Each year we do a recap of every position at the major league level for the Pittsburgh Pirates, taking a look at how the 2014 season went at that position, along with the future of the position. Each year there is no position easier than the center field position.
The Pirates have no question marks surrounding their center field position, either in the short-term or long-term. They’ve got Andrew McCutchen, who is one of the best players in baseball, and he’s under team control for another four years beyond the 2014 season. What is even better is that if McCutchen goes down, the Pirates can sub in Starling Marte, who is under control through the 2021 season, and who has emerged as one of the best outfielders in baseball in his first two pro seasons.
McCutchen is the reigning MVP, and followed up his strong 2013 season with another amazing year. Last year he had a .317/.404/.508 line in 674 plate appearances, posting an 8.2 WAR due to some strong defense. This year he had similar offensive numbers, with a .314/.410/.542 like in 648 plate appearances, along with a 6.8 WAR. His defensive numbers weren’t as strong this year, which led to the drop in value, despite the power increase.
This year, McCutchen led National League hitters in WAR. Based on that metric, he would win the MVP award if it was just up to the hitters. His only real challenge is Clayton Kershaw, who finished with a higher WAR. The only thing that might help McCutchen win is the hesitation to give the MVP award to a pitcher. One argument in favor of McCutchen was the fact that the Pirates had their worst stretch of the season while he was out. They had a seven game losing streak in mid-August, while McCutchen was out with a rib injury. The final game of the losing streak came in McCutchen’s return. He went on to hit three homers in his first week back, and his monster month in September — with a .347/.452/.589 line in 115 plate appearances — was a big reason why the Pirates finished strong and took the top Wild Card spot.
A growing concern this year was the amount of times McCutchen was hit with a pitch, or thrown at in a seemingly intentional way. McCutchen was hit ten times, which is a career high. A lot of that can be attributed to pitchers throwing inside against him and honestly missing. The Pirates can’t complain about that, since this is a big reason why they lead the league in hitting opponents each year. But some of the pitches are blatant retaliation, such as the Randall Delgado incident in early August that may or may not have played a role in McCutchen going on the disabled list a few days later. The fact that no punishments ever came down for throwing at McCutchen made it so that teams could pitch inside or even throw at him intentionally with no worry about repercussions.
Even despite the HBP numbers, McCutchen was one of the best players in the game this year. Whether or not McCutchen wins the MVP award again, one thing is certain: he’s the MVP of the Pirates. It’s to the point that his performance — ranking up there among the best players in the game — is expected.
This is the part where I talk about how McCutchen is under control through the 2018 season, and how the Pirates are in no rush to find a replacement. I don’t know if the Pirates should keep McCutchen when his contract expires. At the moment that sounds like a good idea, since he’s currently one of the best players in the game, and it would be nice, in theory, to see him play his entire career in Pittsburgh. But the reality is that there are still four seasons before that decision needs to be made, and McCutchen could be a totally different player by the time he is eligible for free agency again.
There’s also the fact that the Pirates could have a good option emerge in those four years, with the top option being Austin Meadows. The 2013 first round pick missed most of the 2014 season with multiple hamstring injuries. He could return to West Virginia next year due to the time lost. The Pirates really have no need to rush him. He could spend a full year in West Virginia next year, along with a full year at every level above that, then be on pace to reach the majors in 2019 to take over for McCutchen, if needed. He probably won’t move that slow. Meadows isn’t an option to take over in center field. He’s currently a center fielder, but Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte profile better defensively at the position. Offensively, Meadows could be special, with a lot of power potential in his bat.
Once again, this is a situation that has four years to play out. The more immediate question would be “how long can McCutchen stay in center field?” Or, more accurately, “how long can the Pirates keep McCutchen in center field?” He finished 16th out of 19 qualified center fielders this year in UZR/150. Using those same qualified players, he ranked 16th in DRS.
These defensive numbers are better when using multiple years of data. But the multiple years don’t help McCutchen’s case. He has a career -4.3 UZR/150 and a career -22 DRS. From a skills standpoint, Starling Marte would be a better center fielder. He has all the range that McCutchen has, and a much better arm. The Pirates would be better defensively with McCutchen in left and Marte in center.
This is unlikely to happen, because of McCutchen’s status on the team. He’s the leader, and the best player due to his offense, and for some reason in baseball that means he has to play the best defensive position in the outfield. It’s not something that makes sense in any other position. You wouldn’t suggest that a third baseman play shortstop just because he was the best hitter in the infield. You’d recognize him as the best hitter, then realize that his skills are better at the third base position.
The Pirates seem to have no interest in moving McCutchen off the center field position. As great as he is offensively, his defensive ratings hurt the team. His -11 DRS can be translated into one extra loss this year. Even just an average defender in center field gives the Pirates an extra win. And none of this says that McCutchen isn’t the best player on the team. He absolutely is. He just isn’t the best option defensively in center field.
For now, we can expect McCutchen to be the center fielder going forward, because that’s the way it’s going to be. The good news is that any fears that may have existed a few years ago, worrying about how he will never repeat his “career year” in 2011, have been quieted by the fact that he has emerged as one of the best hitters every year since. The great news is that he’s still under team control for the next four seasons, and should give the Pirates an MVP to build around for those years.