Prior to Friday’s game, David Vassegh tweeted that the Dodgers had “good defense behind Kershaw today with Ethier in CF and Arruebarrena at SS,” and it made me laugh. Sure, Ethier won that bogus Gold Glove in 2011 — almost entirely because his fielding percentage was 1.000, no doubt — but I think we all feel he’s not a good outfielder, particularly not in center, at least not in the sense that Juan Lagares or Jason Heyward or Carlos Gomez are good outfielders.
Then after I stopped laughing, I started thinking about it for a second. No, I don’t think Ethier is a particularly great outfielder. But… is it time that we actually have to acknowledge he might be the best center fielder on the team?
That this is even a discussion worth having speaks to two things. First, it’s because Ethier really has improved over how lousy he was over the start of his career. Between 2008-10, he was rightfully considered one of the worst defensive outfielders in the game. I can say that because he had the fifth-worst DRS over that span, but also because in roughly the same amount of innings, he graded out about as well as Delmon Young. There’s no way to spin that in Ethier’s favor.
In the years since, he’s absolutely upped his game; I wouldn’t say he’s ever really been a plus, but he’s probably a roughly-average defensive outfielder now, and that’s both valuable and a positive reflection on him. Last year, when he was forced to make 70 starts in center, we all cringed at how horrible it would be, but it really wasn’t. The numbers had him as slightly below-average, and that’s really not bad at all considering he hadn’t played the position in the bigs and how much worse it could have been.
The second reason? Because Matt Kemp has really, really had a rough time of it out there. Kemp first ascended to a regular job in center field midway through 2008, when the Andruw Jones experience imploded, and he was acceptable out there both that year and the next. But in 2010, he was really worse than any of us cared to admit; by DRS, his 2010 was the single worst season since the stat was first kept in 2003. (Other contenders on that list: that year Ryan Braun tried playing third base and a Michael Young season at shortstop, so the stat passes the smell test.)
He improved, somewhat, in 2011 — that he won a Gold Glove that year is nearly as laughable as Ethier winning one — but it’s been nothing but trouble ever since. Since 2010, he has the worst DRS mark in baseball. He has the worst UZR/150 of any non-catcher who has played a full season. His overall FanGraphs “defense rating” — which, unlike the others, can be compared across all positions, so that playing a tough spot like shortstop gives you a bonus over a less valuable position like first — is fifth-worst since 2010, behind only noted disasters like Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez and Prince Fielder.
It’s not really hard to understand why. Kemp has never really been a graceful center fielder as far as getting a good jump or taking proper routes, but he’s been so physically gifted that he could make up for it with his speed and strong arm. But as the injuries have piled up over the last few years, that’s no longer the case. He’s unable to outrun his mistakes any longer — Yasiel Puig, by comparison, can — and it’s becoming an increasing issue. So while I again don’t think Ethier is a wonderful center fielder, at least not one good enough to merit Vassegh’s opinion of him… I’m having a really hard time coming to any conclusion other than the one that ends with him being the best center fielder this roster has. Which is just beyond insane to think about, even a year ago.
Obviously, the Dodgers are feeling similarly. Ethier started over Kemp on Friday in Philadelphia, ostensibly because Roberto Hernandez was on the mound and he gets lit up by lefty hitters. But it’s not only that, clearly. Bill Plunkett reported that Kemp and Mattingly “had a talk,” while Dylan Hernandez added that the Dodgers were “exploring options” in center.
Could Joc Pederson be one of those options? Perhaps, although interestingly enough, Mark Saxon indicates that Pederson’s defense, particularly his throwing, is the main concern the team has with him. (Chris Jackson adds that his skills are fine, but that “he just needs to play smarter.”) Either way, Pederson isn’t going to simply come up and take Kemp’s job. Kemp would need to be okay with moving to left field, presumably, which would further diminish Carl Crawford. Then again, you could argue that this doesn’t need to be Pederson-related at all. The Dodgers might have a better center field option right now, and it could be Ethier. Even that’s problematic, though; even if Kemp can be talked into moving, he’d have to move back whenever Ethier sits and Crawford or Scott Van Slyke starts in left, and I’m not sure that works for anyone.
I can’t say I know what’s going to happen here, and maybe it’s nothing, at least not until after the season. But I think we’ve known for a long time that Kemp isn’t really qualified to play center every day, and it feels like a situation that’s finally coming to a head.