Before we figure out how Brad Miller will handle the outfield in a world where Brad Miller is made to handle the outfield, understand this: we have no idea how Brad Miller might handle the outfield. Between the human element and Brad Miller being human, the potential outcomes are infinite. Miller could take to the outfield like a duck to water, or like a duck impersonating Raul Ibanez. Perhaps Miller is traded for Wil Myers tomorrow and all this jive about ducks is pointless.
Curiosity is not pointless, however, and an outfielding Brad Miller is something many of us have been curious about for a while, so let’s investigate.
Right now, maybe 50 shortstops on the face of the earth can play league average defense or better at the major league level. Brad Miller could be one of those shortstops. Maybe. Here is Miller compared to a league average shortstop:
According to UZR, Miller has been 1.1 runs better than average. According DRS, he was 4.5 runs worse. Without question, Miller’s range is excellent for the position. However, virtually all of the gains he made with his range were wiped out by errors, something Miller has struggled with since the day he signed. Keep in mind that his major league-level sample size is small (repeat SMALL), the equivalent of one full season. Miller has the range and tools to be a good shortstop and with improved footwork and throwing mechanics, he could be an even better shortstop. We are not here to dwell on Miller’s issue as an infielder or debate the ethics of moving an agile, young shortstop to the outfield, but his shortstop profile is something we will use later.
To visualize how Miller’s shortstop skills might translate to the outfield, we will use recent defensive data of other shortstops playing outfield. Before we do that, we need to set sensible parameters for those other shortstops. Here are the criteria and exclusions:
> Criteria: Players who played exclusively in the UZR era, which dates back to 2002. Notable exclusions: Joe McEwing, Tony Womack , Jolbert Cabrera and Cesar Crespo.
> Criteria: Players who amassed the majority of their infield innings at shortstop and second base. If a player was more third baseman than middle infielder, he is out. Notable exclusions: B.J. Upton, Martin Prado, Josh Harrison and Brock Holt.
> Criteria: Middle infielders who accumulated at least some innings at shortstop. Notable exclusions: Dustin Ackley and Jeff Baker.
Who is left: Alexi Amarista, Alfredo Amezaga, Ben Zobrist, Bill Hall, Brandon Fahey, Brent Lillibridge, Chris Burke, Emilio Bonifacio, Freddie Bynum, Jerry Hairston, Mark DeRosa, Mike McCoy, Omar Infante and Willie Bloomquist. 14 IF/OF types who were all shortstops at the upper levels of the minor leagues and/or played a lot of shortstop, second base and outfield in the majors. That’s not a huge sample, but it gives us over 66,300 innings of data we can mash into one hypothetical utility guy. Here is that hypothetical utility guy:
For reference, here is a player who is exactly league average at every position:
About the tables:
> FE% is fielding error percentage ((FE) / (FE + Fielding Plays Made)). Smaller number = fewer errors.
> TE% is throwing error percentage ((TE) / (TE + Assists)). Smaller number = fewer errors.
> All data from ARM to DRS is adjusted to 1350 innings (aInn) – the equivalent of 150 games played – and league average for each position is 0. In other words, anything above 0 is above average for the position, and anything below 0 is below average.
> UZR is an overall defensive score that incorporates ARM, DPR, RngR and ErrR.
> DRS is another way to capture a player’s total defensive value.
Our hypothetical 14-man utility guy doesn't tell us much about Brad Miller yet, but it tells us something about shortstops playing other positions and, perhaps more specifically, why. According to UZR and DRS, the majority of these players were below average defensive shortstops (-2.1, -1.5). However, like Miller, it wasn't their range that made them below average – it was errors:
Different consequences led to each specific player from our sample playing significant innings all over the diamond, but the progression from shortstop > infield utility guy > everything utility guy generally begins the same way for every player: they are not the best shortstop on the roster. There is a chance Brad Miller is not the best defensive shortstop on the Mariners roster and it’s interesting that, so far anyway, he has been a more extreme version of a utility guy playing shortstop than a league average shortstop. Also note Miller’s range compared to the utility guy.
You may have already observed that our hypothetical former-shortstop-utility-guy excelled in the outfield, particularly in the corners. If you missed it, here it is again:
Our utility guy is approximately 9.5 runs above average in the corners. No, the entire 15-run positional adjustment did not carry over for our group, but 9.5 runs above average is premium defense that provides value to a ball club regardless of what other positions that defender might be able to play. Does that mean Miller should be projected at 9.5 runs above average in the corners? Well, here is where things get even more interesting – and more subjective. Remember Miller’s range advantage over the average utility guy? This is what happens when we discard the utility guys who had below average range for shortstop:
DRS disagrees, but the overall skill profile is a more accurate representation of Miller. Finally, for the big payoff, here is what the rangier, more Miller-esque utility shortstop did in the outfield:
Not only does our utility shortstop carry the entire 15-run positional adjustment to the corners, he blows the 5-run adjustment to center field out of the water. In other words, a shortstop with plus range typically becomes an outfielder with plus-plus range.
I will be the first one to poke holes in the small sample size and say it requires a GIANT leap of faith to expect Brad Miller to play outfield like Alex Gordon – but Ben Zobrist has done just that, and there was a time when the same questions were asked of Gordon and Zobrist. And Alfredo Amezega. And Jerry Hairston. And Joe McEwing. And even Dustin Ackley. It has happened before and will happen again, and when it does happen again, Brad Miller might be the one doing it. Or not.