It was a surprise to many of us — myself included — to see that Ian Happ rated better as a center fielder than Albert Almora, Jr. in many ways last season. Removed from the statistics laid out on the computer screen, I don’t expect that anyone who watched the two play in the outfield during the 2017 season would have guessed, or even considered, that Happ would score better defensively.
But he did.
And in dropping that tidbit in my piece last week on the Cubs defense I didn’t expect that readers would react so strongly, but I should have. It’s unexpected, and even by pointing out that Happ has better defensive numbers I’m probably being a touch misleading. Nonetheless, there is still reason to feel very good about what the Cubs rookie did last season, and it does not have to take away from Almora’s defensive prowess.
Before I explore that thought any further, however, let’s look at something of a side-by-side of the two players:
The last column, FSR, stands for Fan Scouting Report, and as it is gathered by by Tom Tango, a score of 0 rates as average, so Almora being a 1 in 2016 puts him just slightly above. Briefly, here’s a fuller explanation:
The Fan Scouting Report is a yearly project conducted by Tom Tango that rates players on their defensive ability based on fan observations and voting. Fans are asked to rate players on a 0-100 scale (with 100 being the best and 0 being the worst) in a number of different categories: Instinct, Speed, Hands, Arm Strength and Accuracy, First Step, etc. These raw ratings are presented on the FanGraphs leaderboards and on player pages.
The numbers run a year behind, so we don’t know yet how fans perceived Happ, but we can safely assume that most of us would not have seen him as a better center fielder than Almora. But otherwise, the defensive metrics seem to be telling an opposite story. There are many defensive statistics to choose from, but using the few that Fangraphs has deemed the most steady, it becomes very hard to argue that Happ was not better in 2017.
But that might be the distinction. It is not necessarily that Happ is a better center fielder as a rule, but rather that he was for just one year. It’s fair to mention that Happ had 346.2 innings in center this year while Almora had almost twice as many, so in the fielding opportunities that Happ had, he was better, but stretched across a larger sample, that might not hold true anymore.
Along with this, the difference between the two, and the reason so many of us bristled at the notion that Happ was a better defender, might come from how Almora and Happ handled the more difficult plays.
In defensive chances deemed as unlikely (10-40 percent chance of converting into an out), Almora converted 22 percent of the time in 2017, and Happ did not convert at all. Granted, some of this is because Happ had lesser opportunity (9 chances for Almora to his 5), but viewers can be forgiven for assuming that Almora is more capable of making harder plays in center because it might just be accurate. We have seen him do it, and we have not when Happ is in center.
So the better takeaway here might not be that Happ is really better than Almora in center, but instead that he is not as far behind his counterpart as we might have assumed. And not only that, Happ might prove to be a stronger defender than he has been given credit for if the numbers he posted in 2017 hold true at all. Maybe not compared to Almora over a long stretch of years, but still better than what was expected from him. Happ’s best asset with his glove might be his flexibility right now anyway, so having him perform better than expected in a premium defensive position is just gravy for now.
Measuring defense objectively is extremely tricky. To do it accurately requires a lot of innings and willingness to accept the quirky fluctuations that come with it — Jason Heyward’s DRS dropped notably from 2015 to 2016, not because he was a lesser defender, but because he was playing in a ballpark with a more challenging right field — and above all of that, an understanding that no objective measure is perfect. It is still too hard to quantify things like first steps and routes to the ball — at least based on the data that is accessible to fans — and as I learned in talking to Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward in August, outfield defense also has a lot to do with communication and other intangibles, and there isn’t a measure for that to show us how Almora and Happ compare to each other.
In all, we don’t know that Happ really is better on defense than Almora, but it might not matter because he is probably stronger on defense than we realized, and that is a good thing in its own right.