Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfielder Bryan Reynolds has played most of his games in centerfield this year. But should that be his long term position moving forward?
Outfielder Bryan Reynolds has been primarily a left fielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates in his MLB career. About 60% of all of his innings came from left field during his rookie season in 2019 and he played exclusively left field in 2020. However, due to injuries and ineffectiveness by other players, he’s played more center field in 2021 than left field this season. So should his long-term home be centerfield?
If Reynolds wants to remain in center he needs to show he can field the position and, so far, he’s done just that. During his 2019 rookie campaign, Reynolds was about an average to below-average defender. He had +3 Defensive Runs Saved, but a -7.5 UZR/150, -0.2 range runs above average, but +2 Outs Above Average. As stated earlier, he spent most of his time in left field, but also saw time in center and right.
During 2020, Reynolds looked like a completely different defender. He played a total of 435 innings but had +6 DRS, a 4.5 UZR/150 and +0.5 range runs above average. He also had +1 OAA, already reaching half his 2019 OAA total despite playing less than 600 innings compared to the year prior.
So far this season Reynolds has looked like a middle ground between the two. He has +1 DRS, a 0.4 UZR/150 and 0.3 range runs above average. OAA loves Reynolds though with +2 in just 316 innings of work. Overall, he’s been a slightly above-average defender this year. That definitely helps his case to remain in center field.
However, what really helps his case is his bat. Currently, Reynolds is hitting .290/.387/.455 with a .369 wOBA, and 135 wRC+. He also leads the entire league in doubles with 15. He’s on pace for about 56 doubles across 600 plate appearances.
Now as a left fielder, you expect that kind of production. So far this year, they’re tied with third basemen for the third most productive position when it comes to offense in terms of wRC+ (4th if you count designated hitter). Left fielders in total have a 98 wRC+. In comparison, center fielders have a 96 wRC+. Although not a huge difference, center fielders are usually known to be less of an offensive force on the diamond than left fielders.
Overall, there aren’t very many outfielders currently outhitting Reynolds. Entering play on Wednesday he ranked 14th among qualified outfielders in wRC+ and 12th in wOBA. Overall, his 1.4 fWAR is tied with seven other outfielders for the 8th highest mark in all of baseball.
Among seasons where a center fielder has collected at least 600 plate appearances, there have only been five center fielders to have a wRC+ better than Reynolds right now since 2015. Mike Trout (who’s done it 4 times), Ketel Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Charlie Blackmon, and George Springer (it was 2017, so take that for what you will).
So if Reynolds remains in center, what happens to Travis Swaggerty? Swaggerty is the team’s top outfield prospect, and the question may end up being can his bat play up enough in left field to put him there? Well, early returns suggest yes, he can. Swaggerty’s bottom line of .200/.319/.425 is misleading. For one, he’s starting to translate some of that raw power into game power. His .225 isolated slugging percentage is a huge jump from his 2019 mark of .116. He’s also hit 3 home runs, reaching a third of his home run total from 2019 in 477 fewer plate appearances.
Swaggerty is also walking a whole lot more and striking out a whole lot less. He currently is carrying a 12.8% walk rate and 17% strikeout rate (compared to 10.9% and 22.1% in 2019). His overall numbers have been brought down by an unlucky .172 batting average on balls in play. Despite this, he’s barreling up the ball a ton. He’s decreased his ground ball rate by over 10%, going from 49.3% in 2019 to just 37.9%. He’s also hitting a ton of line drives, sitting at a 24.1% rate. He is also hitting to all fields.
Even if he can get that BAbip up to a reasonable .280 mark, he could still be a .260-.270 hitter. If his power and plate discipline continues, you’re looking at a .260/.360/.460 hitter, which is still extremely productive and will easily play well in left field.
Though it’s worth mentioning Swaggerty has never played left field. However, he’s considered an elite center field defender. He has a 60-fielding and arm grade on FanGraphs, making him one of the Pittsburgh Pirates best defensive prospects. But left field at PNC Park does require a fantastic fielder. After all, PNC Park’s left field wall is the deepest in baseball, reaching 410 feet. It’s actually deeper than dead center field by 11 feet. Overall, it’s one of the most cavernous left fields in all of the sport.
In the end, making Reynolds the long-term center fielder over Travis Swaggerty may end up improving the defense for the Pittsburgh Pirates. PNC Park’s left field being one of the toughest in baseball is a factor too, as Swaggerty projects as an elite defensive outfielder. Plus, the bat of Reynolds will play up at the position and could potentially give the Pittsburgh Pirates one of the best hitting center fielders in baseball.