2011 Marlins Season Preview: Center Field
By Michael Jong
It has finally come to this.
Readers of Marlin Maniac know that since the Marlins decided on the plan to move Chris Coghlan to center field, I have been against the move. Coghlan represents a likely important piece in the immediate future of the organization, but mistaking his defense as something that can play in center field is likely to cost the Marlins. I won’t discuss Coghlan much further here, because I have already exhausted a lot of space on this blog exploring that avenue. Instead, I’d like to discuss some of what might have happened in 2010 for Coghlan and how he can improve on that offensive performance.
Starter: Chris Coghlan
Backup: Scott Cousins
Minor league depth: Bryan Petersen
Coghlan’s move to center field has obviously important defensive ramifications. He struggled at the onset in left field in 2009 and racked up poor numbers from all the defensive metrics. Still, the Fans named him a bit above average in left field both in 2009 and 2010. This does not surprise me; Coghlan had a few highlight reel diving catches that certainly caught the attention of fans and he seemingly has the foot speed to create the appearance of range. However, with the stats firmly not behind him and not one scout or personnel guy outside the organization offering a good word about his defense in left field, expecting him to transition smoothly in center field is an absurd idea. Tack on the fact that he will be tasked with assisting Logan Morrison, who is not much of a left fielder right now either, in fielding balls to the gap and you can imagine the potential for many doubles into the power alleys of Sun Life Stadiium. Add onto that the depth and peculiar angles in Sun Life Stadium’s center field and you have potential mess of a problem.
All of this defensive concern is going towards a player who isn’t even all that strong offensively either. Yes, Coghlan’s Rookie of the Year season was excellent, but we all knew that he was bound to regress. There was simply no way that anyone could honestly expect him to keep a .365 BABIP with a track record of only one season. I knew it would happen, readers here had to know it would happen, and I’m certain that the Marlins knew it would happen as well.
That Coghlan’s BABIP fell last season was not surprising; what did shock me was how poorly he did in his peripherals. Coghlan struck out 21.0 percent of the time at the plate, which was an unexpectedly high number given his good contact in 2009. In two of his full seasons in the minors, he never struck out more than 12.0 percent of the time, and in 2009 he went down on strikes only in 13.6 percent of his PA. It was shocking to see such a high number for Coghlan to end on in 2011, especially given Coghlan’s mostly unchanged approach. He actually saw more pitches per plate appearance in 2010 (4.02) than in 2009 (3.96), and while he did increase his swing rate from 41.0 percent to 43.9 percent, the numbers do not represent a drastic difference.
So how did Coghlan falter so badly at the plate? Clearly he had to missing on more swings, and that was definitely the case. Despite an almost carbon-copy amount of strikes taken, Coghlan’s swinging strikes increased from15.2 percent to 18.3 percent. As a result, his contact rate fell and his strikeouts increased. The reasons for his increased swinging and missing at the plate are confusing; we did not hear much about an injury or mechanical issues during that terrible season start, so perhaps he was merely pressing because of the slump. If so, this is something from which he can recover with a fresh season start. However, for the Marlins to get the most out of Coghlan, they will have to receive the more patient, less hacktastic Coghlan that we saw prior to the tail end of 2009 instead of the one we saw in 2010.
Before I display the projection, let’s think back to what Coghlan is likely to be as a center fielder. He definitely struggled to adjust to left field, and now he will be moving up the defensive spectrum, so we would expect more struggles to start the season at the very least. Let us assume he is a -10 run defender for the entire season, which is a harsh grade but one which remains a decent possibility. What type of hitter do we have in Coghlan? He is a high-average hitter with little power and a patient approach that has not yet yielded great results in terms of walks. The projection systems see the following:
In the majority of these cases, Coghlan isn’t better than six to ten runs above average. Essentially, Coghlan is expected to be of a similar offensive value to Cody Ross between 2008 and 2009. How much value do you think a Cody Ross type of hitter with poor defense would garner?
Projection: 675 PA, 1.9 WAR
That is a below average player worth 1.7 WAR per 600 PA. It isn’t the worst thing in the world, but with the Marlins hovering near contention this season, the team could ill afford to toss out a player who might struggle in his first season at a new position. Given the team’s newfound emphasis on defense, a talking point that they have been using for years despite ignoring or downplaying the difficulties certain players on the team have had around the diamond, it seems odd that the Marlins would risk one of the more important defensive positions on a player no one outside the organization believes is capable of handling the rigors of the spot.