There was a time this offseason when it looked like there was no chance Andrew McCutchen would be the Pirates’ opening day center fielder.
And we were right. He won’t be in center in 2017.
Starling Marte broke the news to MLB Dominicana Saturday that he would be “pradera central por los Pirates de Pittsburgh” in 2017. Clint Hurdle confirmed it the next day through a club press release. Marte to center. Polanco to left. McCutchen to right. Stumpf to Fangraphs and Statcast to explain why it’s a good move.
Marte has been one of the best defensive left fielders ever since he broke into the majors in 2012. You need a speedy left fielder in PNC Park (which is why Polanco is changing positions too), but they were underutilizing him in road games.
McCutchen was the worst defensive center fielder in 2016, with a DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) of -28. The only reason why where to play him was a debate was because of loyalty to McCutchen. The idea that the club had any loyalty to him went away when he was almost shipped to Washington.
It’s not like McCutchen was ever an elite defender. Sure, he won a Gold Glove in 2012, but more times than not, that award is just a popularity contest. His DRS was -6 that year: 15th out of 20 qualified center fielders. He’s never ranked higher than sixth at his position.
In his 10,317.1 innings in center, he’s been worth -54 runs. Using the rule of thumb that 10 runs is equal to a win, McCutchen has cost the Pirates five games during his tenure. DRS is a newer stat, so Fangraphs only recognizes 35 outfielders who have played 10,000 innings in the field. Of those 35, he’s ranked 32nd.
Sure, there are concerns with everyone shifting right. Marte was worth 19 saved runs defensively in left last year. Polanco was worth 4 in right. Even with McCutchen, they were a combined -5, which while far from good, is not catastrophic.
Marte, despite being a center fielder by trade, has been worth -2 runs up the middle in 443.1 career innings. Polanco has broken even in his 254.1 innings in left. If neither one improves, they’d probably be worth -5 runs over a full season, meaning unless McCutchen becomes an above average defender, the new scheme might be worse.
Do I think that will happen? No. Sure, there might be an adjustment period for the trio, but I believe the new scheme will produce the best defense. More importantly, it’s good for McCutchen and the Bucs.
The move was inevitable. We’ll never see another player man center for 20 years again. Nerds (like me) would crucify any manager who would start a 40 year old in one of the most demanding positions in all of sports.
Sure, McCutchen will have to learn to play the wall, but it will come with shorter throws and less ground to cover. It’s a fair trade. Now the only question is if he can handle right field. The biggest knock on McCutchen’s defense has been his arm. When you think of great defensive right fielders throughout history (Clemente, Guerrero, Ichiro), they all had cannons. McCutchen does not have a cannon.
But poor armed center fielders can be above average throwers from right field. For example: Torii Hunter. In over 12,000 innings as a center fielder, Hunter’s ARM (metric used for UZR) was -12.1. McCutchen’s career ARM is -9.3, so they are very comparable.
In 2010, Hunter was worth -6 DRS, with his ARM grading out at -2.2 and costing him two defensive runs saved. In 2011, he spent more innings in right field than center for the first time in his career. He was worth 7 DRS that year, with his ARM at 1.2 and saving five runs. Even though he did not start playing the position until he was 34, he saved 10 runs in his career in right field. He cost his team 8 in his years in center.
Maybe the improvement is due to having to cover less ground. Maybe it’s because throws from right to home are shorter than they are from center. Regardless, fielders should not be posting better defensive numbers in their mid to late 30s than they did in their late 20s. Defense is a young man’s game. It’s the baseball equivalent of plastic surgery.
Hunter isn’t the only one to become more productive with the position change. Curtis Granderson saved 12 runs in right in his age-34 season, the same total he had as a 24-year old center fielder. Alex Rios went from costing his team 9 runs in center in 2011 to saving seven runs in right in 2012 when he was 31. Shane Victorino was an average defender in center in 2012, but ended up being worth a career best 23 DRS in right the next year at 32.
And it’s not like McCutchen’s arm is going to be a big drop from Polanco’s last year. Now Polanco was dealing with some shoulder issues in 2016, but his fielding was not drawing any complaints. He was still worth 3 DRS from his arm alone. According to Statcast, his “high leverage” throws averaged 86.6 MPH last year. McCutchen’s averaged 85.8.
But then again, this is a short term solution. McCutchen’s days as a Pirate are numbered, whether that means the trade deadline, next offseason or after 2018. Fortunately, this is also the right move for Austin Meadows.
They have flexibility on how they want to handle him. Defensively, he seems to grade out similar to a young Cutch: sub-par arm, decent range for center, good arm for a corner, good range for a corner. If it turns out that Marte cannot handle center, they can go back to the old formation and plug the rookie up the middle. If everything works out, they’ll probably just put Meadows in right. There will be less pressure on him either way.
If you look at the numbers and the future, the shuffle is a no-brainer. That doesn’t mean it was an easy decision. You have to applaud Hurdle for having the guts to change his star player’s spot in the order and then in the field two offseasons in a row. Yes, it’s another sobering blow that McCutchen’s days are numbered, but this is the best move for the team and for him. The Pirates are always looking for ways to improve defense. That’s why the outfielders played shallower last year. This year, they’re going with a more traditional approach, and it will yield better results.