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The value of the Phillies having four “starting” outfielders

The Phillies have four outfielders to play three positions. Here’s why that’s a good thing.

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Baltimore Orioles v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

When the Phillies signed Carlos Santana this off-season, it created a logjam in the outfield. Many people thought at the time that this meant the Phillies might try to trade one of their now-four outfielders — Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, Nick Williams, or Aaron Altherr. But we all know that never happened, and with Opening Day tomorrow, the Phillies are starting the season with four starter-quality outfielders and only three outfield spots.

Some might see that as a problem. Meghan Montemurro of the Athletic looked at the situation in January and was not optimistic. Her take was that teams have historically had a hard time evenly spreading plate appearances among four outfielders. She studied outfields and concluded that “since 2000, only nine teams have featured four outfielders who recorded at least 400 plate appearances while playing at least 85 percent of their games in the outfield.”

While I appreciate Montemurro’s look at the problem, I’ll take a different approach here and conclude that it’s a very good thing that the Phillies have four outfielders. Rather than set the bar for a successful four-man outfield at a minimum of 400 plate appearances per player, let’s look at it this way - how often do teams get close to a full season’s worth of plate appearances out of their opening day outfield?

The answer for 2017 was clear - not very often. For this inquiry, I looked at every opening day outfield last year and the plate appearances that those players amassed for that team. What’s quite obvious from this data is that very few teams get a full year’s worth of outfield plate appearances from their three opening day starters.

Simply averaging the plate appearances for each team makes this obvious. The Marlins led the way last year with 689 average plate appearances among Marcell, Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Giancarlo Stanton. The Red Sox were second with an average of 637 (Benintendi, Bradley, Betts). The Braves (618) and the Reds (604) were the only other teams above 600.

The Indians are at the bottom of this chart with a minuscule 203 average plate appearances among their starting outfield of Michael Brantley, Tyler Naquin, and Abraham Almonte. The Nationals were next to last with just 296 (Werth, Eaton, Harper), the only other team below 300.

The rest of the league sat between 300 and 600 average plate appearances, with the average team getting 452 plate appearances from their opening day starting outfielders. The Phillies were fourth-worst on this list, getting just 311 plate appearances on average from Howie Kendrick, Odubel Herrera, and Michael Saunders. (Full chart is at the bottom of this piece.)

Looked at differently, we can figure out the missing plate appearances for each team. If you figure that each outfield spot gets about 685 plate appearances on the season (that’s an average - players higher in the batting order get more, lower get less), a team needs a total of 2055 plate appearances from its three outfielders over the course of the year. Anything short of that has to be made up with other players.

The Marlins actually got 11 more than that total, with 2066 from their top-of-the-lineup trio. Every other team fell below that. The Red Sox, second on this list, totaled 1911 plate appearances. Even with this high amount, they needed another 144 plate appearances from others. That’s not an inconsequential total.

And that’s for the second best team in this measure. Take the Cardinals, who between Randall Grichuk, Dexter Fowler, and Stephen Piscotty averaged 445 plate appearances among them and totaled 1334. With that total, they were just short of the average of 1355, so they are a good average team to look at. This average team was 721 PAs short from a full outfield in 2017.

The Phillies last year? With just 311 plate appearances on average, they totaled 933 PAs for their opening day starting outfield. That gave them a whopping 1122 missing PAs total. That’s almost two full-time players worth of PAs needed to fill the outfield last year.

What’s this all mean for the Phillies four-man outfield this year? It means that if the Phillies are anything like the average MLB team last year, they are not going to get anywhere near a full complement of plate appearances from three outfielders. The combination of injuries, sub-par performance, platoons, rest, trades, and other personnel issues means that in all but the rarest of situations, teams need to get a substantial number of plate appearances in the outfield from a fourth or even fifth player.

So, as the Phillies start the season tomorrow with four starter-quality outfielders, they should get a huge benefit from this logjam. Rather than filling the all-but-inevitable extra plate appearances with a player who is bench-quality, the Phillies get to use a “starter.” And even if these four “starters” don’t get these plate appearances evenly, as Montemurro’s piece shows they aren’t likely to do, they still should all get a substantial number of them, which should greatly increase the Phillies’ productivity over giving those plate appearances to a bench player.

For those interested, here’s the full data:

2017 OF PAs

Tm LF CF RF Avg PA Total PA Missing PA
Tm LF CF RF Avg PA Total PA Missing PA
MIA Ozuna Yelich Stanton 689 2066 -11
BOS Benintendi Bradley Betts 637 1911 144
ATL Kemp Inciarte Markakis 618 1855 200
CIN Duvall Hamilton Schebler 604 1811 244
NYY Gardner Ellsbury Judge 590 1769 286
COL Parra Blackmon Gonzalez 561 1684 371
MIN Rosario Buxton Kepler 556 1668 387
TOR Carrera Pillar Bautista 548 1643 412
LAA Maybin Trout Calhoun 516 1548 507
OAK Davis Davis Joyce 508 1524 531
MIL Braun Broxton Santana 498 1495 560
CHC Schwarber Heyward Zobrist 488 1463 592
PIT Frazier Marte McCutchen 481 1443 612
HOU Aoki Springer Reddick 464 1393 662
STL Grichuk Fowler Piscotty 445 1334 721
TBR Smith Kiermaier Souza 440 1320 735
KCR Gordon Cain Orlando 425 1276 779
SFG Parker Span Pence 419 1258 797
ARI Tomas Pollock Peralta 408 1223 832
NYM Cespedes Granderson Bruce 388 1164 891
BAL Kim Jones Smith 383 1150 905
TEX Profar Gomez Mazara 371 1112 943
SDP Jankowski Margot Renfroe 365 1095 960
DET Upton Jones Mahtook 351 1053 1002
CHW Cabrera May Garcia 344 1031 1024
LAD Toles Pederson Puig 332 995 1060
PHI Kendrick Herrera Saunders 311 933 1122
SEA Dyson Martin Haniger 307 922 1133
WSN Werth Eaton Harper 296 888 1167
CLE Brantley Naquin Almonte 203 610 1445