Just to get this out of the way: I'd rather fight the 100 duck-sized horses.
But the real question is whether I'd rather play with an outfield that had one Byron Buxton -- and nobody else -- or an outfield that had 25 kids with gloves. Thanks to Monday night's Home Run Derby, this is the one time of year we can try to answer that.
Buxton, the Minnesota Twins' talented 23-year-old center fielder, might be the fastest human in the game. The advanced metrics at Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Reference say he has been the best defensive center fielder in baseball this season, and at FanGraphs, he tops the American League (though not the majors). Statcast's catch probability tools suggest that he has caught about 15 more baseballs than an average center fielder would. This, in fact, is his range (in blue), laid over the average center fielder's range, according to Baseball Info Solutions:
Unfortunately, a major league outfield is roughly 90,000 square feet in area (depending on the park), which means there's a ton of white space Buxton can't cover. And if there's one talent roughly 25 kids have, it's the ability to fill space.
That isn't necessarily the same as covering ground. For one thing, the kids at the Derby don't space out efficiently. Reviewing Derby archives, it seems like they used to: In the 1999 Derby, the kids were spaced out more or less evenly around the perimeter of the outfield. In the '96 Derby, they were spread out, though there were only five or so.
Now, though, we get this:
Even granting that a huge percentage of balls in the Derby are pulled to one side of the field, that's both a poor use of quantity and actually harmful to any individual shagger's process of making a catch.
In the picture above, no catch was made. Most of the time, no catch is made. We don't always get to see the ball land on the Derby broadcast, so we can't say exactly how often the shaggers turn flies into outs. Of the ones we did see in the first round Monday night, here's how I counted:
Miguel Sano batting: 1 of 10 balls caught
Bad start, and I'm counting only fly balls and line drives that were deep enough to reach a normal outfield position. There was a routine fly ball into a crowd of 21 kids that bounced off a glove and to the ground. There was a high popup to straightaway center field that nobody was even close to. There was a shallow can of corn to left field, near the scrum of shaggers, that five kids charged in on but missed. Anything to right field was an easy hit. The kids took the term "warning track" too literally.
Giancarlo Stanton batting: 6 of 12 caught
OK, then! We have an outfield.
Charlie Blackmon batting: 0 of 7 caught
Adding those up, plus the later rounds that we monitored, we have 23 catches out of 98 fly balls. A theoretical major leaguer hitting fly balls to an outfield of Pitch, Hit & Run finalists would bat .765 on fly balls and line drives to the outfield.
This is a bit of improvement on previous Derbies. We reviewed six, including the past three seasons, and the shaggers caught only about 14 percent of fly balls and outfield line drives, compared to almost 24 percent Monday night. That includes that 1996 Derby, when the skeleton crew of shaggers went 0-for-11 in balls we reviewed, but even excluding that, we get only 16 percent of balls caught historically.
Sort of paradoxically but sort of not, the best year we reviewed was 1999, when it appeared to be a smaller group of kids -- around 15 or so, though the video quality was too fuzzy to be clear. It might be that more kids are better, but only to a point; then they crowd each other and smash each other to bits.
So we have a baseline: Around 20 percent of these fly balls get caught -- slightly more if you believe last night was a new standard and slightly fewer if you believe the larger historical record.
Would Buxton beat that? According to the batted ball classifications at Baseball Prospectus, the Twins convert 61 percent of fly balls and line drives to the outfield into outs, but that's Buxton and two other guys. Of all the balls caught by the outfield, Buxton is responsible for about 43 percent of them, which means that out of 1,000 fly balls and line drives allowed by his pitchers, he would catch about 260. That is slightly better than our Derby shaggers' rate.
There are still unknowns. For one thing, Buxton could certainly catch more balls than he does. A number of high fly balls could be caught by either the center fielder or a corner outfielder, and even if Buxton takes more of those because he's the center fielder, there are plenty of instances when he peels off and lets the other guy make the easier catch. Sure, he catches only 260 out of 1,000 fly balls that Twins pitchers allow, but you might easily convince me with Statcast data that he could catch 300. You might even convince me 350.
For another thing, we have very different pools of fly balls. The Derby is not regular baseball. The batters are terrifyingly strong, and they're swinging with all their might at literally batting-practice fastballs. Even the balls they miss are often crushed to the warning track, to the gaps or straight over the center fielder's head.
Furthermore, the plays that we were able to review were the ones that cameramen showed us to conclusion -- a sample that was more likely to include balls that were almost home runs or that seemed like they might be home runs. The shaggers might have been snagging tons of cans of corn off-camera, and we just never saw -- never counted -- them.
I don't think that is the case. The funny thing about Derby shaggers is that they have the most trouble with the balls Buxton would have the least trouble with: towering popups. A kid can handle a line drive; that's just playing catch. Of the 23 catches Monday night, some were wonderful plays, leaping grabs on hard contact. But a kid looks up into that sky -- into the roof -- and sees a ball hit seven seconds away from the planet and gets dizzy. The kid tries to jog under the ball and misses the mark by 15 feet. The kid overruns it, misses it with a late lunge or simply concedes that there are some things grownups do that kids aren't ready for.
Those are, on the other hand, the balls Buxton would make his money on. We know from experience that Buxton can catch baseballs more than 100 feet away, so long as he has sufficient time to reach them. In a contest for Who Can Hit The Most Towering Fly Balls, there are a lot of towering popups.
There is also a D.J. in the middle of the field. The conditions are just not suitable for comparison to real baseball.
I could be talked into maybe picking the kids for real baseball. Their arms would be a real problem, but if they spread out, cut off the corners and the shallow grass, and were defending against a more realistic spray chart, I don't know. They might outperform Buxton.
If we're just trying to catch Derby balls, I'm taking the one full-sized kid over 25 kid-sized Buxtons.