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a-center-field-platoon-an-offensive-defense | December | 2007 Articles

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A Center Field Platoon - An Offensive Defense

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As most of our readers know, Chop-n-Change has been undergoing a search for a new writer for a couple of weeks now. We had narrowed the search down to three, however one of the writers had to remove himself from consideration. We asked the final two to write one more article on a topic of their choosing, both of which will be posted for our readers to comment on and help without our final selection. The first article comes from Alex. The Braves have an unsettled center field situation for the first time in a decade. But fans shouldn’t worry if management decides to keep center field warm for Jordan Schafer by employing a platoon of half-prospects and fourth outfielder types. If history is any guide, the Braves should be able to get adequate center field production (for a bottom-of-the-lineup hitter) from assorted, inexpensive spare parts. In the eleven seasons from 1987 to 1997, from the end of Dale Murphy’s full-time tenure in center field until the beginning of Andruw Jones’s, the Braves employed twelve different regular or semiregular center fielders. Five of the seasons featured platoons, including a disastrous three-man platoon in 1988. In two seasons the full-time center fielder for the first half of the year was replaced by a midseason trade for another full-time CF. And in four seasons, there was a full-time CF who made it through the year. Remarkably, it worked out quite well. In seven of those eleven seasons, Braves centerfielders produced an OPS over .750: in three of the five platoon seasons, in three of the four full-time CF seasons, and in one of the two midseason replacement seasons. The individual center fielders were impossibly inconsistent from year to year, but their collective performance was fairly consistent, and surprisingly good. Braves CFs who started at least 20 games, 1987-1997:
Year Players (number of starts) OBP OPS
1987 Dion James (96)* / Albert Hall (65) .390 .849
1988 Terry Blocker (59)* / Albert Hall (51) / Dion James (35)a .302 .606
1989 Dale Murphy (82) / Oddibe McDowell (66)+ .320 .713
1990 Ron Gant (105)* / Oddibe McDowell (57) .346 .840
1991 Ron Gant (145) .344 .831
1992 Otis Nixon (89)* / Deion Sanders (55) .347 .761
1993 Otis Nixon (111)* / Deion Sanders (51)b .340 .698
1994 Deion Sanders (45) / Roberto Kelly (63)+c .347 .777
1995 Marquis Grissom (135) .311 .679
1996 Marquis Grissom (157)d .344 .819
1997 Kenny Lofton (121) / Andruw Jones (41)† .396 .844
  Totals .347 .771
* - platooned + - midseason trade replacement † - injury replacement a - traded for Oddibe McDowell b - traded for Roberto Kelly c - traded for Marquis Grissom d - traded for Kenny Lofton For the vast majority of the eleven seasons from Murphy to Jones, the center field hole was plugged by a revolving door of young homegrown players (Gant, Jones), free agents (Nixon, Sanders), and players obtained though one of the many CF-for CF trades. All were promptly jettisoned once they began to stink — or traded at high value if they’d performed well. The Braves’ center field by committee provided a relatively high return on a low cost nearly each year for eleven years, yielding a high return on investment despite a constant supply of new faces, and doing so even before the Braves became a perennial powerhouse. During that entire period, the only bad years were 1988, 1989, 1993, and 1995, and even then, McDowell had a fine second half in 1989, and Nixon/Sanders’ .340 OBP in 1993 wasn’t far off the average OBP of .347. (Also, because the 1988 and 1989 squads were the Braves’ worst of the decade, with winning percentages under .400 both years, it’s hard to argue the center fielders particularly dragged down their team. Bad as they were, they were among the better hitters in the lineup.) Gant was the only player of the 12 with two consecutive good seasons, in 1990 and 1991. Nonetheless, the average OPS over the 11 seasons, .771, was better than league-average. The Braves are clearly considering a similar experiment for 2008, with Josh Anderson, Brent Lillibridge, and Gregor Blanco in the mix, and more acquisitions possible. (Brandon Jones and Jeff Francoeur have apparently been considered and rejected as possible center fielders; still, in spring training, nearly anything is possible.) Given the history, a CF platoon could easily produce an adequate bottom of the lineup hitter. Now, if only we could patch up our bullpen…
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