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Previous articles in this series:

This is the fourth in a series of rankings of major-league defenders,
highlighting the top ten and bottom five at each position. The ratings are
a combination of Zone Rating, Range Factor and my best (and admittedly
grossly flawed) assessment of the job they’re doing.

Many readers have written in to ask that we include actual ZR and RF
numbers in these articles. Due to intellectual property concerns, that’s
not something we can do. What we can include, and will from now on, is the
approximate percentile score for a defender in a given statistic. For
example, a third baseman who was better than 3/4 of the league in Range
Factor at that position would have a percentile score of 75 in RF.

Left field is a very tough position to assess. By and large, it is a
defensive wasteland: if these guys had more range, they’d probably be in
center field. If they could throw, they’d be in right field. There are some
exceptions, but the top ten listed below got pretty painful to look at
after about the first six or seven. Unless otherwise noted, these defenders
don’t throw particularly well, be it in terms of form, speed of release,
velocity or accuracy.

The Top

1. Darin Erstad, Anaheim. RF%: 100, ZR%: 97%

Darin Erstad’s defensive technique is remarkably controlled for someone
with his reputation as a full-bore player. His stance is reminscent of Carl
Yastrzemski’s when preparing for the ball, and like Bobby Higginson, Geoff
Jenkins and Barry Bonds, he can actually throw. Erstad is a natural center
fielder, and I expect he wouldn’t suffer compared to his colleagues if he
were to move over. If he has a weakness, it might be that he doesn’t go as
well as he could to his glove side. That’s pretty rare to see, but he does
seem to be more comfortable chasing a ball across his body. Must be nice.

2. Jacque Jones, Minnesota. RF%: 83, ZR%: 79

Another guy who probably should be playing center field, along with Erstad
and possibly Shannon Stewart. Jacque Jones has remarkable quickness and has
adapted well to playing a left field notorious for rec-league caliber
lighting and a carpet with more bounce than a staged convention. Jones
reminds me of a young Devon White in terms of his technique and
performance, but probably isn’t quite that good. Jones should be a very
valuable player on a championship-caliber club as a third platoon
outfielder/defensive replacement/pinch runner.

3. Johnny Damon, Kansas City. RF%: 86, ZR%: 72

There’s a big dropoff between #2 and #3. Johnny Damon is a classic tweener
outfielder: glove more than sufficient to play a corner spot, but not quite
enough to play center field really well, and with not quite enough of a bat
to play left field and really help a ballclub win a title. Damon’s break is
pretty average, but after about three or four steps, this guy has amazing
speed. I don’t think there’s anyone in baseball faster after four steps
than Damon. If he could get up to speed a little quicker somehow, he could
be a very good center fielder.

4. Bobby Higginson, Detroit. RF%: 72, ZR%: 66

Bobby Higginson probably has the best classic technique of any left fielder
in the game. His initial step is good (pivot to the glove side, crossover
step across the body), he is one of the few people who appears to be making
a conscious effort to run on the balls of his feet and he seldom catches
the ball without positioning his body well for the throw. He’s also not
slow–he doesn’t look like a typical skeeter, but Higginson can actually
run. And, it should be noted, he’s got a absolute friggin’ Glenn
Wilson/Jesse Barfield cannon for an arm.

5. Shannon Stewart, Toronto. RF%: 62, ZR%: 72

Shannon Stewart is a good center fielder playing left because he just can’t
throw at all. He’s quick on the first step, takes a good path to the ball,
has a great deal of speed and is never in proper position to release a
throw. On some occasions, he overcocks his hip, in preparation to make a
catch and a strong throw, resulting in a release with his hip trailing.
Inevitably, the ball will sail up and to the right with little velocity.
Stewart goes back on balls well. Over time, he’ll probably adjust his
positioning a bit closer to the infield to mitigate the threat of people
taking the extra base.

6. Geoff Jenkins, Milwaukee. RF%: 55, ZR%: 100

Geoff Jenkins looks and throws like Brett Favre. He runs well for a guy his
size and doesn’t have an obvious hole in his defensive game. Jenkins
doesn’t do any one thing noticeably well, but moves easily and has a good
fundamental game. His line can be a bit aggressive at times, but I don’t
know if that’s necessarily a bad thing.

7. Rondell White, Chicago Cubs. RF%: 90, ZR%: 41

Rondell White isn’t significantly different from the guys that surround him
on this list. He does do one thing very well: he takes a very good angle
getting to the ball in the left-center field gap. White has lost a great
deal of raw foot speed in the past couple of years. I haven’t been to
Montreal in person and walked on the carpet, but I wonder and worry about
what it might be doing to Vladimir Guerrero’s knees.

8. B.J. Surhoff, Atlanta. RF%: 93, ZR%: 48

The Paul O’Neill of the other side of the grass. B.J. Surhoff is so steady
he’s dull, which is a good thing in defenders. He has great balance and
surprising speed. I went back to check some tape, and he runs amazingly
well considering his age and history behind the plate. Surhoff doesn’t go
back on balls particularly well, but in our current crop of left fielders,
that’s hardly a mortal sin.

9. Barry Bonds, San Francisco. RF%: 48, ZR%: 45

Tim Raines is to Rickey Henderson as Rickey Henderson is to Barry Bonds.
Bonds, despite his advanced age, is still a tremendous defender. His
technique has greatly improved from 1998 and I don’t think that’s by
accident. He anticipates balls and baserunner moves very well. As he
approaches a ball in the left-center field gap, he shortens his stride and
prepares to make a throw if necessary–something he distinctly did not do
well earlier in his career. Bonds may be the smartest ballplayer ever to
play the game, and it definitely shows in his positioning in the field.

10. Ray Lankford, St. Louis. RF%: 21, ZR%: 93

I’m reaching here. Ray Lankford looked awful to my eyes–he’s clearly not
playing at anywhere near full health. His mind is still convinced that his
speed is normal, and he ends up cutting too sharp of an angle on line
drives. Still, his technique is great, his first step is still fast and the
rest of the left fielders in baseball right now are pretty much there for
their bats. It was either him or Ron Gant, but I’m giving the nod to
Lankford because if he’s healthy, he’s better.

The Bottom

1. Ben Grieve, Oakland. RF%: 21%, ZR%: 26

Ben Grieve is a very fine hitter. Yes, his walk rate is down and that’s
worrisome, and yes, his groundball tendencies are about as welcome to an
offense as Stomp showing up at a migraine clinic. But he’s still a
fine hitter with a lot of potential. Maybe.

Anyway…Grieve is every bit as bad as you’ve heard defensively. Only the
presence of the injured Wil Cordero and Moises Alou keep him from dropping
even further in raw RF and ZR. Grieve has no speed, a bad break, a very
slow release of the ball and a tremendously weak arm. Oakland can crank out
hitters, but how many guys can eventually end up at first base and DH?
Terrence Long could be the second coming of the Most Holy Defender in
center field and he still couldn’t cover the gap left by Grieve. The gasp
at the Coliseum when a ball heads towards left field is audible.

2. Wil Cordero, Cleveland. RF%: 0, ZR%: 86

He plays defense like he’s on a cell phone complaining about his Vicodin
dosage being too low. For you stats buffs, Wil Cordero’s Range Factor is
2.3 standard deviations below the mean. And to my eyes, that overrates him.

3. Moises Alou, Houston. RF%: 10, ZR%: 0

Moises Alou is just back off another injury, so I expect him to return
towards the middle of the pack soon enough. He seems to be running in pain.
When he’s chasing after a ball, he looks like he’s favoring something, and
visually, he’s reminscent of Michael Johnson’s running style but without
the speed–very upright and almost awkward. I don’t know what’s wrong with
him physically, but I do expect him to improve throughout the rest of the
season and into the future.

4. Henry Rodriguez, Florida. RF%: 17%, ZR%: 28%

Henry Rodriguez has a very slow initial move and lacks the speed to make up
for it during the flight of the ball. When he does move, he takes the
dreaded phantom step: picking his foot up then putting it back down in the
same place before actually taking off. If you get a chance to see him play
defense for a few games, check out how often the director of the broadcast
can switch cameras to him before he starts moving. That’s not good.

5. Dmitri Young, Cincinnati. RF%: 24, ZR%: 34

OK, so Ken Griffey gets better on defense, then goes to an artificial
surface between Dante Bichette and this guy? Dmitri Young is a big dude,
takes a while to get moving, isn’t graceful and doesn’t have good
technique, but he certainly works hard out there. I’m not sure the outfield
fence at Cinergy Field would keep Young in the park if he hit it. He
actually gets up a pretty good head of steam; he could probably Rodney
McCray through rebar. Unfortunately, he usually puts that momentum on an
angle about 10 degrees off the one he needs to take. If you’re Barry
Larkin, make sure you’re listening on the shallow popups.

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, please e-mail me at
huckabay@baseballprospectus.com. Due to time constraints, I will not able
to personally respond to most e-mails, but know that every one of them is
read and given thought. Thanks for reading.

Gary Huckabay can be reached at huckabay@baseballprospectus.com.

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