Do Braves have all-time great outfield?

Michael Bourn was one of the choices for the final All-Star ballot in the National League, but David Freese was the surprise winner over Bryce Harper and Aaron Hill. Unfortunately, that means none of the Atlanta Braves' superlative outfield trio will be heading to Kansas City, unless as a last-minute injury replacement.

How good are Bourn, Martin Prado and Jason Heyward?

In Baseball-Reference's version of Wins Above Replacement, they rank fifth (Bourn, 3.9 WAR), 10th (Prado, 3.2) and 15th (Heyward, 2.5) among all National League position players entering Thursday's action. In FanGraphs' version of WAR, they rank fourth (Bourn, 4.3), seventh (Prado, 3.7) and ninth (Heyward, 3.3).

A major reason all three rate so well is both systems see them as outstanding defensive players. FanGraphs' defensive metric -- UZR -- ranks Bourn, Heyward and Prado first, second and fourth among all NL position players. Baseball-Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved and ranks all three in the top 11. Bourn is a legitimate top-flight center fielder, Heyward gets good reads and has one of the better arms around and while I haven't seen enough of Prado in left field, Braves fans assure me he's that excellent as well. While none are what I would label superstars at the plate, they rank 15th, 18th and 22nd in the NL in wOBA. But all three are also excellent baserunners, so it's their all-around skills that make them so special.

Anyway, what interests me: Does this outfield have a chance to be an all-time great outfield? Where do you even begin with that question?

In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," published in 2001, Bill James rated the 1915 Detroit Tigers' outfield the best of all time, using his Win Shares method. That outfield featured two Hall of Famers in Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, plus Bobby Veach, an excellent player who would finish with over 2,000 career hits.

Here, the Baseball-Reference WAR for those 1915 Tigers:

Ty Cobb (.369/.486/.487): 9.3

Bobby Veach (.313/.390/.434): 4.6

Saw Crawford (.299/.367/.431): 3.8

The American League hit just .248 that year and averaged 20 home runs per team, so in the context of 1915 all three were big run producers. James rated another Detroit outfield with Cobb and Crawford, the 1908 outfield with Matty McIntyre, in the second spot along with the 1941 Yankees (Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich). The 1927 Yankees with Babe Ruth, Earle Combs and Bob Meusel ranked sixth, just behind the '61 Yankees with Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra.

I'm not sure this is exactly what we're after, however; James just listed the outfields with the most cumulative Win Shares. But Berra, for example, had just 2.0 WAR that year. Ruth (11.5 WAR) and Combs (6.7 WAR) were terrific in 1927, but Meusel was more good than great (3.8 WAR).

Plus, most of James' top outfields were old-timers. As he wrote, "There appears to be a bias in this method toward older teams, since baseball was less competitive a hundred years ago, and the best players were further from the average than they are now."

I was thinking more of outfields where all three outfielders had terrific seasons. All three Braves outfielders have a shot at 5.0 WAR. Using the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.com, we find only three outfields since 1901 where all three players reached 5.0 WAR:

  • 1921 Tigers: Harry Heilmann (6.5), Cobb (6.4), Veach (5.1). The Tigers had replaced Crawford with Heilmann, another Hall of Famer. Despite that great outfield -- they finished second, third and seventh in the AL in OPS -- the Tigers finished 71-83.

  • 1925 Tigers: Heilmann (6.5), Cobb (5.5), Al Wingo (5.0). The three outfielders ranked first, third and eighth in the AL in OPS. Wingo hit .370 with a .456 on-base percentage in his only season as a regular. The Tigers finished 81-73 but did lead the league in runs scored.

  • 1980 A's: Rickey Henderson (8.7), Dwyane Murphy (6.7), Tony Armas (5.6). Finally, a more modern group. The A's had lost 108 games in 1979, but Henderson and Murphy were rookies and Armas had been a platoon player. Billy Martin took over as manager in 1980 and realized he had one of the greatest defensive outfields ever assembled, essentially playing three center fielders. If you're old enough to remember Murphy, you know him as a Gold Glove center fielder. All three also produced at the plate: Henderson had a .420 OBP and stole 100 bases; Armas hit .279 with 35 home runs; Murphy hit .274 and drew 102 walks for a .384 OBP. Overall, they ranked second (Henderson), fifth (Murphy) and 11th among AL position players in WAR.

If we lower the standard to 4.5 WAR from each player, we get a list of 19 outfields since 1901, including eight (besides the '80 A's) since 1961. A quick look at those eight, with Baseball-Reference WAR listed:

Anyway, that's a starting point. I'll follow up sometime in the next week with another post that discusses some other great outfields.