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The Cubs’ outfield options by the numbers

It isn’t a star-studded outfield, but there are a lot of good choices.

Seiya Suzuki catches a fly back in right during Wednesday’s game against the Mariners
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

We are one week away from Opening Day and the Cubs’ outfield is crowded even after trading early offseason acquisition Harold Ramirez to the Tampa Bay Rays. Today I wanted to take a twist on my long running “by the numbers” look at the Cubs new guys to take a closer look at the Cubs outfield options. As you’ll see below, there will be a lot of new faces hanging out by the bleachers at Wrigley Field this season.

Right Field: Seiya Suzuki season

FanGraphs projects the Cubs’ outfield for 8.4 total WAR over the course of 2022. Almost half of that WAR is projected to come from new right fielder, Seiya Suzuki. These projections estimate Suzuki will get about 71 percent of the playing time in right field with the rest of his at bats coming from time as the Cubs designated hitter. Earlier this week I took a closer look at the Suzuki signing, I wish I had seen this article from Hiroshi Miyashita in the Community Research section of FanGraphs before I finished that piece, because it does an excellent job comparing Suzuki’s stats to other players who transitioned to MLB from NPB.

A couple of caveats here, this article only looks at a player’s final season in NPB before heading to MLB (it looks at both 2016 and 2017 for Shohei Ohtani due to injury) but the bottom line is encouraging: by these stats Suzuki was the best hitter among players transitioning to MLB among recent players to make that move. Yes, even better than Ohtani:

Slash line comparisons
Hiroshi Miyashita and FanGraphs

Now, obviously Suzuki is not a two-way player, so this isn’t any shade to Ohtani, but from these numbers it does look like Suzuki might be the better hitter of the two. That .433 OBP is particularly impressive, as is the 199 wRC+, which you’ll recall indicates Suzuki is 99 percent better at creating runs relative to a league and park adjusted baseline.

Key offensive stats
Hiroshi Miyashita and FanGraphs

A peek behind the numbers demonstrates the contact hitter that the Cubs found so impressive. We should expect these numbers to regress a bit against tougher MLB pitching, but for the sake of comparison, Suzuki’s K percentage of 16.5 percent is well below the league average for non-pitchers in 2021 of 22.6 percent. His walk rate of 16.3 percent is 7.5 percent higher than the league average of 8.8 percent for non-pitchers. What really jumps out to me here though, is his ISO of .322, the FanGraphs sabermetric library notes that anything over .250 is considered an excellent ISO.

With right field taken care of, let’s take a closer look at the rest of the outfield.

Center Field: Platoons and defensive replacements

The Cubs still do not have a true center fielder. They have a handful of guys who all might be the best centerfield option depending on the situation in the game. FanGraphs projects that Jason Heyward, Rafael Ortega and Michael Hermosillo will each have over 100 plate appearances in center field over the 2022 season with Ian Happ, Jonathan Villar and Nico Hoerner each logging substantially less playing time in center.

Ortega had a bit of a breakout with the bat in 2021, but he also had marked lefty-righty splits that scream he should be part of a platoon. Against right-handed pitchers Ortega slashed .321/.374/.526 with a wRC+ of 139. Against left-handed pitchers he slashed .128/.293/.128 with a wRC+ of 34. One of those players is a major league starter and the other most certainly is not. Look for Ortega to start in center when there is a righty on the mound.

The other half of that platoon, theoretically, is Michael Hermosillo. Admittedly, his slash lines are off a substantially smaller sample size (38 total plate appearances, 15 against lefties), so there is likely a lot of noise in these numbers. That said, against lefties last year Hermosillo slashed .286/.333/.571 with a wRC+ of 137 while he hit .136/.174/.455 with a wRC+ of 59 against righties. Obviously those numbers could change a lot, but with rosters at 28 for the first three weeks of the season, Hermosillo, who is out of options, will likely get a chance to audition for the weak side of this platoon.

That leaves five-time Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward as the defensive replacement in center for the short-term. As difficult as that might be given his $23 million salary for 2022, it is also correct. Heyward is a worse option offensively than either Hermosillo or Ortega. I took a look at Heyward’s monthly splits against left and right handed pitchers during 2021. He had three months with a wRC+ over 100 in 2021 over a possible 12 months (six on each side). Two of those months (the wRC+ of 152 and 153 he put up against lefties in June and July last year) look statistically fluky because they are based on tiny sample sizes of 14 and 10 at bats, respectively. Heyward is still an excellent defender in right and a good defender in center, but he should enter the game late to hold a lead, rather than take at bats to try and establish one at this point.

Left Field: A battle of first-round picks

The most interesting battle for playing time is going to occur in left field between Ian Happ and Clint Frazier. Both are former first round draft picks. Happ went ninth overall in 2015 while Frazier went fifth overall in 2013. Both are 27 years old. Both have demonstrated moments of brilliance in their young MLB careers, followed by mountains of frustration due to slumps, injuries or a lack of playing time, and now they find themselves fighting for playing time once again, with each other.

Last May I wrote a profile of Happ titled “Will the real Ian Happ please stand up?” It’s worth going back to look at that piece and see that Happ has only had two modes in his MLB career thus far: dark horse MVP candidate and guy who looks like he needs more time in AAA. You can see it pretty clearly in this 15-game rolling wOBA graph from FanGraphs:

15-game rolling wOBA since 2019
FanGraphs

Frazier’s peaks aren’t as impressive as Happ, but his valleys are equally woeful:

15-game rolling wOBA since 2019
FanGraphs

However, Frazier also has a much better explanation for that sustained downturn in 2021, as NBC Sports reported he was dealing with extended concussion symptoms that impacted his ability to play substantially with the Yankees. You should read the whole article, but yes, Frazier knows the wall at Wrigley Field is brick behind the ivy.

One intriguing possibility for Happ and Frazier would involve a platoon where Happ would basically stop switch hitting and focus on punishing righties from the left side. Happ hit .230/.330/.461 with a wRC+ of 112 vs. righties in 2021 and only .213/.301/.352 wRC+ 77 as a right-handed batter against lefties. In this scenario Happ is the strong side of the platoon and shares time with Frazier, who wasn’t very good against either righties or lefties in 2021, but did put up a 92 wRC+ against lefties last season.

But a more intriguing possibility exists for Happ and Frazier where they catch fire simultaneously. At their best, both Happ and Frazier have looked they could and should hit in the middle of a lineup every day. To be clear, in this scenario I’d be curious to see what would happen if Happ channeled his inner Cedric Mullins and tried to just focus on batting left-handed as well, but whether he just improved as a switch hitter, or transitioned to a full time lefty, I can envision a scenario where Happ and Frazier both force themselves into the lineup everyday. If that occurred Happ would move to center and the Cubs would have a traditional outfield of Frazier, Happ and Suzuki, leaving Heyward as a defensive replacement, Ortega as a potential DH against righties and Hermosillo likely being DFA or traded.

Takeaways

The Cubs have a lot of intriguing options for the outfield this season. You don’t have to squint very hard to imagine a world where Frazier, Happ and Suzuki all step up and earn everyday playing time. If that happens, the Cubs likely take a defensive hit in center early in games with Happ, replacing him with Heyward if they have a lead in the later innings. However, should one of them falter, there are a lot of platoon options waiting on the bench. This might not be a star-studded outfield, but it’s certainly a smartly constructed one.