In baseball, there are two things a team or player can do to help win games: score runs and prevent runs. While this may seem ridiculously obvious, its simplicity is sometimes overlooked—as long as you are good enough at one of those two things, you can be below average at the other one.
The trick, of course, is that not everything on the field is equally important. For position players, for instance, hitting is more important than fielding; this is because you have a finite amount of outs to work with and avoiding outs is extremely important. This is why there are lots of great defenders who don’t stick in the big leagues: they just can’t hit.
Edward Olivares is a solid hitter and baserunner, and has been a league average bat for Kansas City over the last three years. He’s been more productive at the plate than top prospects Bobby Witt Jr. and MJ Melendez. That would make you think that meeting that bar would make Olivares a clear-cut MLB talent.
You would, ah, be wrong.
That video is perhaps Olivares’ most ignominious moment as an outfielder defender; it happened back in 2021. But it is indicative of the entire Edward Olivares Outfield Experience: poor jump, winding route to the ball, subpar decision making. You know, the works.
Olivares is another example from a long line of impressive athletes whose athleticism simply does not translate to defense. Per Statcast, the 6’2” Olivares ranks in the 88th percentile in sprint speed and the 93rd percentile in arm strength. The physical tools are there. But in that Statcast page you’ll see that Olivares also ranks in the 1st percentile in outfield jump. That means that just about every other outfielder in baseball is better in that regard.
If you’ve read me talk about defense, you’ve seen me use these statistics before. If you haven’t, here’s the rundown: Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and Statcasts’ Runs Above Average (RAA) all measure runs compared to a league average. By averaging them together—I call it AVGDEF—you pull multiple perspectives into one figure. And by prorating it to 1000 innings, you get a rate stat not unlike batting average or WAR per 150 games.
It turns out that just about every other outfielder in baseball is better than Olivares in overall defensive value, too. Olivares is essentially the worst defensive outfielder in the league with at least 1000 innings played since 2020, right alongside former teammate and player who frankly most resembles Olivares, Hunter Dozier.
Worst outfielders in baseball since 2020
The eye test doesn’t always match up with the numbers test, but for Olivares and Dozier, they did indeed match up. Neither looked comfortable whatsoever in the outfield, and every time a ball was hit to their area of the field everyone tensed up a little bit, expecting (and often getting) one of the worst possible results. And like Olivares, Dozier had a good arm and an above average sprint speed in the 78th percentile—but an outfield jump in the 1st percentile.
From an offensive standpoint, the two were also very similar. Both debuted in their age-24 seasons, and both of them were plenty respectable at the plate through their age-27 seasons (which Olivares is in the middle of). Dozier walked more and hit for more power, while Olivares has made more contact and struck out less; Dozier was the better hitter of the two, but they aren’t hugely far apart.
Olivares’ and Dozier’s offensive production
Could Olivares end up with the breakout season that Dozier had in his own age-27 season? Maybe! Olivares has a sweet swing with plentiful line drive power, and his expected weighted on base average is north of .350, way higher than his actual wOBA. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.
However, the comparison with Dozier is important because it paints a picture of what Olivares has to be in order to survive in Major League baseball: Olivares has to be a markedly above average hitter or else his value absolutely tanks. We saw what happened with Dozier when he wasn’t a markedly above average hitter—he became the least valuable player in baseball, that’s what happened.
So far, it has made sense to keep Olivares on the team. First, and most obviously, his competency at the plate is in stark contrast to many hitters around him. Second, Olivares has been cheap, and his 2023 salary is the league minimum of $740,000. Third, Olivares’ options have been famously and repeatedly used by the Royals as a roster flexibility tool.
Moving forward, though, Olivares’ roster viability falls apart. With only one option year remaining, the next time the Royals send Olivares to the minors marks the last season they’ll be able to do so. Plus, Olivares goes into arbitration next year, where his salary will probably triple and continue to go up in future seasons. And that’s without even taking into account he has played at a full-season pace under 1 WAR over the last two years.
Olivares just doesn’t hit enough to make up for the fact to be one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball. If he did, the Royals could find a role for him as a designated hitter. And if he was merely bad on the field, he would be a trade chip or a part of the future. Alas, he is not, and we can only hope that nobody hits the ball at him when he’s in the outfield in the meantime.