Our annual ranking of the top 100 players in baseball begins with the top-10 lists at the three outfield positions. One thing you hear a lot these days: "Whatever happened to the left fielders with the big bats?"
Indeed, no left fielder hit 30 home runs last season. The only other season since 1991 to see that happen was 2010. The only left fielder to hit 30 in 2013 was Alfonso Soriano, who is retired less than two years later. Only two qualified left fielders hit .300 last season: Michael Brantley and Melky Cabrera. (J.D. Martinez, Corey Dickerson and Carl Crawford also hit .300, but had fewer than 502 plate appearances.) The top-ranked left fielder heading into 2015 is Brantley, who hit 20 home runs in 2014, double his career high. He finished third in the MVP voting but has to prove the power spike was for real. The No. 2-ranked left fielder is Alex Gordon, a defensive wizard who hit .266 with 19 home runs.
Still, does that necessarily mean the sport has seen a decline in left-field production? After all, offense across the whole sport has dropped off in recent years. Here are the triple-slash totals for all left fielders since 2009, with wOBA (weighted on-base average, a catch-all metric on the scale of on-base percentage) and wOBA for all non-pitcher hitters:
2014: .257/.322/.402, .316 wOBA (.310)
2013: .259/.323/.412, .320 wOBA (.316)
2012: .261/.326/.431, .326 wOBA (.319)
2011: .255/.320/.408, .316 wOBA (.317)
2010: .270/.337/.432, .334 wOBA (.322)
2009: .270/.341/.440, .338 wOBA (.331)
Left field numbers were low last year, although not quite as bad as 2011, when the wOBA was actually a point less than the overall MLB total. Both totals are, however, historically poor. At Baseball-Reference.com we can compare the collective OPS+ for left fielders to the league average OPS for that year.
Here are the bottom five seasons since 1970:
1991: 107 (7 percent better than league average for all hitters)
So we get three of the past four seasons in the bottom five, a pretty clear indicator that we are in the midst of a historical lull in left-field offense, even after adjusting for the offensive context of the era. Even 2012 would rank tied for ninth-worst at 109. (The No. 1 season was 1970, with a 127 OPS+; left fielders that year included Billy Williams; Willie Stargell; Rico Carty, who hit .366 to win the NL batting title; Alex Johnson, the AL batting champ; Roy White; Don Buford; Ken Henderson; and Willie Horton.)
Is this a change brought on by a new emphasis on defense? That teams are willing to sacrifice a plus bat for an excellent glove? After all, last year's regular left fielders included Starling Marte, Brett Gardner, Christian Yelich, Rajai Davis and Bryce Harper, guys who have played center field in the majors or would be capable of playing center field.
That theory sounds plausible, but look at the 10 teams with the worst offensive production from left field in 2014 (using wOBA) and their total defensive runs saved at the position:
1. Astros (+5)
2. Phillies (-9)
3. Reds (+2)
4. Angels (+6)
5. Mets (+7)
6. Diamondbacks (-6)
7. Rangers (-8)
8. White Sox (-10)
9. Mariners (+4)
10. Twins (-25)
The 10 teams with bad offense -- each posted a wOBA under .300 -- combined for minus-34 defensive runs saved. Sure, a large chunk of that came from the Twins, but the other nine teams were still collectively below average on defense. I don't see evidence that teams are purposely seeking out better defense in left field. Some of the lack of production was simply tied to bad seasons (Josh Hamilton), failed prospects (Domonic Brown), injuries (Harper, Shin-Soo Choo), old age (Ryan Ludwick), mediocrity (Dustin Ackley) and general incompetence (Astros and Diamondbacks). But there also were just a lot of bad left fielders in 2014.
Things could look a little better in 2015. Hanley Ramirez could provide the Red Sox with more offense and the Astros may punt defense and give Evan Gattis some time out there. Marte, Yelich and Dickerson could all improve at the plate. Oswaldo Arcia, while weak defensively, has 30-homer potential for the Twins. Veterans Matt Holliday and Jayson Werth (moving over from right field with Harper shifting to right) can still hit.
Still, it does leave you itching a bit for the slow-footed sluggers of the past. Greg Luzinski, where have you gone?