How valuable can a player who provides nothing offensively be?
That’s a question I’ve wondered throughout much of this season in regard to Adam Engel, and particularly this week as he’s thrust himself into the spotlight with insane home run robbing highlights on three separate occasions.
Engel’s been a source of frustration in this space for most of the season, not because of his hindrance on the 2018 White Sox’s ability to win games so much as his perceived limited upside coupled with playing time compared to other outfield options. That the White Sox are lacking in major league-ready players capable of playing center field isn’t necessarily his fault, but the organization’s reliance in Engel compared to the playing time of Leury Garcia and Charlie Tilson has seemed baffling at times, given the former’s now 650-plus career plate appearances of significantly below-average offense. It’s not that Garcia or Tilson offer significantly more upside, but more that the playing time split — Engel has started 87 of the team’s 117 games in center field — would suggest he’s the unrivaled starter despite the fact that, entering Sunday, all three of his triple-slash numbers begin with a 2.
But his defense.
It’s true that Engel is one of the better defensive center fielders in baseball, at least according to BP’s metrics. After putting up a 7.9 FRAA in 2017, good for ninth best in the league among center fielders, he’s third in the league this year with a 9.9 FRAA entering Sunday, trailing only Kevin Pillar (11.9) and Leonys Martin (17.4). He’s good out there, this much is clear. But is he good enough to make his batting line worth it?
Engel’s line entering play Sunday was .216/.266/.296 with a 55 OPS+. While that will go up after Sunday’s 3-for-4 game, which included a home run, we’re still talking about a player with a sub-.600 OPS. Engel doesn’t quite have enough plate appearances to qualify, but if he did he’d rank behind every qualified hitter in baseball except for Chris Davis and Alcides Escobar in that category. Davis and Escobar check in a -3.0 and -1.6 WARP, respectively.
Those players, though, don’t have the defensive value that Engel provides, with Escobar (at a premium defensive position) being worth -9.8 FRAA and Davis (at a, uh, less important position) being worth -7.0. Engel’s FRAA bumps him all the way up to … 0.6 WARP.
As I said, Engel has been a replacement level player even with the defense. The question then becomes how much would his bat need to improve for him to become a legitimate asset. We’re not talking first-division starter asset, but merely someone worth rostering going forward, maybe as a bottom-of-the-order starter or fourth outfielder. For posterity’s sake, we’ll set the threshold at 2.0 WARP.
Since 2013, there have been two occasions where a player recorded a season worth 2.0 WARP or better with an OPS below .600. Not surprisingly, both are catcher — Jose Molina and Chris Stewart both did so in 2013. Given that framing metrics change the scope of things in terms of catcher value, it’s tough to see those as apt comparisons to Engel. If you move the goal posts back a bit and say an OPS below .700 and focus specifically on center field as the player’s primary position, you get eight such occasions:
2018 (to date)
Kevin Pillar: .678 OPS, 11.9 FRAA, 2.33 WARP
Leonys Martin: .684 OPS, 9.6 FRAA, 2.09 WARP
Billy Hamilton: .664 OPS, 9.5 FRAA, 2.36 WARP
Cameron Maybin: .697 OPS, 1.0 FRAA, 2.49 WARP
Sam Fuld: .663 OPS, 10.3 FRAA, 2.13 WARP
Ender Inciarte: .677 OPS, 16.4 FRAA, 2.94 WARP
Billy Hamilton: .648 OPS, 16.3 FRAA, 3.20 WARP
Leonys Martin: .689 OPS, 18.8 FRAA, 4.30 WARP
As you can see, all of the players listed have solid defensive reputations with the exception of Maybin, who just barely sat below .700 and still had a 94 OPS+, and the lowest OPS on the list is .648, which would be a huge leap from the offensive production we’ve seen from Engel thus far in his career. 2.0 WARP is such a low bar to clear for competency. Last year, 144 players reached that number, including guys like Jose Reyes and Miguel Rojas. A 2.0 WARP player isn’t even necessarily good, but for Engel to reach that even that mark it would take marked improvement with the bat and probably even a step forward with his already very good glove.
Engel’s highlight reel catches are fun and exciting. His defensive value is such that he need only be a slightly below average offensive player to provide some semblance of value, and with the White Sox internal center field options still a ways away from the majors, he’s being afforded every opportunity to prove he can do that. But those shortcomings are so drastic that the bar might be too high for the 26-year-old to clear. He’s had 650 plate appearances worth of opportunities and at least a few more coming to prove otherwise, but unlike the home run balls Engel keeps bringing back, becoming a positive major league contributor seems out of his reach.
Lead Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports