Andrew McCutchen’s Second Last Chance in Center

Few people benefit in Pittsburgh from Starling Marte’s 80-game steroid suspension, but Andrew McCutchen could be one of them.

After McCutchen logged the first eight seasons and 10,317.1 innings of his defensive career exclusively in center field, the Pirates elected to move him — against his wishes — to right field this year. The idea? To accommodate the more able glove and fleeter feet of Marte in center field. While moving a Face of the Franchise off a position at age 30 is unusual — just a reminder that Derek Jeter never moved to second base — consider McCutchen’s four-year Defensive Runs Saved numbers: 2013 (5), 2014 (-13), 2015 (-8), 2016 (-28).

The -28 was an MLB worst last season.

The right-field experiment had worked out reasonably well early this season, even if McCutchen’s heart wasn’t into it. But that experiment is on hold now, as McCutchen receives a second — and perhaps a last — chance in center field. McCutchen seemed pleased to return there when speaking with my former employer, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

“Center field is where I need to play. It’s where I want to be at. If I’ve got to show a couple people that — show I can do what I need to do — that’s what I’m going to do.”

During his stunning age-29 season, stunning for the extent to his production collapsed, McCutchen claimed he was healthy. But teammate Gregory Polanco appeared to suggest that McCutchen actually wasn’t. “He seems faster than last year,” said Polanco. “His knee is healthy again and he’s flying.”

We’ll see. McCutchen returns because the Pirates don’t have a clearly superior alternative, defensively, on their major-league roster. Top position prospect, outfielder Austin Meadows, was a possibility, but the club would like him to get more seasoning at Triple-A.

McCutchen’s move back to center could go a long way toward determining how much trade value he has at the deadline if the Pirates find themselves located outside the postseason picture. How McCutchen performs could also go a long way toward determining whether the club exercises his 2018 club option. (Who could have imagined that being a question a couple years ago?) Assuming he finishes his career with a different club and hits free agency in the not-too-distant future, his ability to play in center — or not play there effectively — will impact his future earning potential.

And McCutchen is not just returning to center, he’s returning to how he used to player center field: by positioning himself nearer to the warning track than just about every other major-league center fielder prior to 2016.

The Pirates brought McCutchen and all their outfielders to shallower positions last season to more often catch the weak liners and fly outs they anticipated from their ground-ball-centric staff, and to cut down on extra-bases taken by baserunners. McCutchen’s arm has always been considered a liability, and he did lessen the number of extra bases taken against him last year. The Pirates admitted that the plan backfired, though, and adversely affected McCutchen, when the pitching staff failed to execute as well off the mound. More balls were hit over McCutchen’s head for extra-base hits. This season, the club’s pitchers appear less dependent, or focused, on the ground ball. Deeper positioning figures to be necessary, and McCutchen believes he will be a better center fielder positioned where he is more comfortable. Again, we’ll see. The more important question is how he rates there in comparison to his center-field contemporaries.

Things started off well in McCutchen’s return to center on Tuesday night in St. Louis. In the second inning, he ranged well to his right to intercept the ball.

While the batted ball had only a 35% hit probability according to Statcast, that number doesn’t account for McCutchen’s positioning.

Of course, McCutchen has always been better going to his right as Mike Petriello first noted for It’s going back, and to his left, that have been at issue.

Perhaps the move back to center will energize and motivate a player who was displeased with the move to right field. So far, so good, through two games. McCutchen has recorded one assist and seven putouts. McCutchen has even been worth +1 DRS!

How long McCutchen remains in center and how long he remains in Pittsburgh is still unknown. Marte is in line to return after the All-Star break. Will he resume center-field duties? Will McCutchen still be present in Pittsburgh? If the Pirates have a poor first half, it wouldn’t be surprising if they spin off as many short-term assets as possible in hopes of a quick retooling or rebuilding effort for 2018 and beyond.

We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out. But McCutchen believes he belongs in center. He believes he was negatively impacted by positioning last year — and, to some degree, he probably was. Now he’s back where he wants to play, positioned more like he wants to be positioned. Now he has a chance, perhaps a final one, to prove he belongs there.

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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5 years ago

If positioning negatively affected him, why not use the Statcast Catch Probability #’s that Tango & crew have developed to augment this analysis? Those data points account for positioning, and would be a good supplement to argue whether Cutch’s bad defensive numbers were really positioning-based, or whether he catches fewer balls than average based on hangtime and distance. Surprised not to see it here.

5 years ago
Reply to  timmer

Sorry Travis, this is more negative-sounding than I had meant it to be. Just was surprised to see you give a lot of maybes and probablys when discussing his defensive performance. (Even though maybes and probablys are completely defensible given variance of single-year defensive metrics and health)

5 years ago
Reply to  timmer

Statcast’s catch probability work off metrics that are positioning neutral so wouldn’t help. Time the ball is in the air and distance travelled by the defender are both factors and by having distance travelled as part of the calculation good positioning just looks like easy plays

5 years ago
Reply to  BritishCub

That’s sort of my point though. By saying that his DRS was artificially low, because he was positioned poorly, you set up a hypothesis that if he were positioned better he’d have made more plays. But you can eliminate the positioning question by looking at the Catch Probability metrics. Those would tell you if McCutchen was worse than average range-wise, and if he was, then that would put a hole in the theory that his problem was based in poor positioning. If he can’t get to a ball that other outfielders would based on hang time and distance, then he shouldn’t be in CF.