Dylan Cease’s stretch of 14 consecutive starts of allowing 1 earned run or less came to end during his Tuesday start versus the Houston Astros. In that outing, Cease allowed 2 earned runs, in part due to his team’s outfield defense. In particular, the defense of right fielder Andrew Vaughn.
While not officially ruled an error, much to the chagrin of White Sox fans, this play was the latest in the long line of conversation starters about having guys like Vaughn play outfield defense. As Codify implies in their tweet, an actual right fielder would have caught Alex Bregman’s fly ball, and the inning would have been over. Instead, a run scored to keep the line moving.
Vaughn’s had a spectacular year at the plate this season. As of this writing, he’s slashing .295/.342/.464, good for a wRC+ of 131. Yet, his fWAR isn’t even at 1.00 yet, because his defense has that been that bad. Per Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average (OAA), Vaughn is the third worst outfielder this season at -10. Per Fangraphs, he has a UZR/150 of -24.9, within the bottom 25 of the league.
While frustrating, this is not Vaughn’s fault. He is a first baseman by trade and was drafted as one. It wasn’t until Eloy Jiménez tore his pectoral muscle right before the season started that thrust the Cal product into a new role. With José Abreu primarily playing first base, it would make sense on paper to have Vaughn serve primarily be the White Sox’ designated hitter.
Yet, even with Vaughn at DH and Abreu at first, it is still difficult to definitively say what the ideal White Sox outfield should be. Coming into the season, the plan seemed to be to have Jimenez in left field, Luis Robert in center field, and AJ Pollock in right field. Based on past performance, this rotation should have had a good balance of offense and defense.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Thanks to underperforming players, a slew of injuries, and first basemen playing out of position, the 2022 White Sox outfield has been anything but ideal. Let’s explore the current roster as constructed, and break down how the outfield has been, and how it should be going forward.
Pollock was supposed to be a stabilizing force in right field. He was a professional hitter who had previously won a Gold Glove playing center field during his time with the Arizona Diamondbacks. In actuality, Pollock seemingly forgot both how to hit and how to field. Though, the former Dodger has done quite well of late batting lead-off.
In 2022, when batting first in the order, Pollock is slashing .356/.398/.567 through 21 games. While Tim Anderson continues his extended IL stint, why not let Pollock continue to serve in his role at the top of the lineup? Outside of the one-spot, Pollock has slashed a rather uninspiring .240/.290/.368, good for a wRC+ of only 88.
Pollock has also been the Sox primary center fielder while Robert has been sidelined with a wrist injury. Analogous to how he has handled the lead-off spot, Pollock has done well defensively in his new position. Per Baseball Savant, he has 1 OAA on the season. Though similarly to Pollock’s offense approach in totality, the outfielder has been a poor defender as a whole on the season, thanks to his play at the corners. He hasn’t been Vaughn bad (though few players have been). This isn’t to say it’s been all good either, as the former Dodger does have a -2 OAA in left and -3 OAA in right.
After Jiménez tore a muscle in Spring Training 2021 trying to rob a home run, the consensus on social media was that Eloy should stop playing in the outfield. Though with Abreu consistently playing first and Vaughn consistently DH’ing, if the White Sox want Eloy’s bat in the lineup, he needs to play in the outfield.
I think it’s been exaggerated just how bad Jiménez’s defensive play has been, thanks in large part to questionable decisions – like the one he made in Spring Training last season. He is a better defender than people give him credit for, though, he’s also not a particularly good defender either. This season, in left, Eloy has been worth -2 OAA. In 55 games between 2021 and 2020, Jiménez has been at both ends of the spectrum at 0 and -4 OAA, respectively. Still, you need Eloy’s bat in the lineup.
After getting off to a slow start, the power-hitting righty is currently slashing .310/.362/.456 with six homers in 45 games, good for a wRC+ of 135. Still, Eloy is (theoretically) one of the team’s best home run hitters and he’s still producing offensively.
After winning the Gold Glove at center field in his rookie year, there seems to be the perception that Robert is an excellent defender. Not so fast.
Per Baseball Savant, Robert is in the 42nd percentile in OAA, with 0. At least the Cuban sensation has not been bad defensively this year, but it’s a far cry from winning a Gold Glove. Though in Robert’s defense, he has been a good defender in past, as shown by his 4 and 6 OAA in 2021 and 2020, respectively.
Fangraphs hasn’t been as kind as Baseball Savant has been to Robert’s defense this season. The Sox center fielder ranks last among all qualified outfielders in UZR/150 at -17.7 and gives him a negative rating per their WAR defensive metric. Still, in terms of both offense and defense, Robert is the player that should give this team the most value in both aspects of the game.
Offensively, Luis Robert falls in line with many of the team’s upper-tier players, giving the Sox a good triple slash line with okay power. Robert is currently slashing .301/.336/.454, with 12 home runs in 83 games, good for a wRC+ of 126.
Gavin Sheets profiles a bit like Vaughn. He is a natural first baseman/designated hitter being forced to play a corner outfield spot and is mainly on the team thanks to his offense. The difference between Sheets and Vaughn is that Sheets is a left-handed batter. Quite frankly, Gavin Sheets is the only player currently on the 26-man roster if the Sox want a lefty power bat. And again, if Abreu is at first and Vaughn is DH’ing, the only way to get Sheets in the lineup is to play him in the corner outfield, primarily at right field.
Though, as the Sox are currently in the hunt to get into the playoffs where every game REALLY matters, I am not so sure that Gavin Sheets should be starting. His defense is obviously poor, he has -5 OAA in RF this season, and his offense hasn’t been stellar enough to make up for his poor defense.
While Gavin Sheets has been much better since being recalled from Triple-A Charlotte in late June than he was to begin the season, he hasn’t been lighting it up either. Since he was recalled, the Wake Forest product has a slash line of .280/.321/.480 with five home runs in 134 plate appearances
Considering how poor Sheets’ outfield defense is – again, not really his fault considering the White Sox are not putting him in the best position to succeed since he is not an outfielder by trade – and how fine to above-average his offense has been this season, Sheets is more suited for being a pinch hitter the way the major roster is currently constructed.
The results speak for themselves too, just watch below.
The notion that Sheets is a lefty, therefore he needs to start every day against RHP is absurd. In 2022, he has a 108 wRC+ against righties. That low of a wRC+ matched with his horrific defense paired with an outfield that is already struggling defensively makes consistently starting Sheets this season a bad idea.
Coming into the 2022 season, it was hard not to be excited about Engel. After coming into the league as a defensive first player, he started to hit well of late. In albeit smaller sample sizes, Engel had 121 and 127 wRC+ respectively in 2020 and 2021. His above-average offense compared to his excellent defense meant that he would be a valuable player for the White Sox, if healthy.
As it turns out, Engel has been relatively healthy, though largely disappointing offensively. The Sox outfielder is currently slashing .235/.285/.335, good for a wRC+ of only 77. “Launch Engel” hasn’t really shown up this year either as he only has two homers on the season, adding to the team’s overall disappointing display of power.
Though, what Engel lacks in offense, he makes up for in speed and defense. Though not necessarily hard to believe, he is actually the Sox’s best outfield defender currently. He ranks in the 77th percentile in OAA and in the 82nd percentile in Outfielder Jump thanks to his consistent ability to rob home runs.
Engel has been an above-average to great defender both in center field and right field throughout his entire career, and his 2022 season is no exception.
As the current season winds down and the White Sox remain in the thick of a playoff hunt, Tony La Russa needs to start putting his players in the best position to succeed. Every game matters, and we now have a large enough sample size to know players’ strengths and limitations.
A good start to all of this would be by making Vaughn the everyday designated hitter. His outfield defense has been so bad, but his offensive production has been so good, that it’s the best option for all involved if he can’t pry Abreu away from first base.
In the outfield, when healthy, Jiménez should continue to play left field, with Pollock in center field, and Luis Robert in right. For whatever reason, Pollock seems the most comfortable playing center and leading off and is having success doing so. Let’s not mess with that success.
Furthermore, Robert is having a somewhat down year defensively in center, so maybe a change to a less difficult position like right field would be more suited to him, analogous to Eaton having the best season of his career in 2016 when he moved from center to right. Maybe the change of scenery will negatively affect Robert like it seems to have done to Pollock, but we know Pollock hasn’t been good in the corner, so let’s try Robert as he works his way back from injuries.
If Robert cannot play or lands on the IL, then the White Sox should consistently start Engel in the corner spot. An outfield defense of Jimenez-Pollock-Engel is suddenly not terrible. For a team already offensively challenged, Engel’s bat doesn’t help, but at least he excels at one thing in a way that Sheets does not.
And speaking of Sheets, he should only start in emergency situations and is best suited to be a pinch hitter late in games. With all due respect to Sheets, with the way the roster is currently constructed and his current skill set, it would be inadvisable to have him consistently start.
Looking into 2023 and beyond, something about this roster needs to change. The 2022 White Sox have been disappointing compared to their preseason expectations and payroll. This is in large part due to how the outfield has performed and has been constructed. Hopefully, things improve as the White Sox barrel towards a playoff birth.
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