RADIO.COM Sports staff writer Tim Kelly ranked the top 25 position players entering spring training and the 2020 regular season. Now, we're going to break down the best players at each position, and what better position to start with than the deepest class there is: the outfield.
Instead of breaking it down by left, center and right, we're going to list the top 10 across the outfield as a whole. There will be exclusions that you don't agree with. There will be inclusions that you don't agree with. But that's the beauty of baseball: as objective as statistics are, there is still plenty of room for debate given the possibility of regression, breakout performances, off-field issues and more that enables a legitimate discussion to be had.
Of the 10 leaders in WAR for position players in 2019, four of them were outfielders for the majority of their playing time and six outfielders were included in the top 10 home run hitters. There's a lot of offensive potency at the top of the group, but also a decent amount spread throughout: there were over 20 outfielders with at least 30 home runs last season.
But it's not all about offense. Baserunning and defense are especially important for such a wide-ranging (literally) position, as there is no mold to define a typical "outfielder." Thus, numerous components, ranging from simple stats like home runs to advanced metrics like exit velocity, were used in making these rankings.
All stats and figures from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference.
10. J.D. Martinez, Boston Red Sox
2019 WAR: 3.2
The only thing more consistent than Martinez’s offensive potency is the lack of star recognition he receives. Yes, he’s been an All-Star the past two seasons, but it still feels like he should be recognized among the top outfielders (which, thankfully, we’re doing here).
He’s the only player in baseball who has had 35 home runs, 100 RBI and a .300 batting average in each of the past three seasons. In fact, only one other guy -- Nolan Arenado -- has done it more than once: it’s not an easy stat line to achieve. It’s tough to argue that Martinez isn’t the best pure offensive presence in the league.
But he has his shortcomings, as do most batters with a clean-up build. His baserunning ability is not his strong suit, with a BsR (the baserunning component of a player’s overall value) of -4.6, the lowest figure of the top 50 outfielders in terms of their 2019 WAR. He’s second to last in FanGraphs’ DEF stat, as well, meaning his value comes almost solely from his bat. The Red Sox often utilize him as a designated hitter in order to optimize his production for exactly that reason.
He’s a fan favorite, he's not afraid to speak his mind and he's a big reason that the Red Sox were a top five run-producing team last season and were first in the league -- and the World Series champs -- the year prior.
9. George Springer, Houston Astros
2019 WAR: 6.5
Everything regarding the Astros should be taken in with a degree of skepticism until all of the details of their cheating scandal are sorted out. Just how much George Springer benefitted from the Astros' scheme is tough, perhaps impossible, to analyze.
However, Springer’s numbers are undeniably impressive and he will look to continue showcasing his unique power-hitting leadoff man role in the midst of all the controversy. Springer’s power hitting reached new highs in 2019, as he rewrote his career bests in home runs (39), on-base percentage (OBP; .383), slugging percentage (SLG; .591) and weighted on-base average (wOBA; .400). Combining his pop with his ability to draw a walk -- his 12.1% walk rate is a top ten figure among outfielders -- makes for a lethal duo to start off the game.
His postseason chops and history of clutch performances make him one of the scariest opponents to face at any time of the game. He also hurts you no matter where you play, and actually fared better on the road in 2019, and not by an insignificant amount. His batting average on the road (.297) was 10 points higher than at Minute Maid Park, and he was able to hit for extra bases more frequently in opponent territory.
A significant decline in his value and production throughout the 2020 season would not only lower his ranking here but also further reinforce the fact that Houston received unfair assistance from their systemic cheating.
8. Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies
2019 WAR: 4.6
Thirty-five home runs and 114 RBI was the stat line for Harper in what most everyone agreed was a “disappointing” season. But that’s because people know just how good Bryce Harper can be.
He’s only going to be 27 years old come the 2020 season and he’s had a full year of acclimation under his belt. He’ll be playing for a brand new manager with a revamped lineup and a city that is ready to champion the Phillies as the team to watch after being disappointed by both football and basketball season.
The thing is, though, is that 2019 truly was a down year for Harper. His K% rate was up while his walk rate (BB%) was down, though he still had a top-10 BB% out of over 180 eligible outfielders. He reset his career high in swinging strike rate (SwStr%) at 15.1%, which was a bottom-five value at the outfield position.
While his bat is clearly the most scrutinized position of his game, he also produces as a fielder without receiving as much credit or attention in that department. He was one of just 22 outfielders last season to record a DRS (a measure that captures a fielder’s defensive value at his position) of 10 or higher in at least 100 innings of play. There were over 220 eligible outfielders for this statistic, showing how exclusive a group that is.
Hopefully, under Girardi’s watchful eye and with less pressure on him to turn around a Phillies franchise that has endured years of mediocrity and underachievement since their early 2010s success, Harper can return to form and become an MVP candidate once again.
7. Juan Soto, Washington Nationals
2019 WAR: 4.8
As a 20-year-old in 2019, Soto joined some really exclusive company. He is one of just four players in MLB history -- joining Mel Ott, Ted Williams and Alex Rodriguez -- to club 30 round-trippers, drive in 100 runs and post an OBP of at least .400 in his age-20 season. Only three other guys have done this before age 22, as Jimmie Foxx, Albert Pujols and Eddie Mathews all did it in their age-21 season.
Clearly, there’s something special in the making here. If the on-base percentage isn’t enough to indicate Soto’s maturity and poise despite his youth, his outlandish displays of confidence throughout the postseason are sure to convince you otherwise:
For his age and experience, his plate discipline seems like a natural ability that’s hard to find elsewhere. His BB% was second among outfielders behind a certain someone who happens to be at the top of this list, and his O-Swing% (how often he swung at pitches outside the strike zone) was a bottom-10 figure. Pitch selectiveness is usually a skill acquired through time -- the next guy on our list saw his O-Swing% drop over 10% in the four years he’s been in the league -- but Soto seems to have figured it out early on.
There’s likely an MVP award in the future for the Nationals’ phenom, and D.C. will especially depend on his production this season after the departure of Anthony Rendon.
6. Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
2019 WAR: 4.6
Pete Alonso hit 53 home runs last year as a rookie, but he didn’t do it in the same fashion as Judge did back in 2017. Judge took the world by storm, creating a whole new generation of baseball fans who couldn’t take their eyes off of the 6’7”, 280-pound player so frequently compared to a football tight end.
However, things have changed a lot since then, as Judge has been hampered by injury after injury. He missed a significant amount of time in both 2018 and 2019, logging under 800 at-bats in the past two seasons combined. Luckily, his performance didn’t fall off too much in either of those seasons, as he still was able to record an OPS of over .900 in each of the past three years.
His Hard% in 2019 was best among all outfielders while his Soft% was lowest, and these stats just make sense. Watching an Aaron Judge home run take off like a rocket at the point of contact is one of the most exciting plays baseball has seen in a long time. People just don’t hit the ball like Judge and Giancarlo Stanton (who just missed this list due to injury woes) do at Yankee Stadium.
His health is a huge question mark entering the 2020 season. But if he’s able to get healthy, you know you’re in for an entertaining and highly productive season.
5. Ronald Acuña, Atlanta Braves
2019 WAR: 5.6
So Acuña didn’t reach 40-40. It seems kind of ridiculous that just three stolen bases may have propelled Acuña into a more prominent position in the NL MVP race. However, he finished in fifth place, behind Ketel Marte, Anthony Rendon, Christian Yelich and winner Cody Bellinger.
If those five guys are the only batters in the National League that outmatch Acuña, though, then it’s safe to say that he’s in pretty good shape.
The 22-year-old showed marked improvement in his sophomore season, upping his line drive rate from 18.3% to 24.4%, cutting his infield fly ball rate nearly in half and spreading the ball to all parts of the field. His opposite field rate increased from 20.1% to 27.1% and his home run distribution went to all parts of the stadium.
Defensively, he joins Bryce Harper and some other members of the list with a DRS above 10, and the analytics show that he has a top-10 arm in the league. Baserunning is an even more impressive aspect of his game, as he is in the top five outfield baserunners along with Mike Trout and Christian Yelich.
The battle between him, Harper and Soto for the top outfielder in the NL East will be quite the show for years to come.
4. Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
2019 WAR: 7.8
Is it wrong to have the NL MVP lower on the list than two fellow NL outfielders? Maybe. But it’s not a slant to Bellinger as much as it is a nod to the others’ dominance and potential.
That’s not to say that Bellinger doesn’t have potential. He showed a massive increase in production in 2019 from two years prior, including a much-improved contact rate on pitches both in the strike zone (77% → 83%) and outside (56.5% → 69.5%). His swinging strike rate dipped below 10% for the first time in his career. All of this is to say that while Bellinger may not have shown a more disciplined approach at the plate, with similar swing rates, he was significantly better at putting the bat on the ball.
One thing that would help Bellinger’s case is his consistency. He was much better in his rookie year than in his second season, and then made a major jump up in year three. Who knows whether or not regression is in store for 2020, but last year makes you think he made the legitimate jump into superstardom.
One caveat to this is that Bellinger looked like a completely different player in the second half of the season. He was an unstoppable force in the first half, crushing 30 home runs with a 1.124 OPS before the All-Star break. But he put up a completely different stat line in the second half, with 17 HR and a .917 OPS. He went from outstanding to very good, and it’ll be interesting to see which is the true Bellinger.
For now, though, the cumulative stats and the MVP award make it hard to deny him a spot among the top five.
3. Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers
2019 WAR: 6.6
The center of attention of this offseason is ready to make waves in his new home.
Betts and George Springer are the only outfielders in baseball (excluding Ketel Marte, who played more frequently at second base) who ranked in the 2019 top 12 in both offensive runs and defensive runs above average. What differentiates Betts from Springer, however, is his superior ability as a baserunner, where he is also in the top 12 according to Fangraphs metrics.
So, like number one on this list, Betts is a complete player. Though, he was slightly disappointing last year after an MVP 2019 season, he still led the majors in runs scored, was second in times on base, and had a top-10 total WAR figure. Some regression had to be expected after his absurd stat line in the preceding year, but he followed up with a really strong performance amid trade rumors, disappointing team production and other external factors.
Now, he’ll be in a more similar situation as he was in in 2018, with very realistic World Series aspirations, a supportive front office and fanbase and a number of weapons surrounding him to allow him to be the run-scoring machine he is.
2. Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers
2019 WAR: 7.8
A shattered kneecap ended Yelich’s MVP campaign early and effectively brought the Brewers down. When a player’s absence is felt so strongly throughout the locker room, the stadium and the entire city, you know just how important that player is. There has been little talk about any expectation of a regression in his production despite the severe nature of the injury, and so Yelich should return to form. The Brewers seem to be banking on that in a big way.
His consistency last year was nothing short of incredible. In four separate months he posted an OPS of 1.100 or higher with very similar production across the first and second half. In under 500 at-bats, Yeli cranked 44 long balls with 97 RBI and 30 stolen bases. Projected out over the course of an entire 162 game season makes for an eye-popping set of numbers: 55 HR, 121 RBI, 125 runs and 37 stolen bases.
Fifty-five home runs is the stat that pops out the most, and this type of power can’t be the expectation for Yelich. But while Acuña took most of the attention for his potential 40-40 season, Yelich may have the best chance of demonstrating the highest standard of power and speed that the league can boast today.
There is, however, an obvious competitor in that department.
1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
2019 WAR: 8.6
What else is there about Mike Trout that hasn’t already been said?
Offense? Check. He led all outfielders with the highest offensive runs above average metric of 68.2. He also led the AL in OPS and hit 45 home runs to reset his career high while dealing with a nagging injury that took out a solid 100-150 of his potential plate appearances.
Baserunning? Check. Though his stolen bases were way down when compared to past years, he still ranked in the top five at his position in BsR. The last time he stole fewer than 20 bases like he did last season, he bounced back with a 30-steal performance in 2016.
Plate discipline? Check. He swings at the third fewest amount of pitches outside the strike zone and is in the bottom five in swinging strike rate.
Defense? Check, although last year proved to be a down year. Still, he has a great arm, which ranks in the top 25 among outfielders according to one Fangraphs metric and is a natural athlete who has worked to expand his range in center.
Golf game? Check.
Now, paired with Anthony Rendon, Trout should be excited to make a long-awaited postseason appearance with the Halos. The scariest thing about him is that he’s still so young. He may just be entering his athletic prime, too, which means that his durability will be something to watch out for. If there’s one negative in his game, it’s that he has missed a solid chunk of games in each of the past three seasons.