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The Christian Yelich center field experiment

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The Marlins may opt to try out Christian Yelich in center field and shift Marcell Ozuna for the rest of the regular season. What does this mean in Miami?

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

One interesting bit of news came out recently as the Miami Marlins continued their slow march towards the end of the season. Christian Yelich has been great in his role in Miami in 2016, and he looks to be potentially the next position player star on this team. We know that Yelich has done this with improved offense this year, but we also know that part of his appeal is his overall well-rounded game. Part of that well-rounded approach is Yelich’s stellar defense in left field, a position at which he won a Gold Glove in 2014.

The Marlins may not continue playing Yelich in left field however, instead considering him for a move to center field. From MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro:

Christian Yelich is remaining in center field, even with Marcell Ozuna back in the lineup after being out since Aug. 31 with a sore left hand. On Wednesday, Ozuna started in right field, with Ichiro Suzuki in left.

"We like the way Yeli has looked in center, and quite honestly, we want to keep looking at it," [manager Don Mattingly] said. "I think as much as anything, we've seen closing speed. ... This is an awfully big outfield. We want to see if there is a difference."

This is the current alignment the Marlins plan on trying for the rest of the season, and while it may seem like a benign move, it could have some real implications for the future. Yelich has spent some time in center field, but the advanced numbers have not known him to be good out there in a small sample. In 472 career innings, he has been worth five runs below average by UZR and DRS. That almost means nothing in that small time frame, but we do have some idea as to why Yelich may have problems in center. His arm, while improved, is still probably below average, particularly for center field. However, outside the arm, theoretically a rangy-enough left fielder with a Gold Glove-caliber skills should be able to survive in center field. Juan Pierre had one of the worst arms of the game and, in his prime, he was a plus-center fielder.

The question right now is whether Yelich is that far above average that the transition to center field would go well. Over his career, Yelich has been about four runs above average per full season in left field by UZR. DRS finds him much better, at around 11 runs better per year. It would be difficult to say which measure is better, though Yelich certainly passes the eye test for a defender capable at center. The average difference between a corner outfielder and a center fielder, based on defensive adjustments research done in 2015 by Jeff Zimmerman, is about six runs. The FanGraphs adjustment is at 10 runs per season. Taking the average of Yelich’s career numbers and the defensive adjustment and you get that he would be about an average center fielder defensively.

If the Marlins can get Yelich to play a league average center field, that would be of good value to them, but the team already has a center fielder in Marcell Ozuna. Right now, it still makes sense to test out this move, because Ozuna spent about half of his time playing right field in the minors and Giancarlo Stanton is currently not slated to start or play any outfield while recovering from his groin strain. However, next year the presumption is that the Marlins would not simply flip-flop Yelich and Ozuna, as Ozuna is a capable, approximately average center fielder himself. Ozuna would not have a spot in right field since Stanton will be holding that position. If this is not something that Miami would likely pursue in the following years, why even test it at all now?

It is possible that Miami may want to make an outfield shift in the near future, however. It has long been rumored that the Marlins and Ozuna are likely to part ways, especially with Ozuna entering arbitration for the first time. The team could opt in the offseason to trade the bounce-back outfielder for younger talent to fill out their roster and move Yelich permanently to center field as a replacement. The team would then not have to find someone who can man center field to replace Ozuna, instead being able to shop in a broader corner outfield market if need be.

The other possibility is that, with Stanton’s latest injury problem, the team may pull the trigger on the Stanton-to-first-base move that fans have long considered. Stanton is probably still a positive when healthy in the outfield, but at this stage Miami may think he will not be able to retain his health in the outfield and may choose to move him to first base to get more games out of him. It would be a blow to Stanton’s value, but it may keep his bat in the lineup longer. In this scenario, Ozuna makes the permanent shift to right field, and the Marlins again shop for a corner outfielder, perhaps chasing after guys like Josh Reddick in the free agent market.

Of course, this is all speculation, and this could simply be the Marlins keeping their options open for the future in case of a necessary move. It is a good idea late in a season in which the team is unlikely to make the playoffs thanks to the injury bug. Let’s see how Yelich manages this latest challenge.