The Pirates Have Their Own Thoughts on Outfield Positioning

The Cubs decided to position Dexter Fowler a bit deeper in center field this season, and it might have saved a no-hitter. Anthony Gose, vocal critic of defensive metrics, also finds himself a bit further from home plate, likely due in part to those same metrics which Gose called a “scam.” Research done by Baseball Info Solutions’ owner and chairman John Dewan in 2013 suggested that, generally speaking, fielders who play shallow in center, like Fowler and Gose used to, don’t save enough runs on the balls hit in front of them to make up for the runs lost on balls hit over their heads. The arrival of Statcast has given fans and teams alike previously unprecedented access to information regarding fielder positioning, and the most visible team-mandated adjustments this season have been those which move outfielders closer to the fences in an effort to prevent costly extra base hits at the expense of a few more singles.

But the Pittsburgh Pirates are their own team with their own identity, and if we’ve learned anything about how the organization operates during the Neal Huntington era, it’s that they’re constantly searching for ways to use data to their advantage, and that they’re not afraid to pull the trigger on a radical change. And so while a deeper center field may seem en vogue, the Pirates are zigging while the Cubs, Tigers and others zag, and have instead instructed not only McCutchen, who played one of the five deepest center fields in baseball last year, to bring it in, but also the rest of the outfielders, too.

From a Travis Sawchik story last month, for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

“In reviewing the numbers last year, there was so much collateral damage done in front of us, balls that fell in, extra bases that were taken by guys trying to get to balls,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It was glaringly apparent that we could make an adjustment, especially with the athleticism of our outfielders and change the dynamic of what’s gone on as far as run prevention.”

The team spray-painted white dots in the outfield during Spring Training to help guide their outfielders to their new, more shallow assignments. Alterations are made from that standard point based on the ballpark, hitter, and which Pirates pitcher is on the mound, but the overarching message is clear: we want you closer to home plate.

Just to make sure this isn’t one of those instances where a team is all talk in the spring and no walk in the regular season, Mike Petriello’s got the data, and nobody’s playing a more shallow center field relative to last year than McCutchen. In 2015, McCutchen lined up 316 feet from home plate, on average. This year? He’s averaged a touch under 300 feet (data current as of May 2).

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 9.14.10 AM
Pittsburgh’s shallow outfield positioning in an April 15 game against Milwaukee

Let’s run through a few possible explanations for why the Pirates may have mandated this shift. The first explanation is the easiest, and it might be all we really need: maybe the Pirates just thought McCutchen and the rest of the outfield was playing way too deep, regardless of particular circumstance. McCutchen was one of the most extremely positioned outfielders in the league, and any time a player is doing something that could be perceived as an outlier, it’s worth considering the motive for that behavior. Hurdle did mention that McCutchen is more comfortable coming in than going back, but evidently not so much to prevent a change.

But the more convincing explanations are those which consider the individuals at play. Like, for example, McCutchen’s never had the reputation of a strong-armed outfielder. Quite the opposite, in fact. Could be that putting McCutchen closer to the infield is a way to help mask his deficiencies with the arm. In 2014, according to data provided by Baseball Info Solutions, McCutchen had one of the worst throwing years by a center fielder on record. 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.

And while this year’s sample is admittedly small, few runners have tested McCutchen so far. In 18 advancement opportunities, only eight extra bases have been taken. That 44% rate is the sixth-best in baseball, right alongside some of baseball’s best outfield arms like Yoenis Cespedes and Kevin Kiermaier. McCutchen’s arm strength likely hasn’t much changed, but his positioning has, and that runner thinking about taking an extra base might have to think twice if the center fielder is breathing down his neck:

There’s also the factor of the Pirates’ pitching staff. Among the first traits associated with the revitalization of the Pirates was their organizational philosophy to throw two-seam fastballs inside in order to get ground balls hit into their defensive shifts. Well, that philosophy has now extended to the outfield. Last year, Pirates pitchers got more ground balls than anyone. Not only does it make sense for a ground-balling team to bring in their outfielders so they can scoop up those ground balls quicker, but ground-ball pitchers also tend to give up shallower fly balls than average, and last year’s Pirates were no exception:

Shallowest average air balls allowed, 2015

  1. Cubs, 284.8 feet
  2. Yankees, 285.8
  3. Pirates, 286.0

Consider this heat map of the Pirates’ air balls last season, compared to baseball’s most extreme fly-ball pitching staff, the Angels:

PITvLAA

The main blobs remain fairly consistent, but the real difference is what’s behind and in front of those main blobs. Look at all the blue over the heads of the Angels’ outfielders, and the blue in front of the Pirates outfielders that doesn’t exist in Anaheim. Just like with their infield shifts, the Pirates are simply playing their outfielders to their pitching staff.

There isn’t one correct way to position an outfield, but the Pirates think they’ve found what works best for them. While the Cubs and Tigers have pushed their outfielders back in an effort to track down those deep flies which do the most damage, the Pirates have brought theirs in, because the way they pitch doesn’t lend itself to as many of those deep flies. Instead, they’re more worried about gobbling up all those ground balls generated by two-seam fastballs, and helping Andrew McCutchen’s arm by putting him closer to the bases to which he throws. Big data in baseball isn’t one-size-fits-all; it’s situation specific. Like Hurdle said last month, “We continue to do what’s best for us.”





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Peter
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Peter

Can’t find the post, but over on bucsdugout.com Brian Cartwright was kind enough to post a chart of the wOBA allowed on fly balls by the pirates over the past 5 seasons, and this year they’ve done considerably better than in recent seasons. So far, it seems the new positioning is paying off.

Peter
Member
Peter

Found the post (numbers are from 5/3)

Year Fly Hit% wOBA
2005 1871 .437 .605
2006 1696 .462 .622
2007 1921 .448 .607
2008 2025 .449 .617
2009 1895 .415 .601
2010 1880 .438 .617
2011 1838 .442 .571
2012 1715 .410 .554
2013 1523 .427 .554
2014 1548 .432 .566
2015 1615 .464 .605
2016 248 .387 .537
MLB .412 .571