Many writers have expressed concern about the centre field position for the Blue Jays in 2020. Might a more-than-acceptable candidate exist in-house?
With the signing of Hyun-Jin Ryu, many writers have suggested that the Jays should turn their attention to the next area of pressing need, namely centre field. The Jays’ centre field situation has been described as “desperate“, “the Jays’ most pressing need“, and “a pretty serious need for a long time“.
While I agree that an all-star centre fielder would be nice to have, I believe that there is a more than adequate in-house option that would – at a minimum – provide a bridge until that all-star could be found.
Yes, I am talking about Randal Grichuk.
Some context before I dive in. I am not suggesting that The Grinch is a Kiermayer-level holy-cow-Batman defender in centre. I *am* suggesting that he is solidly above average by most metrics and that many of the “myths” about his playing centre are unfounded. As for example:
Myth #1 – Grichuk is not a good fielder, period
There exist several metrics which measure fielding performance. The three most common are Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR and UZR/150), Defensive Runs Saved (DRS and DRS/1200) and, for outfielders, Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OOA).
Toronto Blue Jays
Different people have different preferences among these stats. Personally, I prefer OOA because of the scientific nature of its analysis. For every fielding play, Statcast calculates the exact distance that the player has to travel and the time he has available. They then compare this combination to thousands of other MLB plays and calculate the percentage chance that an average outfielder would make that play. To illustrate, suppose that a play has a 60% chance of being made (and therefore a 40% chance of being missed). if a player makes that play, he earns .4 points (it is more complex than that, but allow me to simplify for purposes of this example). If he misses it, he loses .6 points. At the end of the year, all the pluses and minuses are added up.
The reason I like this stat is that the eye test can be deceiving. An example – remember the amazing over-the-shoulder catch that Kevin Pillar made in 2017 to rob Jose Ramirez of a hit? It was described as “one of the best catches you’ll see all year” and one writer said that his “jaw-dropping diving grab is the early favourite for catch of the year“. But it was actually only a ~32% catch difficulty – which means that an average fielder would catch it one-third of the time.
Look at the video below, which illustrates this point using that catch as an example. On the left, Pillar had 4.64 seconds to travel 64 feet, while on the right Chris Owings had 4.62 to travel 63 feet. But Chris got a better jump, and used a better route, and made the catch look routine.
So what does Statcast say about Grichuk?
In 2019, despite being juggled between RF and CF, Grichuk had +6 OOA – tied for 20th in baseball of 92 qualified fielders. In 2018, he had +7 – tied for 15th. 2017 was an off-year – he “only” had +4, tied for 24th.
In case you were wondering, Kevin Pillar was +2, +1 and 0 in those three years.
Myth #2 – Randal is OK in right, but not in centre
Sadly, OOA does not provide a breakdown between outfield positions so we can not use it to answer this question. Instead, move on to my second most favourite fielding stat, DRS/1200 (defensive runs saved per 1200 innings played). Grichuk has played just under 2,000 innings in centre from 2014-2019. His aggregate DRS/1200 over that period is +8.5, which would place him 14th of the 42 players who have played the same number of innings over that period (and coincidentally ties him with Kevin Pillar). Not top 10, but well above average.
Myth #3 – Randal was OK in the past, but he is too old and can’t play CF any more
Admittedly, Grichuk had a poor (for him) year in CF in 2019, with “only” a +5 DRS/1200. But that was good enough to place him 18th out of the 43 players who played the same number of innings in centre. And many of the players against which I am comparing him against had a full year in centre field, as opposed to Grichuk who split his time between right and centre. It is often more difficult for a player to excel when he is unable to focus on the demands of a single position.
Myth #4 – Randal does not want to play centre
Shortly after the Pillar trade in 2019, Randal was asked about playing centre field. His reply:
"“I had one fan on that (Trey) Mancini home run say ‘Pillar would have caught that one,’” said Grichuk, who heard similar sentiments on a couple of other occasions, too — including a fifth-inning, ground-rule double by Rio Ruiz that resulted in a couple of ‘We want Kevin’ cat-calls.“That’s definitely nice of him,” Grichuk said, shrugging. “Um, but it’s one of those things. I know I can play centre. I don’t think about what the fans are going to think — if I’m not going to get to a ball they think Pillar would have got to, or something like that.“I just can’t let that creep in,” Grichuk said. “I just have to go out there and play and know that defensively I can make plays and make things happen and trust in my abilities.”Nobody said replacing Superman would be easy, although the guess here is it won’t take but a few weeks to see that Grichuk is a superior fielder and hitter to Pillar, who was in many ways the last man standing from the 2015-16 teams that resurrected baseball in this city."
Doesn’t sound like someone who does not want to play centre field – or who has doubts about his ability to do so – to me.
The bottom line
Grichuk averaged 2.2 fWAR from 2015-2018, largely playing right field where his fielding skills are underutilized. With a full year in centre field, a 3+ fWAR performance is entirely possible. And this would allow the Jays to move Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to right field, to maximize the value of his elite arm and to give Teoscar (or perhaps Ozuna?) a chance to see if his +13 UZR/150 in left in 2019 (after the Jays fixed his positioning) was a fluke.