Bill Ladson argues that Rick Ankiel may be the best CF the Nats have ever had in their short history in DC, apparently on the strength of some recent (admittedly impressive) highlight reel plays. I appreciate a nice play as much as the next fan, but I'm also a little suspicious of argument by anecdote. Maybe other Nats' CFs have made great plays, too (remember J-Max robbing a HR?). Maybe Ankiel has trouble with routine plays. This sounds like a job for math!
I took a look at the advanced fielding stats, and there's a good case to be made that The Arm is right up there as a "Best Nat CF" candidate. In fact, it looks like Rick is about to quietly wrap up the best year of his career with the glove. There are also a few blasts from the past, and some disappointments. Stats (with explanations, of course) after the jump. Stats through games of 9/15/11 courtesy fangraphs.
Okay, so here's the advanced fielding data for everyone who's played CF for the Nats since 2005 and had at least 100 balls in zone (that is, a ball hit into the part of the field that is the CF's responsibility). I fudged this a little for J-Max, who only had 93 BIZ.
Going by the notoriously noisy UZR/150, Justin Maxwell is best CF the Nats have had, and it's not close. Nyjer Morgan comes in second, and Ankiel is about tied with Ryan Church for 3rd. I had completely forgotten Church had playing time in CF--apparently, he acquitted himself well (not that the club cared at the time). Spectacular flop Lastings Milledge trails the field, while Roger Bernadina (sadly) isn't that far ahead of him. UZR/150 has problems, of course, not least of which is that it takes about 3 seasons before you can say it gives a good feel for a player's true talent level. As you can see from the innings totals, everyone but Morgan has less than one season's worth of data, and J-Max has less than 1/3 of a season! Let's take a look at the some of the other measures.
Defensive runs saved (DRS) definitely puts Ankiel on top. While Nyjer saved one more run than Ankiel by DRS in CF, it took him more than twice as many innings to do it. And Ankiel saved three times as many runs as UZR-leader Maxwell in only twice as many innings. Looking at Revised Zone Rating (RZR--the percentage of balls hit into "your zone" that you make an out on), Ankiel is again at the top, followed by the speedy Willie Harris and J-Max. Looking at the percentage of plays that a fielder made that were on balls that were out of his zone (OOZ%), Ankiel is tied for first with J-Max, well ahead of the rest of field. Surprisingly, Milledge manages a tie for 3rd with TAWH on OOZ%--maybe he should have concentrated more on catching balls hit toward him than trying for highlight-reel plays. Of course, RZR/OOZ% have their own problems, in that they count plays without compensating for how difficult they are (which UZR tries to do).
Ladson's eyes weren't deceiving him--so far, Rick Ankiel's performance in CF is arguably the best of anyone who's played CF for the Nats in DC. But what about the future? Well, let's take a look at his career trends in CF:
Holy cow! This is a career year for Ankiel, fielding-wise. In fact, I'd say his defensive breakout this year in CF is on a par with Morse's breakout with the bat the last two seasons. He's beating his career averages by a huge amount, and he's actually 4th in the NL in UZR/150 and RZR among CFs with 500+ innings, and first in DRS! I had Rick figured for about 5 runs below average in CF this year, not 10 runs above--his previous CF experience shows why. UZR seems to have underrated his range in the OF so far (at least relative to his RZR/OOZ%), even as it recognizes the value of his arm. Ladson quoted Ankiel saying, "You work on your jumps every day. I think over time, when you put your time in, it starts to become a little more natural. You just become better at it." Is he Figuring It Out in CF, like I'm arguing Morse is at the plate? (By the way--stop slumping, Michael, you're making me look bad.)
I should note two points of caution going forward. First, Ankiel is 32. He may be improving his range by practicing to get better jumps, but losing speed with age will counteract that. Second, fully half of his defensive value by DRS (and all of it by UZR) is from his arm. If people stop running on him, he's not going to get as many chances for OF assists (although he will be saving some extra bases by runners being held). His "ARM" value was much lower in previous seasons--did teams in the Central know better than to challenge him? Consider 2010: Rick had an "ARM" of -0.9 runs with the Royals, but +2.9 with the Braves. Is that a SSS coincidence, or an example of familiarity vs unfamiliarity?
The vagaries of UZR aside, it's pretty clear that Rick Ankiel is having the best defensive season of his career this year, playing his way into the top spot of the SPAD-Nats' CF leaderboard. He's also managed to do this while going beyond merely not being a knucklehead to actually being a consummate pro. Watch how fast he runs the bases on a dinger; he's usually in the dugout by the time the horn finishes. If he wore his socks high all the time, he'd be the complete package. In the meantime, enjoy the highlights.