Andrew McCutchen Makes a Modern Baserunning Gaffe

It’s not very often you see Andrew McCutchen making a mistake, but it happened yesterday in Pittsburgh’s 1-0 loss to the Tigers. A tip of the hat to Pirates broadcasters Tim Neverett and Bob Walk for pointing out this interesting wrinkle.

It was the Pirates’ half of the fourth inning, with the game tied 0-0 and Alfredo Simon on the mound for the Tigers. With two outs and nobody on, McCutchen hit a single (the Pirates’ first hit of the game) and stood on first with Neil Walker at the plate.

Walker hit a bloop single to right field. It dropped just in front of J.D. Martinez:
Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 12.52.26 AM

What the baserunner on first, in this case McCutchen, has done since the dawn of time in this instance is go to second — and go to third only if the outfielder terribly misplays the ball. Here is McCutchen at second, monitoring Martinez to see if he misplays the ball. (He doesn’t.)
Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 12.52.46 AM

The modern(ish) wrinkle here is that the Tigers were shifting against Walker. Here is their formation before the pitch (click to embiggen):
Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 12.53.44 AM

And here is what their defense looked like the moment McCutchen was rounding second. Martinez is throwing in the ball from right, and arrows are pointing at Tigers, while McCutchen is in the tiny circle:
Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 12.54.14 AM

So here’s McCutchen’s mistake: he should not be looking at Martinez, because it almost doesn’t matter how Martinez plays this ball. What’s important is that Detroit’s shift has left third base vacated. Third basemen Nick Castellanos (underneath top arrow) is near McCutchen at second base, and also facing Martinez. Castellanos is a few steps closer to third, but that doesn’t matter: he would need to turn around, beat McCutchen in a footrace, turn back towards the field (only now can the relay man deliver the throw), see and catch the ball, and finally apply the tag. Simon (underneath second arrow) is a bit closer to third base, but is also faced towards right field, and I’d take McCutchen in the race to apply the tag.

It seems like the only Tiger aware of the danger is catcher James McCann, playing in career game #13, who is moving up the third-base line while facing right field. Despite his gear, he would have been the only Tiger to have a shot at catching McCutchen. Nice.

Keep in mind, McCutchen has a great chance to beat the Tigers to third after he has decelerated to a stop, and then turned around. With a more aggressive pre-pitch strategy, I think third base could easily have been his.

We always wonder what factors could lead to the shift’s natural death — or at least a factor that would start the frequency of the shift trending downward. Perhaps enough baserunners going from first to third on well-played bloop singles would do the trick.

Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.

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8 years ago

What happened to not watching the ball and instead picking up the third base coach? Or is that just something they teach in little league and disregard later?

If McCutchen were looking toward third, he would’ve noticed this opportunity. What good is a third base coach if no one pays attention to him?