Are the Astros’ underrated in Center Field?

Mar 29, 2023 - 4:14 PM
MLB: Spring Training-Washington Nationals at <a href=Houston Astros" src="" />
Chas McCormick catches a fly ball in a spring training game at Palm Beach FL. | Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

In large part, this is a story about Chad McCormick. I know that McCormick isn’t a perfect player. He is a guy who must work hard to keep or share his starting job in CF. But it’s also true that McCormick tends to be underrated. McCormick, who was drafted in the 21st round (2017), didn’t have a lot of prospect pedigree when he made the team at age 25—and with that background, there is still skepticism of his performance.

Fangraphs has been running a series ranking the teams by position. The Astros are ranked 23d best in CF. That means the Astros’ CF position is in the bottom third of teams. And this is mostly because McCormick, in my view, is underrated by the analysts. As a comparison, two former Astros players who competed with McCormick for the CF position, Jose Siri and Myles Straw, are the primary CFers for the 15th-ranked Rays and the 20th-ranked Guardians. Siri and Straw are getting most of their ranking based on defense—and deservedly so, because they are very good defensive CFers. But is there really that much of a gap in overall performance between Siri and Straw, on the one hand, and McCormick?

I think this is a case of a player whose performance is underrated—not any kind of bias against the Astros. After all, Astros fans can’t complain about Fangraphs’ rankings for the other two outfield positions. The Astros are ranked No. 1 in LF and No. 2 in RF. The article acknowledges that McCormick is “good” and mentions his “World Series-turning catch in the ninth inning of Game 5 in Philadelphia.” But the basic problem is that McCormick’s projections suggest that he will achieve 1 WAR in 400 plate appearances.

But compare that projection to McCormick’s actual 2.2 and 2.0 WAR in 2021 and 2022 in 320 and 400 PA, respectively. McCormick’s offense was clearly above average in 2021 and 2022 (by 8% and 14%, according to wRC+), in contrast to a projected OPS+ of 93 or 7% below average. The projected decline feels like more than normal regression.

What about McCormick’s defense? His defense in 2022 was actually very good. Maybe Jake Meyers is better on defense, but that doesn’t distract from McCormick’s outfield range. In CF, McCormick is +2 on DRS, and +8 on Statcast runs above average. According to Statcast, Chas is in the top 2% of players on both outs above average and outfielder jump. Statcast rates his arm as close to average (45%).

Here is the Statcast summary for McCormick.

Let’s unpack some of these measures (other than defense):

  • McCormick is in the top 40% of xwOBA and xSLG, the top 30% of Barrel%, the top 15% of BB%, and the top 40% of sprint speed. McCormick’s propensity to take walks is perhaps his best offensive trait.
  • McCormick’s weaknesses are related to striking out. He is in the bottom 10% of whiff rate and 20% of K rate. While he needs to work on this, it is offset somewhat by his ability to take walks.
  • McCormick is at 35% on average exit velocity but at 61% for maximum exit velocity. Both measures are somewhat noisy. Some analysts use 95% percentile maximum exit velocity instead (see this google document with percentile exit velocity). McCormick’s 95% percentile exit velocity puts him at approximately “average,” which is consistent with the Statcast Hard Hit measure above.

McCormick is not spectacular or elite like George Springer. But he is above average at most aspects of his job in CF. He reminds me of the type of players that Oakland used to build contending teams in the last ten years. Good approach, draw walks, show some power, and produce steady—though unspectacular—2 or 3 WAR seasons. Mark Canha, formerly with Oakland and now with the Mets, is a good comparable for McCormick.

As I said, McCormick isn’t perfect. There are some things he needs to improve. One of the most obvious issues is his performance vs. RHPs. McCormick kills LHPs. But he has been terrible against RHPs. Here are the platoon split slash lines, according to Savant:

vs LHP .340, .409, .563, .972

vs RHP .207, .301, .344, .645

That’s quite a disparity. The optimistic view is that McCormick’s offensive profile could take a huge step forward if he makes some improvement when he faces righties. (A relatively modest increase in his OPS against RHPs could push his overall OPS+ into the 120 range.) However, if McCormick doesn’t improve against righties, he may be pigeonholed as a platoon hitter in the future. At this point, it probably makes sense for Jake Meyers to start in games against particularly tough RHPs. At some point in the future, a LHB like Justin Dirden could push McCormick into more of a platoon role—unless Chas can improve his splits. As you would expect, McCormick worked in spring training on dealing with the inside pitches from right-handers (according to broadcasters).

Taking the good with the bad—there is a lot more good than bad. In my view, the Astros’ CF situation is not below average. And if Jake Meyers shows that he is fully recovered from his shoulder injury, the combination of McCormick and Meyers could be quite good.

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