2016 In Review: Outfield (OF) Busts

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Our review of the 2016 fantasy baseball season continues with a look at some of the most disappointing performances in the outfield.

Bust Outfielders in 2016

Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs

Heyward has had a fairly weird career. He broke into the majors back in 2010. Just 20 years old with 200 plate appearances above High-A to his name, Heyward hit .277/.393/.456 with 18 homers and 11 stolen bases. It was tough to find anyone who didn’t believe he’d be a superstar. After a sophomore slump, he bounced back with what still stands as the best season of his career in 2012 – 27 homers, 21 steals, and elite defense in right field. He got his face broken by a pitch the following year, but was coming off back-to-back seasons with at least 10 HR and 20 SB when he signed with the Cubs last winter.

2016 ended with his first championship ring, but otherwise, it couldn’t have gone much worse for Heyward. He provided his usual fantastic glovework, but at the plate he was an unmitigated disaster. Rather than rattle off his numbers, I will simply point out that he was a worse hitter than Jose Iglesias, Freddy Galvis, and Avisail Garcia.

Heyward is still just 27. We’ve seen him bounce back from a terrible season once already, and the Cubs will again have a star-studded lineup. But anyone who watched him play this year – particularly in the postseason, when “Heyward pops it up” became Joe Buck’s most uttered phrase – may have a hard time trusting him. Dude just looked broken at the plate. His swing mechanics have been referred to as “high maintenance” and that was on full display.

The crazy thing is, Heyward’s peripherals barely budged. He made a lot of soft contact, but he always has. He hit a lot of infield flies, but not that many more than usual. His spray chart doesn’t look terribly different. He did lose a few ticks off his average exit velocity from 2015, but otherwise the numbers just don’t seem to add up.

At the end of the day, we’re talking about a guy who has only ever once hit more than 14 home runs, only once hit above .280, only once scored or driven more than 85 runs, and never stolen more than 25 bases. A rebound may be coming, but Heyward’s never been the fantasy stud we hoped for.

Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

Like Heyward, McCutchen had the worst season of his career in 2016. Unlike Heyward, he was actually useful to fantasy owners, hitting .256/.336/.430 with 24 homers, 160 R+RBI, and six stolen bases. But of course there’s a yawning chasm between “useful” and “justifying a first-round draft pick.” After averaging a .313-96-25-90-19 line over the previous four years, Cutch seemed like one of the safest bets in baseball. So what happened?

We know that McCutchen dealt with a nagging thumb ailment, and there were reports (albeit unconfirmed) that McCutchen was playing through wrist issues for much of the year. Taken in tandem with his strong finish, it’s easy to construct a narrative that 2016 was an aberration thanks to injuries, and McCutchen should resume being one of the best hitters in the game. After all, he only turned 30 last month, and it’s incredibly rare to see a player like Cutch decline this suddenly. Case closed, right?

Would that it were so simple.  McCutchen also looked much slower than usual for most of last season, which we can’t blame on hand injuries. Perhaps his knee issues from 2015 flared up again. Either way, his stolen base total has dropped every year since 2013, as has his batting average. It’s been a steady and precipitous drop since 2014 for his slugging percentage, hard contact rate, and BABIP.

While I’d expect McCutchen to be better in 2017, assuming he’ll be back to business as usual seems a bridge too far. Most likely, he’s a good player rather than an elite one at this stage.

Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

Harper was such a monster in 2015 that the sequel was almost guaranteed to be a letdown, but this? This was likely sitting down to watch The Godfather Part III and getting The Room instead. While Harper did steal 21 bases, he saw a sharp decline in pretty much every other measure. His batting average and OBP dropped nearly 100 points each, while his slugging percentage dropped by over 200(!).

It’s a testament to how amazing he was in the previous year that he was still a top-25 outfielder despite those declines. Harper is, incredibly, still only 24. We all know how talented he is, and how physically gifted. But expecting him to do another peak-Bonds impression might be a bit unrealistic. Remember that old Sesame Street song, “One of These Things?” We can play that game with Harper’s career:

Season AVG OBP SLG HR/FB% Hard%
2012 .270 .340 .477 16.2% 30.1%
2013 .274 .368 .486 18.0% 35.6%
2014 .273 .344 .423 15.5% 30.2%
2015 .330 .460 .649 27.3% 40.9%
2016 .243 .373 .441 14.3% 34.1%

 

That table kind of says it all. Remember when people were questioning if he’d overtaken Mike Trout as the no-brainer first pick in fantasy drafts? See, the thing about Mike Trout isn’t just that he’s been sublime – it’s that he’s done it for five years running. Harper hasn’t. And while he’s certainly got the talent to be an elite player for the next decade, he may never reach the dizzying heights of 2015 again – particularly if he continues to have trouble staying healthy.