Unlike the speed needed in center or a strong arm in right, left field is usually considered the easiest outfield position to field, and thus often is littered with talented hitters that just aren't up to snuff defensively. However nowadays, left field is not just reserved for large sluggers, as numerous athletes have begun to call left field their positional home; although admittedly these players usually play left in deference to even more athletic center fielder (something we will later see in our rankings). For some, this athletic ability has made them bona-fide stars, capable of not only hitting a baseball a long way, but also making an impact on defense as well. The talent crop of left fielders right now is truly amazing and this list was extremely difficult to select because of so many compelling candidates. With that being said, on to the fifth best left fielder in the game today...
5. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
Faced with arguably the highest expectations for any player in big league history, Harper, at the tender age of 19, matched and surpassed those expectations in his rookie season. Harper, after underwhelming stays in AA Hagerstown and AAA Syracuse was called up for good on April 28, and never looked back. He hit .270/.340/.477 and smashed 22 home runs en route to winning the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year. Like his ROY counterpart in the American League, Harper possesses a wide range of skills that should continue to make him successful in the coming years. He has burgeoning power (57 XBH), a healthy approach at the plate (9.4 BB%), and strong defensive skills (14 DRS, 10 runs above average ). Harper is still coming into his own as a player, and at 20 years old, is still way ahead of the learning curve compared to his comparatively aged peers. After spending much of 2012 in center and right field, the Nationals' offseason acquisition of Denard Span will move Harper to left, thus his appearance in these rankings. At the heels of a 5 win professional debut, Harper could once again be around that number in 2013 as he continues to grow and mature as a player.
4. Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals
Drafted out of Nebraska as a third baseman, Gordon was immediately hailed as the next George Brett when the Royals selected him second overall in 2005. Blessed with plus-plus power and gifted line drive stroke, Gordon was the can't miss prospect of his time. But cursed as only a Royal would have it, Gordon fell flat on his face, and was demoted twice to AAA before resurfacing with the big league club as a left fielder. Since that positional change, Gordon experienced a revival of sorts, becoming a legitimate star caliber player. Although never being very good defensively at third, Gordon has evolved into one of the best defensive left fielders in the game with 44 DRS and Gold Gloves in each of the past two years. Much of his defensive prowess comes courtesy of his rifle for an arm, throwing out the most base runners among outfielders the past two seasons.
Offensively, Gordon is no slouch either, despite not quite living up to enormous potential out of college. He has the classic underappreciated offensive skillset, revolved around taking plenty of walks and hitting plenty of doubles (lead all of baseball with 51 2Bs in 2012). One cause for concern is whether or not Gordon and his elevated BABIPs are for real or not. League average BABIP is around .300, although higher totals can be seen with fast players (Ichiro) or those that hit a ton of line drives (Miguel Cabrera). Gordon's line drive stroke could explain his extremely high BABIPs of the past two seasons (.358 and .356, respectively), but it remains unlikely that these numbers are sustainable. Even if Gordon were to see his batting average decline due to a BABIP regression, he still has the tools to be a very productive player, and one very capable of being a 5+ win player in 2013.
3. Matt Holliday, St. Louis Cardinals
One of the most gifted offensive talents in the game, Holliday was once again a key component in the middle of the best NL offense in 2012. In 2012, he hit .295/.379/.497 with 27 home runs, a 138 OPS+, and 102 runs batted in. Holliday's offensive consistency is really quite remarkable; since 2006 (first full season) Holliday has averaged 28 home runs, 104 RBI, a 143 OPS+, and a .316/.393/.544 triple slash line. Predictably, I would expect Holliday to be around those numbers once again in 2013. In contrast to his natural hitting ability, Holliday is quite unnatural in the outfield. He is a career -10 defender and was -6 runs last year alone, and just lacks the range necessary to be even an average defender. If there is a positive from Holliday's defensive game, it comes from his strong arm, responsible for an average of six outfield assists per year. Holliday is the prototypical left fielder; a masher first, and defender second. Although it is always more favorable to have a more balanced
game, Holliday makes it work due to his excellent offensive skills and consistency and should once again be around five wins in 2013.
2. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
Braun entered the 2012 season amidst a cloud of controversy regarding his positive steroid test and subsequent successful appeal. With fans and baseball enthusiasts seriously questioning the validity of his MVP-winning 2011, Braun answered with an equally strong 2012 season. In fact, Braun posted nearly identical offensive numbers with the only noticeable difference in his home run total (41 in 2012 to 33 in 2011). Comparatively, Braun hit .319/.391/.595 with an OPS+ of 159 last year in contrast to his .332/.397/.597 and 166 OPS+ in 2011. What is especially exciting for a player like Braun is seeing how he has evolved and matured as a player since first arriving to the big league stage. This is evidenced in his walk rate (5.9% in 2007 to 9.3% in 2012), K rate (22.8% to 18.9%) and his still improving power (career high in home runs in 2012). Clearly, Braun has matured as a hitter and his overall offensive skillset is among the Major League elite.
Also, unlike most sluggers, Braun has a presence of speed in his game. Despite not having the reputation as a burner, Braun has developed an innate ability to steal bases, swiping at least 30 bases in each of the past two seasons. This added facet to his game is just another way in which Braun can impact games. In addition, Braun has grown as a defender as well. After playing out his rookie season at the hot corner (where he was absolutely atrocious; league-leading 26 errors, -3.0 dWAR), Braun has transitioned nicely to left where he has posted positive DRS numbers in each of the last three seasons. Braun's evolution from slugger to all-around machine has been phenomenal as he has undoubtedly cemented himself as one of the game's very best. Given Braun's consistency and overall track record, he could very easily be in the MVP race again with a 7+ win season. When first working on these positional rankings, Braun had been ranked as the unanimous best player at his position. However, a recent position switch by an even greater player caused Braun to be bumped from top positional honors.
1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
I'm just going to go right out and say it: I think Trout is the best player in baseball and will be for years to come. I realize he's 21; I realize he's only had one full season; I realize he wasn't even the best player in his league (or at least according to a bunch of obsolete writers). I don't care. No player in the sport today has more impact on a game than Trout. He is the embodiment of a five tool talent and can truly do it all.
To those that may be surprised to see Trout's name in left field after playing much of his rookie campaign in center, get used to it. Angels management announced earlier this offseason that Trout will shift to left in deference to defensive whiz Peter Bourjos, who equals, if not outright surpasses, Trout's defensive talents. This is not so much as a knock on Trout as it is extremely high praise for Bourjos, who has put up some of the best defensive metrics of all-time. Even with Trout saving 21 runs and having a 2.1 dWAR last year, the decision to move him to left is certainly justifiable with Bourjos' presence in center and could actually have a long term beneficial impact on Trout's career. A move to left earlier in his career could save Trout some of the wear and tear that comes with the territory in center, and thus keep his promising talents on the field more often.
As previously mentioned and as you undoubtedly already know, Trout's on-field success is not limited to the grass. Trout was one of the best hitters in 2012 and one could even reasonably make the case that his offensive contributions were greater than that of Triple Crown champ Miguel Cabrera. He was that good. He hit for average (.326), he got on base (.399), and hit for power, evidenced by his 30 home runs and .564 slugging percentage. Limitations of the RBI statistic aside, Trout drove in an impressive 83 runs; something of which I find all the more impressive considering where he bats in the lineup and the fact that he missed 20 games while destroying Triple-A pitching. Furthermore, he did most of this damage playing in pitcher-friendly Angels Stadium, as seen in his league leading OPS+ of 171, a statistic that accounts for these ballpark effects.
In addition to Trout's natural hitting ability, he can make numerous offensive contributions with his legs. The old saying goes "speed kills," and Mike Trout certainly lives up to that statement by killing other teams on the bases. In 2012, Trout used his speed to steal a league-leading 49 bases. What makes this even more impressive is Trout's extreme efficiency on the bases; he had a 91% success rate, which was good enough for third among players with at least 30 steals. Also, Trout's speed and instincts allowed him to be the Major League leader in the Ultimate Base Running statistic, which valued his baserunning at an incredible 12 runs!
Last year, Trout was the game's best player, compiling a mind-numbing 10.7 win season. To put that in perspective, only thirteen players have ever reached this total. Their names: Ruth, Bonds, Hornsby, Yastrzemski, Gehrig, Ripken, Wagner, Cobb, Mantle, Mays, Morgan, Williams, and Musial. These are the all-time greats of the game we are talking about, and Trout's 2012 is firmly in their company. Although this certainly underscores the greatness in his rookie campaign, this forebodes almost certain regression; there literally is nowhere to go but down for him. If there is a red flag in Trout's game, it is that he had a ridiculous .383 BABIP. This number is nearly impossible to sustain, even with Trout's speed skillset and high BABIP track record. It is very plausible for Trout to lose 30 points of that BABIP and instead of being a .330 hitter, he would be closer to a .300 hitter. But then again, with another year of experience under his belt and the fact that he's Mike Freakin' Trout, maybe he will exceed his already lofty expectations. Regardless, Trout is an unbelievable, once-in-generation talent and player where all the superlatives truly do apply. When 2013 is all said and done, I see Trout completing another MVP-esque season with a 8+ win season.
For those that might have forgotten Trout's greatness, I hope the .gif below refreshes your memory