George W. Bush once said, "Fool me once, shame on...shame on you. Fool me...you can't get fooled again." Apparently that is Texas's version of the famous idiom, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Much like their team in the AL West, Texas's version of that quote just seems second best.
Last offseason, the A's signed a high-profile center fielder, and Coco Crisp had this to say about it: "If someone feels there is someone better than me, it's hard for me to believe. Unless he's a demigod come down from the heavens, no one is going to outshine me in center field." Fans and pundits alike laughed at Coco's dramatic proclamation, as Yoenis Cespedes was a dynamic young athlete and Coco was an aging speedster with a noodle arm. It wasn't hard to envision Cespedes outperforming, and ultimately replacing, the incumbent outfielder, and I personally gave up on Coco before the season even began.
Things went a bit differently than I expected. It turned out that Cespedes wasn't a demigod (in the field, at least), and Coco shut up his critics by putting up one of the better seasons of his career. Fool me once.
After prematurely giving up on Coco and being once bitten, I am determined to be twice cautious this winter. However, Billy Beane isn't making things easy on me, adding another high-profile defensive center fielder for the bargain price of one shiny Penny. Now, a lot of things can still happen this winter. There could be more trades, or offseason injuries, or players quitting sports to be priests or contestants on Survivor. At this moment, though, there are two starting center fielders on the roster, and only one of them can play that position at any given time. Our duty as bored fans is to decide which one we prefer now, long before any decisions have to be made or all of the necessary information has been gathered. To the stat cave!
Let's separate this discussion into a few categories: Defense, Offense, Compatibility, and Other.
When choosing your starting center fielder, defense should really be the first thing that you consider. We'll start out by looking at Coco. The perception is that he is an excellent defender in center, and he proves it by doing things like robbing Prince Fielder of a homer in Game 3 of the ALDS. However, the metrics don't like Coco's recent defense nearly as much as the eyeball test does. After starting out as an elite left fielder in 2004 and 2005, here are Coco's numbers as an everyday center fielder (all numbers courtesy of Fangraphs):
The first two columns are the year, and the number of innings Coco played in center (you can see where he gets the label "injury-prone"). The next is his Defensive Runs Saved, which measures how many runs the player saved (or cost) his team with his defensive play. DRS is a counting stat, like RBI, meaning that you can accrue a higher total by playing more (or vice versa, if you are a poor defender). You are probably familiar with UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), which is another way of measuring defensive value. UZR is also a counting stat, so I have included UZR/150, which just extrapolates the number to 150 games (sort of like how ERA is really "Earned Runs per 9 innings").
What does it all mean? Well, I'll tell you what I see when I look at that chart. I see a guy who was incredible in his 20's, putting up gold-glove caliber UZR and DRS totals when he was healthy enough to be on the field. I also see a guy who has started to slip as he's entered his 30's, putting up two straight years of lackluster defensive stats. Of course, there isn't quite enough data yet to truly proclaim that Coco has dropped from "excellent" to "average" on the defensive spectrum, but the current trend isn't promising. It's also not that hard to believe that a player who relies on speed may be declining in his 30's, but we'll get to that later.
On the flip side, we have Young. It turned out that Yoenis Cespedes was not a demigod in center, but Chris Young might be. Here is what he's done in his career:
When I look at this profile, I see pretty much the exact opposite of Coco's career. I see a guy who had a bit of a learning curve in his early 20's, but then hit his stride when he entered his prime. Young has played like an elite center fielder for the last 2 or 3 seasons, depending on who you ask.
You can choose one of two paths in sports. You can make decisions based on what happened in the past, or you can make decisions based on what you think will happen in the future. In this case, the trends are very clear: Chris Young is the better bet to play a superior center field next season.
If I told you that Coco Crisp was worth nearly 3 WAR last season (2.7 bWAR, 2.9 fWAR), where would you immediately assume that his value came from? If you're like me, you'd guess that it was his fielding. We just looked at his defensive stats, though, and they came in with neutral-to-negative values. No, it was Coco's offense that made him a valuable player in 2012. He actually put up one of the best seasons of his career at the plate; between a 105 OPS+, double-digit homers, a low strikeout rate, and 39 stolen bases at an absurd 90.7% success rate, Coco was a force at the top of the order. In April, when I was foolishly crying for Coco to be traded, my rationale was that his value as a player lay solely in his center field defense; it turned out that I could not have been more wrong. His defense was neutral, and his offense was awesome.
Young, on the other hand, is moving in the wrong direction at the plate. His OPS+ marks for the last three seasons: 108, 103, 95. He has power, and a bit of patience, but doesn't provide much else. He hits for a low average and strikes out a lot, making him sort of a center field version of Josh Reddick. Young can be every bit as valuable as Coco at the plate, but it's going to come in the form of homers and walks rather than contact, singles, and high-percentage baserunning. The only question is, what's your poison? For the answer to that, we move on to the next section...
By "compatibility," I mean "How does the player fit with the rest of the roster?" As we can see with Coco and Young, different players bring different skill sets, and it's not always a matter of picking one "better" player over another "inferior" player. Team needs must be considered as well.
In Coco's case, one of the things that made him so valuable in 2012 was that he was different than the rest of the lineup. With Cespedes, Reddick, Moss, Gomes, Carter, etc., the A's had plenty of low-contact power bats in the middle of the order; what they needed to tie it all together was a table setter who could make consistent contact and become a distraction on the basepaths. A higher OBP would have been nice, but we take what we can get in Oakland. At least there was one guy who could generally avoid striking out. Young, on the other hand, represents exactly what the A's already have: sluggers who struggle to make contact, but hit it a mile when they do. It's one thing for Young to replace Jonny Gomes's role in the lineup, but he really can't replace Coco's production in the same way.
What else is there to consider? Coco is the tenured fan favorite and team leader, and even Billy Beane has vaguely suggested that that might matter (though his comments were in regards to Coco as a trade option and had nothing to do with playing time). Age is an issue; Coco will start the season at age 33, while Young will begin at age 29. That is a huge difference. There is no way to predict exactly when a player will decline, or how steep that decline will be, but we do know that speed is one of the first things to go. Coco's game is built almost entirely around his legs; once he begins to lose a step (or three), his value could drop quickly. Of course, there is no specific reason to believe that the inevitable decline will hit him this year, but it is something to keep in mind.
Contract status is a non-issue; both players are receiving similar salaries next year ($7M for Coco, $8.5 for Young), and both have team options for next year.
So, what is the final verdict? My answer: Get creative. I would like to see Young get the majority of time in center, which makes this the second straight offseason in which I think that Coco should lose that particular job. However, the lesson that I learned from last year is that Coco doesn't need to be in center to help the team.
Here is what I propose: Coco starts every day (mostly as the DH), Young starts in center against lefties and some righties, and Seth Smith starts (as the DH, with Coco in center) against particularly tough righties. We found out last year that BoMel is adept at working with platoons, and he's going to have to repeat that performance this year. He has a handful of players whose talents fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and it's up to him to put the pieces in the right places.
To put this another way, here are the key situations:
1. When facing a left-handed starter, the lineup includes an outfield of Cespedes/Young/Reddick, with Coco leading off as the DH. (Coco can spell Cespedes in left as often as you want, with Yoenis DH'ing.)
2. When facing a particularly tough right-hander, Young sits (due to exaggerated platoon splits), and the outfield becomes Cespedes/Coco/Reddick, with Smith (or Moss or Carter) DH'ing.
3. When facing an average right-hander, Young stays in the lineup for his defense and Smith stays on the bench as a pinch-hitting option.
4. Coco plays virtually every day, and his time as the DH helps him stay healthy enough to remain in the lineup.
Now, a lot of things can happen between now and April. If I were to make one prediction, it would be that this entire conversation will be meaningless in a few months, because new information will throw a wrench in things. Smith could be traded as part of a package for a shortstop, or Young could be flipped, or Coco could sprain his afro while moving furniture. For the time being, though, this is how I would like to see things play out: Young in center, but Coco batting at the top of the lineup every day.
It's tempting to reserve the DH spot so that Moss and Carter can both play every day, but I learned my lesson last year when I underestimated Coco's role on the team. And having been fooled once, I can't get fooled again.