Jeren Kendall, Buddy Reed And The Fourth Outfielder "Floor"
Both are capable of a highlight-reel catch at any time. Both boast blazing speed and can absolutely fly in the outfield and on the basepaths. Both have plus arms that can gun down a runner at any base, at any time. Both can change a game in an instant, either with a momentum-turning defensive play or by creating a run where there was none with their speed.
But as electrifying as they are, both Kendall and Reed face serious questions about how much they can hit.
Kendall slashed .215/.300/.356 as an age-appropriate player at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers) in 2018. Reed broke out with high Class A Lake Elsinore (Padres) after two miserable offensive seasons, but hit .179 with a 32 percent strikeout rate after a promotion to Double-A.
Players with Kendall and Reed’s immense skillsets—plus center field defense, plus speed, a plus arm and questionable hitting ability—are often referred to as having the “floor” of a fourth outfielder in the majors, simply because their defense and speed alone should get them to the big leagues even if they don't hit.
It is a popular, oft-repeated refrain by scouts and team officials.
It is also a false one.
Inspired in part by Kendall and Reed, I looked at every player who served as a reserve or platoon outfielder in the majors in at least one of the last four seasons (2015-18).
Short version: the average major league reserve outfielder hit .283/.357/.439 in his minor league career. Barely any hit below .260 or had a on-base percentage below .325.
At present, Kendall is a career .225/.303/.380 hitter in the minors and has yet to play above A-ball. Reed is closer, but he still falls below the average with a .256/.311/.403 career slash line.
Through the end of the 2018 season, based on precedent, neither crosses the minimum threshold of offensive production needed to actually project as a reserve or platoon outfielder in the majors.
A player qualified for our sample if they received between 200-400 plate appearances in a season—the range of a backup or platoon player—while primarily playing in the outfield. To control for starters who fell into the 200-400 plate appearance range due to injury, all players who started at least 90 percent of their games that season were removed.
Because minor league data is what we’re seeking, players who signed as foreign professionals and played less than a half season’s worth of minor league games on their way up the ladder—such as Nori Aoki, Hyun-Soo Kim, Leonys Martin and Guillermo Heredia—were also removed.
That left us with a 124-player sample. As mentioned, the average major league reserve/platoon outfielder hit .283/.357/.439 in their minor league career. Only nine of the 124 hit below .260 as minor leaguers, and just 10 had an on-base percentage below .325.
Others have been reserve/platoon outfielders their entire careers—such as Brandon Guyer, Alex Presley and Ezequiel Carrera—and yet others were career infielders who only later began playing the outfield primarily, e.g. Howie Kendrick, Rickie Weeks, Lonnie Chisenhall and Chris Owings.
But regardless of their history or pedigree, they all hit as minor leaguers.
Take a look. Here are the career minor league numbers for all 124 reserve/platoon outfielders in the majors over the last four years.
|Albert Almora Jr.||.290||.322||.416|
|Alejandro De Aza||.286||.367||.415|
|Michael A. Taylor||.257||.332||.418|
|Jackie Bradley Jr.||.294||.391||.462|
|Scott Van Slyke||.287||.365||.487|
|Melvin Upton Jr.||.294||.387||.450|
Jeren Kendall Strives For More Contact
Kendall is working with team hitting instructors to get his swing in the zone longer in order to create more contact.
The numbers are loud, and they speak for themselves.
But are there different standards for lefthanded hitters or righthanded hitters? Or center fielders versus corner outfielders?
Glad you asked. Here career minor league averages for various subgroups in our sample.
Lefthanded hitters (53 players): .289/.365/.446
Righthanded hitters (63): .279/.350/.433
Switch hitters (8): .279/.356/.416
Center fielders (64): .281/.354/.420
Corner outfielders (60): .288/.359/.458
Career outfielders (101): .282/.358/.437
Converted infielders (23): .288/.356/.450
Some of the results are intuitive, such as corner outfielders having to hit for more power than center fielders. Others are the opposite of what would be assumed—lefties actually had to hit better than righties on average in the minors to make it as a major league reserve.
But in each case, every subgroup averaged at least a .270 batting average and .350 on-base percentage in the minors.
Kendall and Reed, along with many other speedy, defensively gifted outfielders of their ilk, don’t cross those thresholds yet. That doesn’t mean they never will. Both Kendall and Reed, in particular, have immense levels of athleticism and years of development still to come. Both have a chance to have it all click, and if it does, they can be well more than just backups.
But what it does mean is that if they continue at their current paces and don't get better offensively, their "floor" isn't really a fourth outfielder—it's as a a long-time minor leaguer. Even with their defense, speed and arm strength, they have to significantly improve as hitters to actually become reserve outfielders in the major leagues.
That's the truth for all the minor leaguers given the label of a fourth outfielder "floor." Speed, defense and arm strength are important, and they can be crucial separators as players climb the minor league ladder.
But at the end of the day, speed, defense and arm strength alone aren't enough to get a young outfielder to the majors and stay there.
As the actual reserve outfielders in the majors can attest, you have to hit to be a big leaguer.