The 2020 Replacement-Level Killers: Corner Outfielders and Designated Hitterson August 31, 2020 at 1:30 pm

The 2020 Replacement-Level Killers: Corner Outfielders and Designated Hitters

For the full introduction to the Replacement-Level Killers series, follow the link above, but to give you the CliffsNotes version: yes, things are different this year, and not just because the lone trade deadline is later today, August 31. We’ve got a little over a month’s worth of performances to analyze (sometimes less, due to COVID-19 outbreaks), about four weeks still to play, and thanks to the expanded playoff field, all but seven teams — the Pirates, Angels, Red Sox, Mariners, Royals, Rangers, and Orioles — are within two games of a playoff spot.

While still focusing upon teams that meet the loose definition of contenders (a .500 record or Playoff Odds of at least 10%), I’ll incorporate our Depth Charts’ rest-of-season WAR projections into the equation, considering any team with a total of 0.3 WAR or less — I lowered the threshold by a point, starting with the third base/center field installment, to keep the final lists from getting too overgrown — to be in the replacement-level realm (that’s 0.8 WAR over the course of 162 games, decidedly subpar). I don’t expect every team I identify to upgrade before the trade deadline, given other context (returns from injury, contradictory defensive metrics, and bigger holes elsewhere on the roster), and I’m not concerned with the particulars of which players they might pursue or trade away.

Note that all individual stats in this article are through August 29, but the won-loss records and Playoff Odds include games of August 30.

This time, I’m covering both left and right fielders, with a very brief nod in the general direction of designated hitters as well. Thankfully, my strategy of waiting for the left field herd to thin proved to be the right call, as that list shrank from nine to six (and right field from six to five) after some positive regression over the past few days.

Indians (LF and RF)

As promised (?) on Friday, the Indians made the Killers list at all three outfield spots. Their approach to staffing left field has had one constant, in that righty Jordan Luplow has taken all of the starts against lefties; he’s one of eight players to start in this spot against righties and has a team-high 12 starts at the position, but after batting a robust .276/.372/.551 with 15 homers in 261 PA last year, he’s at .125/.280/.225 through 50 PA thus far, and his Statcast numbers (81.8 mph average exit velo, 25.5 degree average launch angle, and one barrel out of 29 batted ball events) suggest he’s way out of whack, even if he’s cut his swinging strike rate from 10.8% to 5.1%.

Domingo Santana, who mostly started in right field against righties in the season’s first couple weeks, has been doing the same from left field since Tyler Naquin‘s return from a hairline fracture in his right toe, but that hasn’t stabilized the situation; he’s hit just .157/.298/.286 in 84 PA overall, and likewise, his Statcast numbers (85.4 mph exit velo, 5.4 degree average launch angle) are way down. A Santana/Luplow platoon could work if both players were functioning normally, but unless the Indians can figure out how to make that happen, they’re going to lag here. If there’s good news, it’s that Naquin (.288/.315/.500 in 54 PA) has at least stabilized the right field situation.


The Cardinals have started Tyler O’Neill in left field in 20 of their 24 games thus far, but the 25-year-old former third-round pick has hit just .164/.273/.328, and in parts of three seasons totaling 370 PA, he owns a .240/.300/.429 (96 wRC+) line. In the grand scheme of things, he’s too young to give up on, but it’s probably worth relegating him to part-time status for a stretch. Unfortunately, 21-year-old phenom Dylan Carlson, who’s taken the other four starts in left while also seeing time in center and right, has hit just .180/.242/.279 through 66 PA while taking playing time away from Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler, who entered Sunday third and fourth on the team in wRC+. Given that the Cardinals (12-13) are running eighth in winning percentage and sith in Playoff Odds (60.7%), they can’t afford to be complacent; some temporary help from outside might be necessary even if it does sideline the kids for a few weeks.


Things haven’t gone Tommy Pham‘s way this summer. He missed about half of summer camp after testing positive for COVID-19, then was hitting for just a 76 wRC+ through 95 PA before fracturing a hamate bone in his right hand while fouling off a pitch on August 16. He’s expected to miss four to six weeks. Jurickson Profar has done most of the work filling in since Pham went down, but has hit just .196/.301/.330 (78 wRC+) in 114 PA while also seeing significant time at second base. Josh Naylor, who hit .249/.315/.403 last year as a rookie, and versatile prospect Jorge Mateo could both see time here, but the latter’s stock has fallen considerably since his days as a consensus top 100 prospect. At 21-15, with 97.9% Playoff Odds, the Padres are almost certainly playoff-bound, but even after making a flurry of pre-deadline trades to bolster their catching, bullpen, and DH spot, they could stand for some fortification here.


In the past 14 seasons — from Barry Bonds’ last one in 2007 up through Alex Dickerson this year — the Giants have used 14 Opening Day left fielders. Alas, the magic has worn off for Dickerson, a 30-year-old lefty who arrived from the Padres in mid-2019 and proceeded to hit .290/.351/.529 in 171 PA; thus far, he’s batted .207/.290/.354 through 94 PA while starting 16 games in left and five at other positions. His latest platoon partner Darin Ruf, who’s back from a three-year stint with the KBO’s Samsung Lions, has hit just .239/.327/.370 in 52 PA. Austin Slater, a 27-year-old righty, has hit a sizzling .347/.458/.653 through 59 PA, but he’s on the Injured List with a mild groin strain as well as a flexor strain in his right elbow. With the team using the likes of Steven Duggar and Joey Rickard to cover for whichever of the other two outfield spots Mike Yastrzemski isn’t playing, the bottom line is that even if Slater makes his anticipated return in early September, the Giants (17-19, ninth in the NL) appear to be at least one outfield bat short.


Back from a torn left ACL he suffered last June, Andrew McCutchen has hit just .275/.318/.392 (92 wRC+) and he’s been lousy in the field as well (-1.4 UZR, -4 DRS), to the extent that we can take small-sample defensive metrics seriously. Per Statcast, his sprint speed has fallen from the 91st percentile to the 53rd, and his average exit velocity has dropped from 90.6 mph to 88.2, so it’s fair to wonder if he’s fully healthy, though it’s worth noting that he has been swinging the bat better lately (.365/.389/.577 with all three of this season’s homers in 54 PA over his last 12 games). As alternatives go, Jay Bruce, who has started seven times in left field and six at DH, hitting .231/.273/.596 in 55 PA, landed on the IL last week due to a quad strain. Utilityman Phil Gosselin has taken a couple of starts in left in addition to some at DH, but he’s not going to maintain his sizzling .354/.415/.604 line given his 86 career wRC+. Signs here point to the Phillies (14-15) riding Cutch and hoping for the best.


Injuries have hit the Yankees hard lately, sending four regulars (DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Judge) to the IL at a time when the team has endured a COVID-19-related interruption followed by a trio of doubleheaders in a five-day span; amid that, they lost seven straight, their longest streak since 2007. Brett Gardner, who’s made a team-high 16 starts in left (plus four in center) is hitting just .190/.325/.381 through 77 PA while getting regular reps against righties. Lefty-swinging Mike Tauchman, who has almost no platoon split through his career (including 119 PA against lefties) has hit .300/.373/.383 while filling in at both outfield corners, while righty Clint Frazier, who has been on fire since being recalled (.297/.422/.649 in 45 PA) has played mostly right field; he’s started just once in left. Particularly with righty Miguel Andujar and lefty Mike Ford available via the DH role, it’s probably time to demote the 37-year-old Gardner to backup status while a Tauchman-Aaron Hicks-Frazier trio patrols the outfield until Judge returns, hopefully by mid-September. The team, now 19-14 (just fifth in the AL), has been linked to the DiamondbacksStarling Marte, and while they may not land him, signs do point to them adding to their outfield.


Opening Day right fielder Harold Ramirez played in just two games before testing positive for the coronavirus, and he wasn’t cleared to resume baseball activity until August 18. In his absence, the team has used six other players, including prospects Jesus Sanchez and Monte Harrison, both of whom have had little success against major league pitching thus far either while playing right field or elsewhere. Likewise for Lewis Brinson, who thus far has failed to exceed a .199 batting average or .270 on-base percentage in any of the four partial seasons he’s played. Matt Joyce, Jon Berti, and Magneuris Sierra have all been more useful at other positions, Joyce as a platoon DH against lefties, Berti in center field and second base, and Sierra in center as well, though the latter just landed on the IL due to a strained right hamstring. Ramirez was no world-beater last year (92 wRC+, 0.4 WAR), and Sanchez has at least hit the ball hard (average exit velo 95.4 mph) in his 27 PA, though too often on the ground (57.1%) but it’s not unreasonable to take a longer look in light of the circumstances; he’s not going to hit .042/.179/.083 forever.


Adam Eaton has been playing regularly, but is hitting just .229/.288/.367. While his average exit velocity (89.2 mph), barrel rate (4.6%) and hard-hit rate (42.5%) are all at their highest in the Statcast era, his 4.9 degree average launch angle is a career low, as is his .311 xwOBA; his contact just hasn’t been high-quality. So long as he’s healthy, though, the Nationals — who have needs in the rotation and infield, have used the likes of Michael A. Taylor and Josh Harrison as alternatives in right, and at 12-19 have the NL’s second-worst record — have bigger fish to fry.


(See above)


The Brewers moved Christian Yelich from right to left field before the season, and have since moved their new right fielder, Avisail Garcia, to center to cover for Lorenzo Cain‘s decision to opt out, which has left the position largely in the hands of Ben Gamel and Ryan Braun. Gamel has hit just .195/.235/.390 in 83 PA overall, and Braun has been pretty lousy as well (.194/.242/.371 in 66 PA); the latter has missed time due to an infected right finger, which required an IL stint, and lower back tightness, which led to his being scratched on Saturday. Garcia has been defensively adequate in center but has hit just .223/.3010/.340 himself. The good news is that the Brewers have two paths to upgrading their outfield, but the bad news is that they’re just 15-18 (10th in the NL), and have problems at both infield corners as well.

White Sox

Oh, Nomar Mazara. The change of scenery from Texas to Chicago has done nothing to unlock the potential of the 25-year-old would-be slugger. In fact, the owner of the longest home run of the Statcast era (505 feet, last June 21 off current teammate Reynaldo Lopez) has failed to hit one out in 70 PA thus far, and is batting a thin .226/.314/.274 while chasing 37.3% of pitches outside the zone (down just a bit off last year’s 38.4%) and striking out a career-high 30.0% of the time. His groundball/fly ball ratio is a career-high 2.10, his pull rate is a career-low 31.7%, and his Statcast numbers (87.8 mph average exit velocity, 2.3 degree average launch angle, .301 xwOBA) are career worsts. He’s pulled exactly one fly ball all year, after ranking in the 19th percentile in that category last year. Until he can do that with greater consistency, he’ll remain an enigma, apparently a replacement-level one at that.

Adam Engel, who ensured himself a spot on highlight reels forever by sealing Lucas Giolito‘s no-hitter with a running grab of an Erik Gonzalez liner with an expected batting average of .850, has hit just .255/.293/.436 in 58 PA, but even while walking just 1.7% of the time, his 97 wC+ and 0.4 WAR both dwarf Mazara’s numbers (70 wRC+ and 0.0 WAR). That said, his career wRC+ is 65, so he’s not the answer. The White Sox, who have a 98.2% chance of going to the playoffs and no other Killer-level holes in their lineup, would do well do find one here.

As for the DHs, such is the positional adjustment built into our version of WAR (-17.5 runs) that even using our 0.3 WAR threshold, 13 of the 23 contenders fall below it, with 12 of them failing to get even a 100 wRC+ from the slot. Nine of those are NL teams, and so it’s fair to reason that the late adoption of the DH caught the Senior Circuit teams a bit flat-footed. Even so, it cracks me up to see the Rockies — who in Charlie Blackmon, Daniel Murphy and June signing Matt Kemp had the three most obvious DH candidates in terms of age and recent defensive value — heading this list. If you’re scoring at home, Colorado made five of the nine Replacement Level Killers lists this year.

Elsewhere, we saw the Cubs attempt to address their DH woes on Sunday with the trade for Jose Martinez, who I think is a reasonable bet to provide positive value despite his 0.0 WAR projection. The Tigers, who have nosed above the 10.0% playoff odds threshold while I was putting these lists together, are here with what’s left of Miguel Cabrera, and likewise the Brewers and Braun, though the latter was a pretty solid hitter (117 wRC+) as recently as last year. As with relievers, it will suffice to say that just about every contending team, particularly on the NL side, could use another bat for the DH spot.

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