Best of the Decade: Left Field

Click here to read Best of the Decade: Catcher
Click here to read Best of the Decade: First Base
Click here to read Best of the Decade: Second Base
Click here to read Best of the Decade: Third Base
Click here to read Best of the Decade: Shortstop

To read any of the previous installations of Best of the Decade, click any of the links above. Starting today, I’ll go left to right across the outfield over the past decade starting, of course, with left field.

Fangraphs Top 30 by WAR (2010-2019)

Baseball Reference Top 30 by WAR (2010-2019)

If you want an explanation of any of the more advanced metrics in the tables, click here or navigate to the top of the page and click on the post titled “Best of the Decade: Catchers.”

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  1. Ep. 21: Sara Walsh, Michigan Football, Mets, World Series, and more!
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  5. Ep. 17: Michael Strahan, MLB’s last weekend, NFL injuries, and more

Elite LFs

Fangraphs and Baseball Reference agree on the top four left fielders of the past decade though they don’t quite agree on the order. This brings us to a debate of elite quality versus very high quantity; WAR is a counting stat so if you play more games at a high level, you end up with a higher WAR. Still, though, playing fewer games at an elite level is incredibly valuable. I’ll settle the debate.

Christian Yelich, though he no longer plays left field, was the best left fielder of the past decade. Yelich’s detractors will undoubtedly point to my recency bias and the fact that Yelich’s best years have not come as a left fielder, but he was the best player who has played a majority left field over the past decade and I don’t think there’s that much debate. Yelich, in two seasons since joining the Brewers, has slashed .327/.415/.631 with 80 home runs, 52 steals (just 6 caught stealing!), and over 200 runs and RBI. He also picked up the MVP award in 2018 and, in my opinion, should have won in 2019 as well. His defense hasn’t been anything to write home about but even if Yelich was the worst defensive player in baseball, which he isn’t, he would still be one of the best players in the game. Mike Trout is the only player with a higher wRC+ than Yelich over the last two seasons.

Again, the people who think Yelich does not deserve the honor of top left fielder of the 2010s may point to his five seasons in Miami. The fact of the matter is that Yelich was already a good player but ascended to another plane of existence once he got shipped to Milwaukee. In five seasons with the Marlins, Yelich slashed a very-respectable .290/.369/.432 with 59 homers and 72 steals; not outstanding performance but certainly nothing to sneeze at. The fact that he’s tied at the top of the fWAR leaderboard and near the top of the rWAR leaderboard despite playing around 400 fewer games than the other players in the top five speaks volumes to his level of play over the past seven seasons.

The other most logical choice for best LF of the 2010s is New York Yankee Brett Gardner. Gardner was never a world-beater on offense but has been a bastion of consistency over the past seven seasons, playing at least 140 games in each campaign dating back to 2013. On top of this, he’s delivered excellent defensive value in left field which, according to fWAR, is the least valuable defensive position aside from first base. This means that simply for suiting up in left field, Gardner gets penalized. Still, he has managed to generate positive value, probably due to the fact that he would have been the Yankees’ every day center fielder had it not been for some guy named Jacoby Ellsbury clogging centerfield for the majority of the 2010s.

All of this is not to say that Gardner has a bad bat; he has a career wRC+of 104, meaning he has been 4% better than league average over his career. Interestingly enough, he had his best offensive season at age 35 in 2019, when he slashed .251/.325/.503 with 28 home runs, thanks in part to the juiced balls. He also used to be quite a speedster, stealing 96 bases between the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Yelich has delivered the elite play over the past two years and Gardner has quietly been playing good season after good season, which has vaulted him to the top of both WAR leaderboards over the past decade.

Runners Up

Ryan Braun, like Christian Yelich, is a former MVP. Unlike Yelich, Braun got popped for using performance-enhancing drugs, so it’s pretty easy to rank him solidly behind both Yelich and Gardner despite his excellent performance over the past decade. From 2010-2012, Braun was the second-most valuable outfielder and the seventh-most valuable hitter overall by fWAR. In 2011, when he won the MVP, he slashed .332/.397/.597 with 33 home runs and 33 steals and then followed that performance up with a 2012 season in which he slashed .319/.391/.595 with 41 home runs and 30 steals. He is one of three players over the past 20 seasons to have back-to-back 30-30 seasons (Alfonso Soriano did it twice and Vladimir Guerrero did it once) and one of just 11 players in history to hit 40 home runs and steal 30 bags in one year.

Braun was suspended in 2013 but still played at a high level after returning from his suspension, slashing .285/.348/.496 with 74 home runs and 51 steals from 2014-2016. His play has dropped off considerably over the past three seasons due in part to injuries but Braun has some of the best numbers of any LF since 2010.

Justin Upton looks like a thief in retrospect. Upton signed a five-year, $106 million deal with the Angels after the 2017 season and has delivered a total of 2.9 WAR since then. The former #1 overall pick slashed .265/.346/.474 in the 2010s and was, by and large, a three-true-outcomes hitter; 40% of his plate appearances over the last decade ended in a home run, walk, or strikeout. Upton has led all left fielders in games played, runs, home runs, and walks since 2010 but his negative WAR total from 2019 does not inspire confidence for the future.

A Big Tier Three

There are seven players in the third tier of left fielders over the past decade according to both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs—both versions of WAR are in consensus that these seven guys are the next-best thing to the four players I have already mentioned, essentially in the order I have listed.

Alex Gordon is ranked fifth in both fWAR and rWAR among left fielders over the past decade even though his stats don’t jump off the page. The lifelong Royal has just two boxes on his Baseball Reference page with black ink over the past decade: his 51 doubles in 2012 and his 19 hit by pitches in 2019. Gordon is really only only in this tier due to the number of games he’s played; he has played between 200 and 400 more games than some of the other left fielders in this section. Like I have said time and time again, the best ability is availability and Gordon has been the Royals’ every day left fielder for the past ten years, including the team’s World Series win in 2015.

Michael Brantley was never really a highly touted prospect but has fashioned himself a very nice career with the Indians and Astros. Brantley broke out in a big way in 2014, slashing .327/.385/.506 with 45 doubles, 20 home runs, and 25 steals. He wound up third in MVP voting that year and proceeded to slash .310/.379/.480 the following season with a league-leading 45 doubles in just 137 games. The former seventh-round pick has triple-slashed .307/.368/.473 with over the past five seasons which is good, but he’s also missed almost 35% of team games in that time span. Still, though high quality play over a short period of time is valuable.

Starling Marte was the subject of some trade rumors this past offseason and he was most notably connected with the Mets. I shot down that idea in this article but that is not to say that Marte has been disappointing over the past decade. My opposition to the Mets acquiring him was more due to what the Pirates seemed to be demanding, not Marte’s actual value as a player. In any case, Marte has been a great defender according to Outs Above Average while he’s played center and, counterintuitively, an average defender when he’s played left. He’s now the everyday centerfielder for the Pirates but he played over 200 more games in left field over the past decade, so it’s safe to classify him as a left fielder.

Offensively, Marte has been well above average for his career but has never really been a standout. He has an abysmal 4.9% career walk rate to go with a 20.4% strikeout rate but has also been a stolen base machine with 239 swipes in just eight seasons. That leads all left fielders of the 2010s. In 2018, he set a career high with 20 home runs and then set another career high in 2019 with 23. Now entering his age-31 season, we’ll see if Marte can continue to bring his excellent speed to the table in the 2020s.

Yoenis Cespedes has been a man of mystery over the past two seasons, appearing in just 119 games over the past two years. Most recently, he’s been in the headlines for breaking his ankle while fleeing from a wild boar on his ranch. You really can’t make this stuff up.

While La Potencia has been on the field, though, he’s been nothing short of stellar. The Cuban has slashed .274/.328/.498 in his eight-year MLB career with 163 home runs in 826 games. He generally has graded out poorly on defense but is notorious for making some insane throws like this one. If you want to see more, feel free to google “Cespedes throws” and watch any of the videos that pop up. You won’t be disappointed.

Matt Holliday had his best seasons prior to 2010 but still played well enough in the most recent decade to end up as a consensus top-ten left fielder of the 2010s. Holliday’s performance over the past decade was a far cry from his near-triple crown season in 2007 when he led the National League in batting average and RBI and was third in home runs, but not too far of a cry that it made him useless to the Cardinals, with whom he spent most of the decade. The Oklahoman triple-slashed .283/.371/.480 with 164 home runs over the past ten seasons, which is pretty excellent production considering that all of those years were in Holliday’s 30s.

After the top nine players, Baseball Reference and Fangraphs disagree on who the next-best left fielder of the past decade was. They agree that 10 and 11 were the next two guys but disagree on the order. I’m going over the next two gentlemen in no particular order.

Josh Hamilton had one of the best individual seasons of the past decade in 2010 when he won the MVP as a result of his .359/.411/.633 triple-slash and 32 home runs. That season was the 14th-best season of any player of the past decade and the best season for any left fielder since 2010. He had two solid seasons after that, including a 43 homer campaign in 2012, but was out of the league by 2016, which would have been his age-35 season. Had it not been for Hamilton’s drug problems and injuries, he might have ended up one of the best left fielders and one of the best #1 overall picks of the past 25 years.

Marcell Ozuna, like Christian Yelich earlier in the article, was traded by the Marlins to an NL Central team and proceeded to thrive. That’s not to say he was a slouch with the Marlins—he hit a career-high 37 home runs in 2017 with the Fish before the trade—but he’s had two of his best seasons since joining the Cards. Ozuna, a career .272/.329/.455 hitter, has 148 home runs in seven seasons and hasn’t led the league in any statistical categories ever, but has fashioned himself a nice career thus far. He’ll likely be the everyday left fielder for the Braves in 2020 and looks to continue the success he has had with the Marlins and Cardinals.

Young MLB Left Fielders

I have at times called Andrew Benintendi the most eligible bachelor in America, and I stand by that statement today. Aside from being incredibly good looking, Benintendi has been a really solid baseball player through three full seasons. He owns a .277/.354/.442 slash line with 51 home runs and 52 steals to his name while patrolling a particularly difficult left field in Fenway Park.

Joey Gallo came to the big leagues as a third baseman but has transitioned to a full-time left fielder. Gallo is one of the more enigmatic players I have ever seen because he destroys the ball when he makes contact but it isn’t a given that he will ever make contact; he has a 38% strikeout rate over his 416-game career. I mentioned Justin Upton as a three-true-outcomes hitter but Gallo’s percentage of three true outcomes is even higher than Upton’s: 59.2%. Another fun fact about Gallo is that he has more home runs than singles in his career, which I suppose is a sign of the state of baseball. His extremely high strikeout rate limits his upside as an everyday player, but the light tower power makes him fun to watch.

Juan Soto has a number of insane stats to his name due to his success in the big leagues from such a young age. He has yet to play his age-21 season and has already accrued 7.4 career rWAR (that’s a lot for a 20-year-old). His plate discipline is nothing short of incredible and he is excellent at hitting for extra bases; Soto’s 16.2% walk rate is second-highest among all qualified players over the last decade behind only Joey Votto, and his .393 wOBA is sixth among all players behind Mike Trout, Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Aaron Judge, and David Ortiz. Shortly, Juan Soto is very good and very young and it’s still early, but he’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

Technically, Jeff McNeil has played more games at second base than left field, but I classified him as a left fielder because he has played more games in the outfield than at second base and will likely suit up primarily in left field for the foreseeable future thanks to the presence of one Robinson Cano at the keystone. Regardless of position, the Squirrel has done nothing but hit since making his big league debut at age 26; among players with at least 500 PA over the past decade, which is roughly equal to one full season, McNeil’s .321 career batting average ranks first. McNeil also has some decent extra-base pop, with a .513 slugging percentage for his career. If I were to place a bet on a hitter batting .400 or better in 2020, McNeil would be my choice.

Eloy Jimenez likely had the quietest 31-homer season of all-time in 2019. He was a blue-chip prospect entering the season and made good on the potential, slashing .267/.315/.513. He struck out a bunch and didn’t walk a whole lot, but the old adage says “you don’t walk your way off the island” for a reason. Still, Jimenez looks to continue to be an offensive force in the years to come after not hitting below .300 at an full-season level in the minors and blasting over 30 home runs in his rookie season in 2019. Had it not been for some guy named Yordan Alvarez, I think Eloy could have taken the AL Rookie of the Year award home.

David Dahl has spent more time injured than healthy since his MLB debut in 2016 but when he’s been on the field he’s been excellent. Dahl owns a .297/.346/.521 career triple-slash with 38 home runs in 240 games. The trouble with that excellent production is that it has come over parts of three seasons due to Dahl’s injuries. I’m hoping that the 26-year-old can finally turn things around and stay healthy in 2020 and beyond because he’s a treat to watch when he’s actually on the diamond.

Quick Hits

Tommy Pham didn’t break out until his age-29 season but when he did, he did in a big way. Pham slashed .306/.411/.520 with 23 homers in 2017, and followed that up by slashing an insane .343/.448/.622 with seven home runs in 39 games after being traded from St. Louis to Tampa Bay in the middle of the 2018 season. Pham was traded to the Padres earlier this offseason and will look to continue his recent stretch of high quality offensive play.

Alfonso Soriano was way past his prime by the time the 2010s started, but he was so good before that that I wanted to give him a shoutout. He slashed .252/.303/.477 with 122 homers in five seasons in the first half of the decade which is respectable, but not anything close to the 40 homer, 40 steal season he put up in 2006.

Kyle Schwarber has a career .235/.339/.490 line with 110 home runs in four seasons, which is pretty impressive. He’s going to benefit a lot from the DH in 2020 because he’s a defensive liability in left, but the bat is so good it doesn’t matter that much.

The pinnacle of consistency, Khris Davis hit .247 each year from 2015 to 2018 and hit over 40 bombs in the latter three seasons, topping out at a league-leading 48 home runs in 2018.

I feel like David Peralta doesn’t get enough love for being as solid of a ballplayer as he is. He’s not a stud in any one area, but he has a career .290/.346/.478 line with 35 triples and 85 home runs in seven seasons. A good chunk of those bombs came in 2018, when he launched 30 long balls, but otherwise he’s been good for about 15 home runs a year and a .290 average, which is really solid.

Melky Cabrera, the Melk Man, has never led the league in any offensive categories except for sacrifice flies one season. He had his best years in the early part of the decade and much like Peralta, has just been a solid outfielder for his career, which often gets overlooked.

Corey Dickerson joins the solid outfielder club, having slashed .286/.328/.504 with 115 home runs since his 2013 debut with the Rockies. He’ll suit up for the Marlins in 2020, his fifth team in six seasons.

In the Wings (or Corners)

Left field prospects are an interesting concept because left field is far and away the least valuable outfield position. Thus, many great players who turn out to be left fielders start at center fielders or right fielders in the minor leagues and then get moved to left out of necessity. All of the top outfield prospects right now are either centerfielders or right fielders which leaves me just two guys to talk about in this section.

Kyle Tucker has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues but the Astros refuse to trade him and won’t give him an everyday spot in the big leagues, so he’s been in triple-A limbo for the past two seasons. He’s slashed just .206/.278/.374 in 50 MLB games, but has a .297/.375/.571 line with 58 home runs and 50 steals over two triple-A seasons. I’m excited for Tucker to finally get an opportunity to play as an everyday big leaguer, whenever that day comes.

Taylor Trammell is really the only other left field prospect but he’s not very exciting to me. Trammell is a speedster who plays great defense but hasn’t really shown he can hit consistently in the high minors. Either way, he’ll probably be good for around 10 home runs and 25 steals a year with great defense in left, which is a very solid piece for the Padres.

Click here to continue reading best of the decade (center field).

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Header Image: Michael McCloone

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