Austin Martin played many positions during his college career with Vanderbilt. Does he have the tools to play centerfield well?
Generally speaking, an evaluation of an outfielder will address four tools: speed, quickness, instincts, and throwing ability (release, strength, and accuracy).
Centerfield is the more important of the three outfield positions, primarily because the centerfielder has more opportunities to make plays. According to FanGraphs, during the 2010-2019 period, centerfielders had 34% more plays than right fielders and 46% more than left fielders.
Before considering Austin Martin’s capabilities in center, let’s review how the best centerfield defenders excel. Courtesy of FanGraphs, it is glossary time!
"DefDef gives you a measure of the player’s total defensive value that you can use to compare to all players, rather than just players at his position.Outfield Arm Runs (ARM)The number of runs above average an outfielder saves with their arm by preventing runners from advancing.Range Runs (RngR)Is the player an Ozzie Smith or an Adam Dunn? Do they get to more balls than average or not?Error Runs (ErrR)Does the player commit more or fewer errors compared with a league-average player at their position?"
All of the metrics above are cumulative statistics: players with more playing time will have more opportunities to accrue a higher or lower respective number. The average for a given parameter is zero.
The Outfield Arm Runs, Range Runs, and Error Runs metrics capture the game impact of the noted tools (speed, quickness, instincts, and throwing). These metrics are components of Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).
Do the best defensive centerfielders shine in all facets of the position?
- Cain has the highest Def with his 69.7 mark over ten years
- If you average his ARM and ErrR over the ten campaigns, they are mostly average per season
- Cain’s overall excellence in the field is due to his elite RngR, which means that he has tremendous range that can be attributed primarily to his foot speed, which averaged in the 91st percentile over the seasons measured by Statcast (2015-2019)
- Kiermaier accumulated his 64.9 Def over six campaigns and trails only Cain
- His distinction was a combination of ARM (fourth-best among the 33 centerfielders) and his RngR, which was second-best but trailed Cain by almost 28 runs
- Kiermaier’s ErrR was effectively average
- Martin ranked #4 in Def despite being average in RngR and ErrR
- His top-tier status as a centerfield defender is attributable to his ARM metric of 36
- The closest rival was Juan Lagares and his 25.9 ARM
- Per Table 2, Hicks has the 18th highest Def during the 2010-2019 period
- This mark, accumulated over seven seasons, is between above-average and average on a per-season basis
- Yet, Hicks is average in terms of the ARM. RngR and ErrR metrics
- He is an able defender in center with a kit of solid tools
A centerfielder can be a Top-Ten defender if they are average in either range or throwing ability. However, one of the tools (range or throwing) has to be top-tier. Of course, it is preferable if a player surpasses in respect of both the range and throwing tools; Kiermaier and Billy Hamilton are two examples. An outfielder with a complement of reliable tools, such as Hicks, can be a better-than-average centerfield defender.
Table 3 illustrates that the average (mean) and median ARM of right fielders is higher than the respective metrics of left fielders and centerfielders. When I think of the great outfield arms in baseball, I think of Jose Bautista and Jesse Barfield of the Blue Jays, and Vlad Guerrero and Ellis Valentine of the Montreal Expos. Going even further back, I have visions of Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline throwing darts. All of these players were primarily in right when they played in the outfield.
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Does Martin have the defensive tools to play centerfield well?
In its prospect report for Martin, MLB.com gave a 55-grade (above average) to his overall defence. MLB.com assigned a 55-grade for his running, and a 50-score (average) for his arm. Baseball America reported that “while he (Martin) doesn’t have elite speed or the best first step, he has the instincts and athleticism to handle the position (centerfield).”
As discussed above, a Top-Ten defensive centerfielder does not have to outstrip other players in terms of both range and arm capabilities. Table 1 illustrates that Kevin Pillar and Peter Bourjos can be outstanding defenders with average arms. Ender Inciarte and Mike Trout are just outside of the ten best defensive centerfielders, and they both had middling arms during the 2010-2019 period. My eye test confirms what the data is saying about Pillar, Trout, and Inciarte: they had average arms. I have not seen enough of Bourjos to offer an informed opinion.
Martin has the foot speed to play centerfield. With playing time in center, he can draw upon his athleticism and instincts to improve his first step. Despite an average arm, Martin has the tools to be at least an average defender in center. Combine that performance level in the field with Martin’s projected offence, and the Blue Jays would have an above-average centerfielder. Perhaps Martin can be better than average in the field, which would make him an elite centerfielder if he produces offence at the estimated level.
Possible position assignments
Baseball America made the following comments concerning Jordan Groshans’s defence:
"At shortstop, Groshans has an above-average arm and gets good reads off the bat, though his first-step quickness and range lead a lot of scouts to project a move to third base. He has the attributes to develop into an above-average defender if he moves to third base."
I can imagine that the Blue Jays dream scenario would be Groshans at third, Vlad Guerrero Jr. at first, and Martin in center. Of course, this assumes that Blue Jays management believes that Vlad Jr. will most likely end up with a first baseman’s mitt. If this assignment of positions is to succeed, all three players need playing time to determine if the respective forecasts can become a reality.
The last word
The best defenders in centerfield do not have to have both excellent range and an above-average arm. One of those attributes can be average, but the other must be well above-average. A better-than-average centerfielder can have a kit made up of just solid tools. The consensus evaluation of Martin is that he has above-average foot speed, athleticism, and instincts. These characteristics should translate into at least average, if not better, range. The combination of his projected range and an average arm should be a recipe for at least an average centerfield defender. Thus, Martin has the tools to play centerfield well.