The Pirates’ Outfield Shuffle

On Super Bowl Sunday, the Pirates announced they were moving their Face of the Franchise, Andrew McCutchen, to right field.

Since his major-league debut in 2009, the Pirates’ most valuable and exciting player since Barry Bonds has played 10,317.1 innings in the field. All have come in center field. But due to McCutchen’s decline in the field, and the Gold Glove-caliber skill of of Starling Marte, the Pirates are re-arranging their outfield. Gregory Polanco will play left field.

One could argue the move should have happened much earlier.

McCutchen’s uncharacteristically poor age-29 season was largely fueled by a defensive decline, though McCutchen also posted career-low speed measures across the board. McCutchen, who was very much available in this offseason’s trade market, posted a mark of -28 Defensive Runs Saved last season, the worst in baseball. Flanking him in the outfield was Marte, who won his second straight Gold Glove and produced +19 DRS. While the Pirates’ shallower outfield alignment strategy did not help McCutchen, that positioning combined with poor execution off the mound, McCutchen is still in he midst of a multi-year decline defensively.

McCutchen was worth +5 DRS in 2013, -13 in 2014, -8 in 2015 and -28 last season.

Here’s McCutchen’s defensive work in 2016 via data visualization from BaseballSavant.com:



Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle acknowledged they were considering moving McCutchen at the end of the season. Huntington noted that McCutchen’s DRS number “grabs your attention.” On Sunday they made it official.

McCutchen is most responsible for what has been a four-year, teamwide defensive decline. Consider that, in 2013, the Pirates ranked third in baseball, and first in the NL, with 60 DRS. That number fell to 28 in 2014, 12 in 2015, and -17 last season.

While there are clear, supportable reasons for moving McCutchen, there are reasonable arguments to the contrary, too. McCutchen is the face of the franchise, emblematic of their recent success after years of mediocrity. Moving McCutchen isn’t entirely different than moving Derek Jeter off shortstop. Will there be a detrimental clubhouse impact? It’s hard to know, but the small-market Pirates have to operate with ruthless efficiency to be successful, and considerations beyond performance have apparently been exhausted.

McCutchen was hostile to the idea he lost a step last season but he seemed on board with the move Sunday night.

So how much value can the Pirates hope to extract and enjoy by re-arranging their outfield furniture? It’s unclear. No one knows how McCutchen will fare in right field, and Marte and Polanco have been league-average defenders in center and left field, respectively, during their limited time there. The Pirates are relocating two known strengths to accommodate a weakness.

In the last two seasons, Marte has produced 24 and 19 DRS, playing at least 960 innings in left field. Polanco accounted for 11 and 4 DRS the last two seasons in right. Marte has played 443 career innings in center, where he has a -2 DRS mark. Polanco has zero DRS in 254 innings in left.

There’s no guarantee McCutchen will be an asset, or less of a liability, in right field.

Matt Kemp produced -11 DRS in 2014 in 326 innings in center and was worth -15 DRS in 1,282 innings in right field in 2015. Torii Hunter went from a -6 DRS center fielder in 2010 to a 7 DRS right fielder in 2011.

Still, it generally makes strategic sense to place the best outfielder in center. Moreover, Marte is an elite athlete. He came up through the system as a center fielder. If he becomes more efficient and comfortable with added reps in center, the move has significant potential due to his increased volume of chances. Since 2012, MLB center fielders have produced 31% more put outs than left fielders there have been and 36% more balls in the zone.

But since 2012, right fielders have accounted for 8.5% more putouts than left fielders, and Pirates right fielders have accounted for 18.9% more putouts than their left fielders.

Why would the Pirates want to give their weakest defender, McCutchen, more work in right field compared to left, particularly given his questionable arm strength?

One reason is McCutchen has been better going to his right than his left, as Mike Petriello noted at the close of last season.

Consider this instructive chart, care of Petriello:

McCutchen’s strength could potentially allow him to cover the gap well, while the right-field dimensions would limit his exposure going to his left.

But what about the arm?

One reason the Pirates played shallower was last season, was the ground-ball nature of their staff and McCutchen’s suspect throwing arm. The Pirates surmised the club would benefit by McCutchen being closer to the infield to scoop up grounders. McCutchen was able to hold runners from taking the extra base 45.5% of the time — a career-best mark and above the MLB average (44.6%) for center fielders. But McCutchen’s actually arm skill remained a liability.

Using “competitive throws” measured by Statcast – the average of a player’s 90th percentile-plus demonstrated throws – McCutchen ranked 31st out of 42 center fielders with at least 10 competitive throws, according to data provided by MLB.com.

McCutchen’s average throwing velocity on competitive throws (85.7 mph) would have beaten out only two of 27 qualified right fielders: Peter Bourjos (85.4 mph) and Jose Bautista (84.4 mph). Carlos Gonzalez led right fielders with an average of 95.5 mph.

So opponents will likely be testing McCutchen’s arm often in 2017 if he does indeed remain in Pittsburgh, and in right field.

Another factor in moving McCutchen to right instead of left are the dimensions of PNC Park, where left field is the game’s deepest, according to research by by Louis Spirito, who used ballpark dimensions and Google Earth to compare all 30 MLB ballpark dimensions.

Here are the left-field areas of all those parks broken out. Mark the note regarding PNC.

There’s a lot more real estate to defend in PNC Park’s left field compared to its right, and right fielders can be positioned shallower at right field in PNC Park due to the shorter fence.

How McCutchen plays there – and if he remains in Pittsburgh – remains to be seen. And while it makes sense for the Pirates to place their top glove in center, McCutchen will likely remain a weak link defensively wherever he’s stationed. And to limit McCutchen’s exposure the Pirates will be moving two areas of known strength in right and left to new positions. For the Pirates to dramatically improve their total outfield defense, perhaps they need not just new position homes, but a new outfielder (see: Meadows, Austin), to join Marte and Polanco.





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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Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

I know nobody cares about Gold Gloves on fangraphs, but I am wondering how this will affect the 2017 Gold Glove finalists.

Marte is a perennial finalists, and has won the last 2 for NL LF. He is unlikely to win in CF. Who takes his place as a finalist/winner?

I am opposed to the differentiation of the OF GGs between LF/CF/RF. There just aren’t enough full time LFers, which results in guys like Adam Duvall and Justin Upton being named as finalists. Last year, former CF Colby Rasmus was nameda finalist for LF. I was hoping for the same thing for Melvin Upton Jr., but he got traded to the AL midseason. Maybe I do like the OF differentiation as it provides a little weirdness which I clearly pay attention to.

Stovokor
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Member
Stovokor

I think it should be the 3 best defensive OF, and if it’s 3 CF, that’s fine and not unexpected.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

I agree. I think it is silly that LFers with mediocre defensive reputations, like Justin Upton are named as finalists for LF by default. It is also silly when players who move from more challenging defensive positions to LF immediately become Gold Glove contenders. I know that happens at other positions, but it is routine with the LF finalists.

Master Wuu
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Master Wuu

Well we still have a offense component to GG (you have to hit at least this much to qualify) and still give out GGs to 1st basemen so I still can’t take the award seriously. Hey you defensively suck so bad we’re gonna stick you at 1st base but here’s your award for being the best out of this whole sucky group.