An Early Update on Andrew McCutchen’s Right-Field Experience

This wasn’t a pleasant offseason for Andrew McCutchen. The face of the franchise’s availability on the trade market was well known and, at times this winter, a trade seemed inevitable. About four months ago, in an Orlando hotel, McCutchen told former teammate Michael McKenry — they were together for an event — that he thought he’d just been traded.

Stephen Nesbitt recently chronicled the experience for the Post-Gazette.

Writes Nesbitt:

McKenry says he sensed something was the matter.

“I think I just got traded to the Nationals,” McCutchen said.

McKenry blinked and sputtered back, “Well, holy schnikes.”

Of course, McCutchen was not traded to the Nationals. Perhaps he would have been had Adam Eaton not been dealt there. We’ll never know.

As if being made available in a trade weren’t a sufficient blow to the ego of the former MVP, the Pirates then asked him McCutchen to move off of center field, not only a position of some status but also the only position he had played since debuting in the majors. Imagine the Yankees publicly dangling Derek Jeter later in his career and then ask him to move off shortstop, to, say, second base. You don’t see stars treated in such a manner every day.

But for the Pirates to compete in the NL Central they must perhaps operate with cold-hearted, ruthless efficiency. And the club seemed to be in need of moving McCutchen somewhere. He posted an MLB-worst -28 Defensive Runs Saved last season as a center fielder. McCutchen has declined defensively in each year since 2013, and that decline accelerated in his shocking age-29 campaign last season.

(McCutchen was hurt by the Pirates’ shallower outfield defensive alignment, which back-fired last year when the club was unable to produce as many ground balls and shallow flies as in the past. Still, McCutchen, by the eye test and analytics, has been a liability in center field.)

On the surface, the move to right seemed curious since McCutchen’s throwing arm has long been thought to be his weakest tool. On competitive throws, McCutchen averaged 85.8 mph last season, a middling number and the lowest velocity among the Pirates’ starting outfielders. Right fielders, of course, typically require e a strong arm to reduce the number of first-to-third advancements by baserunners. Wrote former FanGraphs staffer August Fagerstrom last April after digging through some Baseball Info Solutions data:

In 97 instances where a base-runner was deemed to have an opportunity to take an extra base on a ball hit to McCutchen, the runner did so 70 times. That 72% advancement rate was the second-worst on record by a center fielder, dating back to 2006. Only Denard Span‘s 75% advancement rate in 2009 was worse.

But if the prospect of hiding declining range takes precedent over hiding below-average and declining arm strength, then right field in PNC Park is the ideal place to do it, as PNC Park has the largest left field in the game. Mike Petriello presented the case for such a move back in November.

Sure, McCutchen’s arm wouldn’t be a great fit for right, but that may matter less than you think, because PNC Park’s left-field power alley is so big (420 to the deepest part) compared to right (320 down the line, 375 in the power alley) that unlike many other fields, it’s a lot harder to play left than right. That’s a big part of why Marte, a fantastic defender, has stayed there. Either way, the average National League team allowed 73 singles to center with a man on first (i.e., potential first-to-third opportunities), and 80 to right. It’s just not that big of a difference.

After all, a strong outfield arm is nice. Being able to prevent extra-base hits — well, that’s far better. If the Pirates do want to shift McCutchen over, they may be on to something.

Petriello also noted how McCutchen is more effective going to his right, which should play in moving toward the larger space of right-center compared to down the line.

Of course, the move to right had been, until Opening Day, made only in theory and had yet to be put into practice in a regular-season game. And McCutchen received quite the test to open the season in Fenway Park’s spacious and awkward right field.

So how’s it going so far?

McCutchen passed his first test Wednesday when he recorded his first outfield assist as a right fielder, throwing out Sandy Leon on an 89 mph throw to the plate.

Now, it’s true that McCutchen also played some right field in the spring and in the World Baseball Classic, where he did make some off-the-mark throws. But his work with his arm on Wednesday — albeit against a catcher on the bases — is encouraging.

And McCutchen also made a nice catch in going back on the ball, a weakness for him as a defender in center, to rob Mitch Moreland of an extra-base hit.

And with the Pirates planning to go away from their ground-ball philosophy to a degree, as David Laurila reported — and with McCutchen likely playing a deeper relative position in the field than he did a year ago —
maybe he can bounce back defensively in a move down the spectrum.

Torii Hunter made the full time move from center to right in 2011 after declining in center. In his first two years in right field he posted +7 and +12 DRS numbers in 2011 and 2012.

Hey, McCutchen is off to a good start:

While McCutchen could still perhaps be sent to a new address at the trade deadline, depending on the Pirates’ performance, or after the season — the Pirates hold a 2018 club option — perhaps he has found a new home in the field.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Psychic... Powerless...
6 years ago

Good stuff as usual.