added 10/20/2007 by Scott Barzilla
There is no decision that will say more about the direction of this franchise than the decision of who will open 2008 in centerfield. Arguably, second base and shortstop might be more important, but nothing will be a better barometer for the speed and defense statement than who starts in center. Naturally, there is no shortage of options. They range from the boring (go with last year's alignment) to the potentially headline grabbing (Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter).
Hunter Pence spent most of the season in centerfield and there was nothing wrong with his performance. Until Ryan Braun came along, Pence was the odds on rookie of the year candidate. In fact, had Pence not gone on the DL with a broken hand he might have given Braun a run for his money. Pence was more than adequate defensively as well. So, why is there a debate around centerfield?
The answer is that nothing is quite as simple as it seems. Pence is naturally a right fielder and he seemed to thrive there when moved out of centerfield in September. Josh Anderson captivated audiences with his play in September. This gives the club a few major decisions before they even look out of the organization. Lingering in the background is Luke Scott. In the last 197 games he's managed 28 home runs, 101 RBIs, and 80 runs scored. More importantly, he's sported a .370 OBP and a .534 SLG. That translates to over a .900 OPS for those counting at home.
Still, conventional wisdom says Scott struggles in right field defensively. Certainly, he doesn't look as natural playing it as Hunter Pence, but his RZR in right field was a robust .918. Pence managed a .970 RZR in his time in right field, but 115 innings is hardly enough time to make a determination like that. However, if we assume these findings then we can assume that moving Pence to right field and moving someone comparable to Pence in center would improve the defense in the outfield.
RZR OOZ/100 Josh Anderson .871 2.24 Hunter Pence .885 5.33 Mike Cameron .894 3.99 Torii Hunter .891 3.58 Andruw Jones .921 5.94 Aaron Rowand .861 5.03
What you see here is a combination of the adjusted zone ratings with outs outside of the zone. Since Pence and Anderson didn't play full seasons we took those per 100 inning innings on defense. Jones sticks out as a superlative defender. Jones has a stellar reputation, but has gotten the reputation for loafing in recent seasons. Clearly, the numbers don't reflect that and demonstrate the danger of relying on impressions.
On the flip side, people keep pushing for Anderson because of his speed and defense. A little more than 100 innings isn't enough to make a great decision, but based on what we see, her would appear to be the worst defender of the group. We also know that Anderson's minor league numbers aren't that good with the stick in his hands. Based on these two facts alone he would appear to be a long shot.
Pence doesn't appear to be a bad option in center, but he is clearly a plus defender in right. The Astros just don't have too many plus defenders these days. Adding the likes of Cameron, Hunter, or Jones and moving Pence to right would make the club better defensively. How much better would they be offensively?
(Seasonal averages) AVG OBP SLG SO BB SB Andruw Jones .263 .342 .497 128 66 13 Torii Hunter .271 .324 .469 114 42 17 Mike Cameron .251 .341 .445 156 72 28 Luke Scott .273 .366 .516 113 65 4
ESPN.com has some pretty good sortable statistics and here we see these players' career averages as projected out over 162 games. As we can clearly see, the Astros would gain no real offensive advantage by replacing Luke Scott in the lineup with one of these gentlemen. As we see with defense, Andruw Jones appears to be the best option, but he will also be the most expensive. It's hard to say how many runs they would save in comparison with the extra runs Scott would create if they would simply keep him in the lineup.
So, here we get the classic question: which is more important? Do we follow what the basic numbers tell us or do we strive for a better defense even if it means sacrificing offense? The answer will be intersting and even more interesting is whether their decision will even match their overall objective.