Who is the greatest defensive right fielder of all time? One could make the case for a lot of people. Roberto Clemente is the all time leader in Total Zone Runs by quite a bit, with 204 (second place is Al Kaline with 155). He’s also the leader in Gold Gloves (12), defensive games played in right field (2305), and assists (253). Tony Armas leads in Range Factor/9 innings (2.44) but Lance Richbourg leads in Range Factor/Game (2.377), as we all know of course. When I was younger I believed it was Tommy Henrich for the most analytical of reasons – my grandfather told me so.
Chuck Klein had a single season record 41 assists from right field in 1930. Just think of all the TOOTBLANs! He needed 1373 innings to amass all those assists. That’s a rate of 0.269 assists/9 innings. If you watched Klein play four games in 1930 odds are good that you would see him gun down at least one runner. But baseball was weird in 1930. According to Sam Miller, that’s 58 years before baseball existed.
As of last season neither Clemente nor Klein nor Henrich is the greatest right fielder of all time. The new king of right field is White Sox utility infielder Tyler Saladino, and it’s possible he’s not even aware he ever played the position.
On June 20, 2016, the White Sox were in Boston and the game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth. Hanley Ramirez, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Chris Young all walked to begin the inning. Following a Dustin Pedroia strikeout the bases were loaded with one out. With the game hanging by a thread and a double play in order, manager Robin Ventura figuratively took a page out of The Only Rule Is It Has to Work and implemented a five man infield. He pulled right fielder Jason Coats out of the game for our protagonist, Tyler Saladino. On a 2-2 pitch Christian Vazquez hit a ground ball to the “right fielder” who threw Ramirez out at home. Ryan LaMarre struck out to end the inning. The White Sox scored two runs in the tenth and won the game, 3-1.
Saladino did not come to bat in the game. In fact, he was pinch hit for in the tenth inning by J. B. Shuck, an actual professional outfielder. His final line for the game was 0.2 innings in right field with one assist.*
Let’s take a minute to consider the rarity of outfield assists. Klein of course had 41. The most since 1950 is 26 by Dave Parker in 1977. In 2016 there were 7 major league outfielders who played at least 400 innings without a single assist. Travis Jankowski led the way with 789 innings sans assist, and he’s actually a decent outfielder. He was worth 12.8 UZR on a diet of only putouts.
If Jankowski is any indication, assists are not a prerequisite to be a good outfielder. They sure are a nice bonus though. Almost always an outfield assist cuts down a preexisting base runner or a batter who has already earned a hit and is trying to stretch it further than they ought. Considering that most of them occur at a base other than first, each one eliminates a probable run from scoring.
Looking once again at All-Star snub and future Hall of Famer Tyler Saladino and his outfield assist-that-wasn’t, this play doubled the White Sox chances of winning from 17% to 34%. Bases loaded, one out, tie game, ninth inning is about as high leverage as it gets. If he didn’t make the play the chances of winning would be 0%. The value of each outfield assist will vary depending on game situation but we know that a Saladino outfield assist is worth about ⅙ of a win.
As per FanGraphs, Mike Trout led Major League Baseball in Wins Probability Added with 6.64. Granted, this is a statistic that measures only offense for hitters and not defense or baserunning. But we know that every time Saladino gets an “outfield” assist he adds 0.17 of a win to the White Sox, even if it only happened once. But what if it happened more than once? What if he were to do this over a full season? Are we going to get ridiculous with extrapolation? OF COURSE WE ARE!!!
Saladino had one assist in two thirds of an inning as a right fielder. That’s a rate of 13.5 assists/9 innings. That is more than 50 times better than Chuck Klein when he set the single season record! If Saladino were to play 162 games he would get 2187 assists per season from right field, and that’s without including extra innings. How do you like them apples, Klein? (Was that a popular insult in 1930?) With each assist worth ⅙ of a win, a full season of Saladino in right field would be worth 364.5 wins over 162 games.
These numbers also presuppose an extremely high number of baserunners. That’s simple enough to recreate. All the White Sox have to do is walk the first three batters of every inning, then get the fourth to strikeout. I’m sure the opposition would agree to the strikeout; they’re getting three free passes after all! Then just bring in Super Saladino and they will win 364 games every season, give or take a few.
Sadly, we know that Tyler Saladino is not really an outfielder and his feet were planted firmly in the dirt on that fateful evening in Boston. In fact he didn’t even make a good throw. Catcher Alex Avila had to scoop it out of the dirt. Here’s how it was described by South Side Sox in their game recap:
“Before the at-bat, Ventura implemented the ‘Rover’ defense, substituting Tyler Saladino for Jason Coats. With five infielders and just two outfielders, (Pitcher Zach) Duke would get Vazquez to ground weakly up the middle to Saladino, who made a low throw to home. Avila made a terrific scoop and was able to keep a foot on home plate to record the second out.”
Saladino doesn’t get as much credit as Ventura, who sent him out there in the first place, or Avila, who got a boring old putout. All the same it gets credited to Saladino as an outfield assist, which is something we could not say of Travis Jankowksi all season.
Neither Saladino nor anyone else is ever going to be a permanent fifth infielder and start at the position for even a single game, much less a full season. However, it is plausible that this could grow as a strategy. A fifth infielder isn’t going to get 2187 assists. He won’t even get 100 assists. But could a fifth infielder lead the league in outfield assists?
Adam Eaton led all major league outfielders with 18 assists in 2016, coincidentally playing primarily right field for the White Sox. Kudos, Adam. 18 is an exemplary number for an outfielder but a pittance for an infielder. By comparison, Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien led all infielders with 477 assists. Semien played 1385.1 innings last year, all at shortstop, which is an average of 3.10 assists/9 innings.
In a situation where five infielders are brought into the game none of them would average quite as many as Semien. First of all, there’s another body in the infield so everyone has a smaller area to cover. Second of all, most likely they would all be playing up to throw out a runner at the plate. This decreases reaction time after the ball is hit and limits their horizontal range. So it’s hard to figure what a 9 inning assist rate would be for a fifth infielder, and it just doesn’t happen enough in real life for us to use the existing data (though it was fun to try).
Time to estimate! If a fifth infielder had a rate of 2 assists/9 innings they would need to play 81 innings to tie Eaton for the most outfield assists, or one full inning every two games. That seems pretty unlikely, but not completely impossible. As time goes by managers seem to be more flexible about defensive positioning. Maybe we aren’t that far away from a manager, such as Joe Maddon, using an outfielder with infield experience, such as Ben Zobrist, in a similar capacity. He could just bring him in from the bench or from the outfield if he was already in the game and then move him back out after the situation no longer calls for a fifth man in the dirt.
As the saying goes, everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame. All major league baseball players are famous to a degree. Obviously some are more famous than others. Tyler Saladino is a utility infielder. He’s pretty low on the fame spectrum as major leaguers go. He’s not a bad player. He was worth 1.4 WARP according to Baseball Prospectus in 2016. All the same he’ll probably never be a regular at any of the positions he plays, especially being blocked now and in the future by Todd Frazier, Tim Anderson, and Yoan Moncada. Most likely he’ll never lead the league in anything. He’ll probably be forgotten within a few years of retiring by all but the most ardent White Sox fans, or fans of wherever else his career may take him.
So here’s one thing we can never take away from him: Tyler Saladino is the greatest right fielder in the history of baseball if we’re just willing to adjust our minimum playing time requirements. Not bad for a player who never left the infield dirt.
*Saladino did play three innings in left field (the true left field) and had three putouts. He was also credited with one third of an inning as a center fielder. This was also as a fifth infielder one day earlier on June 19, but he did not make a defensive play.
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