Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap: Center Field

Andrew McCutchen is the favorite for the NL MVP award this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Andrew McCutchen is the favorite for the NL MVP award this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Most recaps this year will involve many players. Some will involve only one player at the major league level, but will look at other players for the future. When it comes to center field, there is only one player to focus on from the present to the future. That’s Andrew McCutchen, who looked like an MVP in 2013, and is under team control through the 2018 season.

In 2012, McCutchen had an amazing season, putting up a 6.8 WAR. Many expected those numbers to be unsustainable in 2013. Instead, McCutchen was more valuable in 2013, with an 8.2 WAR. That was the best mark in the National League and the second best in baseball. His .911 OPS was ranked 10th in all of baseball, and sixth of all qualified players in the National League. He was one of eight players in baseball with 20+ home runs and 20+ stolen bases this year.

McCutchen was a true MVP candidate this year, and will likely win the award. He actually saw his offensive numbers drop. His average was down ten points from 2012, although his OPS was up four points, which was a result of a higher walk rate (11.6% compared to 10.4%). His strikeout rate dropped to 15%, down from 19.6% last year. His slugging percentage was down from .553 to .508, with his isolated power dropping from .226 to .190.

The offense dropped slightly, but McCutchen was a more valuable player in 2013 than he was in 2012. The reason for this was his improved defense. McCutchen won the Gold Glove in 2012, but he won in a manner that a lot of players win Gold Glove awards: he had good offensive numbers. McCutchen’s defensive metrics were poor last year, with a -8.6 UZR/150. This year he had much better numbers, with an 8.4 UZR/150. So even though his offense dropped slightly, McCutchen more than made up for that with defensive improvements.

McCutchen will almost certainly win the NL MVP award, which is something he deserves. He could be a candidate for the NL Gold Glove again, although once again there were better defensive options. Carlos Gomez, Gerardo Parra, Juan Lagares, A.J. Pollock, Chris Denorfia, and teammate Starling Marte were all considerably better defenders than McCutchen this year. McCutchen could be helped by his time in center field, but Gomez and Pollock should still be ahead of him. His offense could help him once again, as it would raise his profile, even though that’s not how defensive awards should work. The difference between 2012 and 2013 is that if McCutchen wins the award this year, you could at least make an argument that he was a strong defender and somewhat worthy of the award.

The 2013 season was another amazing year for McCutchen. Prior to the 2012 season he signed a six-year, $51.5 M extension, which could be worth $65 M over seven years. McCutchen has already been worth that, providing $71.7 M in value over the last two seasons. He’s got up to five years left on his deal, which could make his extension one of the most team-friendly deals of all time.

The Future

The Pirates will have McCutchen under control through the 2018 season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates will have McCutchen under control through the 2018 season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

McCutchen is around for five more years, so there’s not a big need to look at any future players. The Pirates have plenty of outfield prospects, including a few center field prospects in the lower levels like Austin Meadows, Harold Ramirez, and Michael De La Cruz. Those guys could be ready by the time McCutchen is getting close to the end of his deal, and that might spark a conversation about what to do with the outfield at that point. But there are way too many variables and that is way too far off to speculate what could possibly happen several years down the road.

Instead, the better use of the future section would be to look at the future of the outfield with McCutchen. In 2014 the Pirates should see Gregory Polanco arrive in the majors. That will give the Pirates three center fielders in the outfield, and you could argue that McCutchen is the worst defender of the three. He did put up good defensive numbers this year, but UZR is stronger with multiple years of data. In his career he has a -2.8 UZR/150. One big issue in center field is that he has a weaker arm than Starling Marte or Gregory Polanco. McCutchen has range and speed, but so do the other two.

It might be hard to move the star of the team out of center field for two younger players, so the Pirates need to hope that McCutchen’s 2013 defensive numbers will repeat going forward.

McCutchen should continue putting up strong numbers going forward. There are many that argue a player can’t continue to be a 6-8 win player over the long-haul, but there have been exceptions to this rule. Albert Pujols, for example, was a 7+ win player for eight years in a row from 2003-2010. Having multiple seasons at that level is something that only comes when you’re one of the best in the game. I think you could make a strong argument that McCutchen is one of the best players in the game. He also just turned 27 years old, so he’s in the prime of his career for the next few years. He shouldn’t be expected to regress any time soon. Players who have this kind of repeated success are the exception, but everything about McCutchen suggests that he could be the type of player who is the exception to the rule.

One good thing for the Pirates is that they are building a stronger team that isn’t going to be carried by McCutchen. In 2012, McCutchen was carrying the offense. In 2013 the Pirates added Starling Marte to the mix. They also added Jordy Mercer, who should provide more offense from the shortstop position. In 2014 they should add another offensive piece in Polanco. Then there’s Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, who have both provided good numbers from their positions. With more offensive weapons, the Pirates will have to rely less on McCutchen to carry the team. It will also make things easier on McCutchen, since opposing teams will find it harder to pitch around him with better hitters surrounding him in the lineup.

While other positions will have a focus on specific prospects going forward, the only focus in center field is Andrew McCutchen, and whether he can continue to emerge as one of the best players in the game.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

    What, no in-depth analysis of Felix Pie?

    • https://www.facebook.com/jerry.maloney Jerry Maloney

      > McCutchen’s defensive metrics were poor last year, with a -8.6 UZR/150. This year he had much better numbers, with an 8.4 UZR/150. So even though his offense dropped slightly, McCutchen more than made up for that with defensive improvements.

      Another interpretation of this fact is that McCutchen was good on defense last year, but UZR is inconsistent and wildly inaccurate. I would tend to trust the judgment of the pros who decide on the Gold Glove award over a made-up number that’s a few years old.

      • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

        I wouldn’t. UZR is accurate over the long haul, and the long-term stats say McCutchen isn’t strong defensively. Meanwhile, there have been some ridiculous Gold Glove awards, and most of them are awarded based on offense.

        • impliedi

          Agreed. The only hole in McCutchen’s game (which is minuscule compared to the rest of his MVP-rated game) is he has a terribly weak arm, which is hampered by his release point being off, causing a huge rainbow in a lot of his throws. However, he did seem to improve in that area from 2012 to 2013. Perhaps this is something he is working on (I’m not sure how a coach gets an MVP to consider altering his release point on his throws.)

          I remember the first time that I starting paying attention to arm slots on outfielders was in high school when the Pirates had 2 guys who threw frozen ropes pretty much every single time in Andy Van Slyke and Glenn Wilson. Van Slyke had that slightly unorthodox, completely overhanded throw that I had never seen before. But then I noticed that you often see from the strongest outfielders.

          • buster09

            Pretty hard to compare many arms to Glen Wilson’s too Impliedi/. Glenn’s arm was like Roberto’s in that the release point was somewhat irrelevant due to the strength/velocity of that throw. There was very seldom any ” rainbow throws ” from either that I can remember.

            • impliedi

              Having been born just a couple of years too late to see Clemente play, Glenn Wilson, by far, had the strongest arm I’ve ever seen in a Pirates uniform. I was not very happy when they traded him away for Billy Hatcher. Would have loved to see him stay with the team that next year when they started that early 90’s run….but I guess they needed to get Bobby Bo away from third base and hide him somewhere, so Wilson became expendable.

  • CalipariFan506

    Just an observation but I think Cutch did a much better job playing balls off the wall this season too.

  • https://www.facebook.com/capo4JC Tim Smith

    Tim, how did you calculate a $ value to Cutch’s worth over the past two years? I remember when he signed that contract that I thought it was a huge steal, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dollar figure tied to performance. Obviously on field performance is a factor, but how do you quantify ticket and merchandise sales from a player as popular as McCutchen, not to mention things like the character and leadership that he brings to the clubhouse? Just curious, trying to learn the ins and outs of baseball. Thanks!

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      The simple calculation is $FA * WAR. You take the price of a win above replacement on the open market and multiply that by how many wins above replacement a guy has.

      In previous years it was closer to $4.5 M per win. This year it’s closer to $5 M per win.

      FanGraphs makes it easy by doing the math for each year:

      http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=9847&position=OF#value