After three spectacular, home run robbing catches in the past week, Adam Engel reminded everyone, including naysayers like myself, why he still has a spot on the White Sox roster: his defense is amazing. No, no, that doesn’t quite do it justice. Unbelievable? Still too weak. Maybe his social media bio says it best: professional ball retriever.
I can only imagine what Engel would do running towards or up Tal’s Hill (RIP). The centerfield cavern at the Polo Grounds would have become Engel’s personal playground. Even Yellowstone would quake in his presence and otherworldly ability to track fly balls. Okay, maybe the quaking would have something to do with the super volcano. Even so, you know Engel would still cover ALL the ground. The question is, how much offense does he need to provide in order to keep his spot in the lineup?
The flipside: offense without defense.
Offensive juggernauts with suspect defense often keep lineup spots or eventually just casually slid into DH duty. But, can the White Sox justify starting a player who is essentially the polar opposite?
The short answer is yes, sort of. It’s so easy to use traditional statistics to judge offense. The first high-powered bat and shaky defense combo I think of is Manny Ramirez. He owns a career slash line of .312/.411/.585 with 555 career dingers and 1831 RBI. That is quite the offensive output, and it was enough to earn him a starting outfield spot in 1,941 games versus just 332 DH appearances. Manny wasn’t known for “being Manny” due to his ability with the glove. Fangraphs would argue he was actually quite the liability in the field. Ramirez owns a career minus-90 DRS (although the data only dates back to 2002). Considering defense was never a big part of his game, it’s not likely the numbers were much better before then, let’s be honest.
However, Manny’s seeming lack of awareness and ability in the field were completely overshadowed by his bat. Given the familiarity with traditional offensive numbers, fans and front offices alike can easily justify this type of bat in the lineup. We all laughed or felt incredibly nervous watching someone like Manny in the outfield, but we always understood why so many were okay with it.
Let’s look at some contemporaries.
Adam Engel is on the opposite end of the spectrum. He is worth 2 DRS this season, according to Fangraphs. Engel also continues to make plays outside of the average coverage area of a centerfielder. Using the plays made out of zone metric, he has 143 OOZ in his short career, compared to 213 total for Manny Ramirez from 2002-2010 (again, as far back as the data goes). Another centerfielder, this one with middling offensive statistics, has proven the glove can go a long way: Kevin Kiermaier.
If it weren’t for frequent injuries, Kevin Kiermaier would likely be considered one of the best players in baseball. Instead, he’s known by most as one hell of a defender. His career slash is .252/.311/.415. He doesn’t hit many home runs, and he’s just an above average base stealer. However, Fangraphs values him as a career 109 DRS and 352 OOZ. He catches seemingly everything, and that’s what keeps him in the lineup more often than not, despite a .178 average this season. Anything he does on offense is a bonus, but he still does more with the bat than Engel.
So, what do White Sox fans need from Adam Engel?
What do we know about Adam Engel? He saves runs. He makes outs outside of the expected zone. And, according to Statcast, Engel’s 15 Outs Above Average are second only to Billy Hamilton‘s 16, but he adds 6% catch probability to Hamilton’s 5%. Only Engel, Hamilton, and Ender Inciarte have fifteen or more OAA (min. 250 opportunities), and Engel has the highest catch percentage added, at 6%. The man is a professional ball retriever. But, does it matter considering the atrocious results at the plate?
Adam Engel’s slash this year sits at .224/.272/.319, with just three homers and twenty-three driven in. It’s rough. The twelve steals in fifteen attempts help a bit, and the recent miniature power surge is encouraging. However, I feel like some star high school ballplayers I grew up with could almost manage that slash. He needs to get that OBP up. His average can sit in the low-.200 range forever, but his on-base percentage needs to be up over .300. Because of the havoc he can wreak on the basepaths, he simply needs to get on more. Kevin Kiermaier has a lifetime .311 OBP, and he’s had a pretty good career (when healthy) with very few people ever calling for him to lose his starting job, even with middling or worse results.
White Sox fans don’t need Adam Engel to be a Kiermaier type player. We really only need more of a Billy Hamilton type career slash (.245/.298/.330) to make this thing work for a few years. Somewhere in between the two would be perfect. With Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez, and Blake Rutherford moving up the ranks and performing well anyway, Engel is likely to be a fourth outfielder at best on the rebuilt team.
If Engel can up the on-base numbers by about 30 points, the defense and baserunning will be well worth the frustrations. However, right now, it’s perfectly acceptable to be upset with the lack of offense and wowed by the sensational plays Engel makes covering everything from Guaranteed Rate to Lake Michigan. In the meantime, let’s hope opposing players continue to try to hit the ball away from him, so Adam can do what he does best: retrieve balls professionally.