Right field is a position that has long been defined by two traits: a power bat and a power arm. All-time greats Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron both called right field home and are two of the greatest home run hitters in the history of the game. Even today, clips of Roberto Clemente throwing runners out from right can be seen on MLB Network reruns. Today is no different, with many of the best players at the position exhibiting both of skills. As for game's current crop of right fielders, it is a bit top heavy, with very little separating the players on our honorable mention list from the last spot on this list. In my opinion, I really feel as though there is a definitive top four with number five being a matter of personal preference. Even with the lack of top tier talent currently, continued progressions from likes of Giancarlo Stanton and Jason Heyward could once again give right field a couple of the best players in the game. In addition, the tremendous abilities of prospects Wil Myers and Oscar Taveras could further put the limelight back in this corner outfield spot. Fittingly, both of these precocious talents have the prerequisite traits for right field, possessing a rifle arm and a powerful bat, much like our number five right fielder in the game today...
*NOTE: Justin Upton was ranked fifth on this list prior to his trade to the Braves; however, he will be playing left field this upcoming year and therefore is excluded from these rankings. I did discuss Upton as a player in the most recent Behind the Trade, lauding his well balanced skillset but also questioning his massive home/road splits and consistency (or lack thereof). If he would have been traded prior to our left field rankings, he would have been left off the top 5, coming in at my number six slot.
5. Josh Reddick, Oakland A's
Last year, Reddick burst onto the baseball scene, posting a 4.5 win season and was an integral part in Oakland's surprising division title. Acquired as part of Billy Beane's roster overhaul last winter, Reddick showcases a wide range of skills that made him successful not only in 2012, but should continue to make him a valuable player in the years to come. Defensively, Reddick is among the game's elite, posting at least 10 DRS the past two seasons, with an absurd 19 runs saved last year alone. Much of his defensive excellence is owed to his strong throwing arm (check out this impressive throw to nab former 30 SB man, Jason Bourgeois), which was credited with 15 outfield assists last year, good for third most in the entire major leagues. With above-average range and the aforementioned rocket for an arm, Reddick is an absolute weapon in right, especially capable of slowing down runners from moving first to third.
Offensively, Reddick is more of a work in progress, especially compared to his right field peers. Last year, Reddick hit .242/.305/.463 with 32 HRs, 85 RBI, and a 110 OPS+. While they are solid numbers, Reddick lags behind many right fielders who are off this list when using OPS+. Right fielders Torii Hunter (132), Carlos Beltran (128), Nick Swisher (126), and Jay Bruce (118) all have higher OPS+ than Reddick, and all have a longer track record as well. In response to this, I point to evidence that foreshadows possible offensive improvement as soon as next season. The statistic BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) is a useful tool in explaining fluctuations in batting average for a given year, as any extremes from a player's career average usually can be expected to regress to the player's mean. Last year, Reddick had an abnormally low BABIP of .269, below his career BABIP of .277, and well below the league average at around .300. With a simple regression to the mean, it is very reasonable to expect to expect an increase in batting average in 2012. In addition, it is also possible that with Reddick's newfound power (career high 32 HRs, .463), pitchers may pitch him more carefully in 2013. This would result in an uptick in his walk rate and consequently, increase his lackluster OBP (.305) into at least average to slightly above average territory. If Reddick can indeed raise his OBP (aided by a predicted increase in BABIP), and maintain his power and defense, Reddick has a very legitimate case for being the fifth best right fielder in the game today, and one who is very capable of 4+ wins in 2013.
4. Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The crown jewel of the free agent class, Josh Hamilton shocked the baseball world when he signed a 5 year, $125 million contract with his long-time division rival, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Hamilton experienced a tumultuous 2012, with both the highest of highs (MVP level April/May, owner of just the 16th four HR game in ML history), and the lowest of lows (prolonged summer slump, struggled as Rangers lost division title). Even with his erratic performance, Hamilton still accumulated a well above average line of .285/.354/.577 with 43 home runs and 128 runs batted in. Undoubtedly, when he's on (and healthy), Hamilton is among the best in the game. However, Hamilton's inconsistency, along with his age, injury history, and unfavorable ballpark transition, prevent him from achieving a higher ranking on this list. Additionally, Hamilton's eroding plate discipline saw him have the highest chase rate in the Majors, obviously not a good sign for anybody, let alone someone with the aforementioned red flags. Nick wrote up a good piece on Hamilton back when he first signed with the Angels, explaining many of these very warnings. But I digress, as these lists are supposed to celebrate the player and recognize his talents on the field, not nitpick every fault a player has. Nevertheless, Hamilton is unquestionably is an exceptional talent in the batter's box, and remains one of the biggest offensive threats in the game.
In addition to acquainting himself with a new team, Hamilton will also have to acquaint himself with a new position. Hamilton, a left and center fielder for most his career, is expected to take over in right for the Halos, completing an all-world defensive outfield trio with Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos. It should be noted that Hamilton has played in right field before, but in limited action (only 70 career games). Hamilton's defensive performances up to this point really have depended on his position. In center field, Hamilton has a career -18 defensive runs saved, clearly below average. However, in the less demanding position of left field, Hamilton is a +12 DRS player, with 14 outfield assists in limited action. Like left field, right field is further down the defensive spectrum than center field, and Hamilton should be similar defensively in right as he was in left.
Hamilton was only a 3.4 win player in 2012, as his subpar defense in center field really hurt his overall value. I fully expect a defensive improvement in right field, and could be a 4.5+ win player even if his offense doesn't transition flawlessly to Anaheim
3. Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves
As one of the more hyped prospects in recent memory, Heyward entered this season with a cloud of disappointment following a poor 2011 campaign. Heyward did more than make up for it in 2012, rebounding with a 5.5 win season, garnering MVP votes and his first career Gold Glove in the process. Certainly one of the more talented physical specimens in the game today, Heyward's career revival can be attributed to his power and defensive development. Offensively, hit .269/.335/.479 with 27 home runs and a 117 OPS+, a far cry from his .227/.319/.389 line in 2011. Remember, that Heyward will only be 23 come Opening Day '13, so it is reasonable to expect these numbers to continue to improve as he reaches his prime. Additionally, Heyward impacts the game offensively by being an excellent baserunner, without having typical "burner" speed. This often overlooked, underrated trait, is one way Heyward adds to his overall offensive value without being an absolute masher. For example, Heyward ranked sixth in all of baseball in UBR (Ultimate Base Running), which measures extra bases taken (going 1st to 3rd on a single), not grounding into double plays, stolen base rate, among others (for full list of what UBR measures, click here). Just for comparison sake, Heyward was worth nearly 8 runs on the bases alone in 2012, while only stealing 21 bases; former teammate and documented speedster, Michael Bourn, stole 42 bases, but was only worth 6.6 runs on the bases last year. Although Heyward may be a jack of all trades, master of none on offense, he truly is an elite defender in right.
Not a whole lot can be said about Heyward on defense except that he is the best at his position. Whether you look at Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), Range Factor (RF), or even just outfield assists, Heyward ranks #1 every time. Just this past year alone, Heyward saved 20 runs (worth approximately 2 wins) manning right field for the Braves. This isn't just some one year fluke either; Heyward has saved at least 15 runs in every season of his career, with the most DRS and highest UZR over that same time. When you add up Heyward's complete package, he becomes a much more valuable commodity than some may give him credit for. Sure, Heyward needs to cut down on the strikeouts and regain some of his declining walk rate, but at only 23 years of age, he's got some time to figure it out. I think Heyward should only continue to improve with age and could very well surpass his 5.5 WAR in 2013.
2. Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays
The ultimate rags-to-riches story in the Major Leagues, Bautista's transformation from minor league journeyman to one of the premier power hitters in the game is nothing short of spectacular. For those that don't remember how bad Bautista was, he was traded for Robinson Diaz back in 2008. Don't know who Robinson Diaz is? Well neither do I, and the Blue Jays got a perennial all-star for a player who has been out of baseball since 2009. Whereas the player ranked number three on this list, Jason Heyward, didn't possess an extremely visible skill (defense doesn't count unless your name is Ozzie Smith), Bautista does possess such a trait and that is his light-tower power.
Since his break-out season in 2010, no player has hit more home runs than Bautista (124) and ranks second only to Miguel Cabrera in slugging percentage. However, Bautista's offensive prowess doesn't stop with his power, as Bautista exhibits an excellent eye (career 13.5 BB%, 5% better than league average) and doesn't strike out like big-time power hitters usually do. Last year, Bautista was having typical Bautista season until going down with a wrist injury, sustained during this painful at-bat. Even with his shortened campaign, Bautista put up a respectable .241/.358/.527 line that was especially hurt by an abnormally low BABIP of .215. Once this BABIP normalizes, I don't think it would be too much to expect numbers similar to his previous couple of seasons. Nevertheless, any injury regarding the hands or wrist can be especially troubling and it should be interesting to see how Bautista's health fares this upcoming season.
On defense, Bautista isn't quite the stalwart he is on offense. That isn't meant to be an insult; it is merely a testament to Bautista's incredible hitting ability. Throughout his career, Bautista has hovered around league average, with negative -3 DRS in right field for his career, but has posted positive DRS numbers on several different occasions (including last year). Another note of interest with Bautista is that, in the past, he has split time between third base and right field. This sort of flip-flopping on the diamond could have had an adverse effect on his defensive abilities at the time. Then, perhaps it is not a coincidence that Bautista's defensive ratings have steadily improved as he has moved away permanently from the hot corner. However, as long Bautista continues to rake, I think any defensive showing at all really is just gravy for the Blue Jays. If Bautista maintains his offensive talents and just stays healthy, Bautista could double his 2012 WAR total and be a 6+ win player.
1. Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins
Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, Alex Rodriguez, Tony Conigliaro, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, Bob Horner. This is a list of players who hit at least 90 home runs before they turned 23. There's one name on that list I forgot, and he just happens to be number #1 in our rankings. Giancarlo "Don't call me Mike" Stanton, is right alongside that list of immortals (and Bob Horner) and ranks #1 among right fielders in the game today. Stanton exhibits just about everything you want to see in right fielder, including the best power stroke in the game today. Stanton lead the league in ISO (statistic that subtracts batting average from slugging percentage), slugging percentage (.608), and AB/HR ratio (12.1). However, as great a power hitter as Stanton is, he doesn't fall under the one-dimensional slugger stereotype. Stanton, who, once again, is only 23!, hit .290 and has a career walk rate of 10% (2% better than league average). With the fire sale of the Marlins to the Blue Jays this offseason, Stanton will be the only threat in an otherwise pathetic offense. With that said, Stanton could very well see his walk rate climb even higher, as pitchers try to avoid throwing anything within a mile radius to him. Overall, Stanton's presence is one that is unrivaled in the game today and undoubtedly has one of the foremost offensive skillsets in the game today.
In spite of the reputation that hulking sluggers only have one facet of their game (hitting, more specifically power), Stanton, as previously mentioned, doesn't fall victim to this lazy stereotype. In addition to being able to hit for average and have a good idea at the plate, Stanton brings substantial value on defense as well. Stanton has ranked as a positive defender every year in the Majors, including a +10 DRS rating and a +9 UZR just last year. Clearly, Stanton has a more well-rounded skillset than might be assumed just by looking at his intimidating physique (6'5", 245 lbs). Heck, Stanton was even recruited to play tight end at USC for Pete Carroll before signing on with the Marlins back in 2007. Stanton is a rare breed of power and defense and could be argued that only Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have more trade value than this precocious 23 year old. Just going back to that initial list, Stanton isn't with company of just all-stars; he's with the company of inner-circle HoFers (once again, except Bob Horner). Add everything up, and Stanton was and is a fairly confident choice as the best right fielder in the game today.
If I do have any qualms with Stanton, it is that he has a high strikeout rate and small, yet noticeable, injury history. Stanton struck out a 143 times last year as he also battled knee inflammation that required surgery in early July. I do think these are some things to be aware of for Stanton in the coming years. However, as I said before, Stanton has it all: an all-around skillset, the legendary company, and the god-given talent. Stanton missed close to 40 games in 2012 with the aforementioned knee injury, but still put up over 5 WAR. If healthy, Stanton could very well be in the mix for the NL MVP, with a good shot at putting up over 7 WAR.
*NOTE: As you can see, there are plenty of players with whom I wrestled with for the last slot on my list. As I said earlier, I don't think there really isn't a wrong choice here and is a matter of personal preference.
Carlos Beltran, St. Louis Cardinals
Nick Swisher, Cleveland Indians
Nick Markakis, Baltimore Orioles
Jay Bruce, Cincinnati Reds
Andre Ethier, Los Angeles Dodgers
Alex Rios, Chicago White Sox