 2019. Bryant’s -2 DRS for 2019 came from right field alone.
MLB’s Statcast technology has produced its own defensive metric called Outs Above Average (OAA). OAA rates the number of plays made and their difficulty using the Statcast Catch Probability. This metric has been tracked since the 2016 season. The all-time leader for outfielders is Ender Inciarte of the Atlanta Braves, with 66. Kris Bryant is ranked at number 100 all-time with 2 OAA. Joey Gallo is listed at number 126 with 1 OAA.
While Bryant is known as a versatile athlete, contributing to his MVP win in 2016, the data show Gallo is the superior outfielder. Gallo has shown himself to be a competent outfielder who can be slotted in at all three positions. Bryant is the definition of an “average” outfielder thanks to his poor stats in right field.
Since KB has a limited number of MLB innings in center field, it is not possible to determine whether he would be a good choice to play there on an everyday basis. The best the Cubs could hope for is that he would continue to be an average defender and make the majority of his contributions with his bat.