First Pitch: It’s Time For Andrew McCutchen to Move Off Center Field

Since before Starling Marte arrived in Pittsburgh, I’ve been saying that Marte should be the center fielder for the Pirates over Andrew McCutchen. I said the same thing when he arrived, and have said it ever since.

The same thing existed when Gregory Polanco was on the fringe of making the active roster. I said that he’d be a better center field option than McCutchen, and repeated that after he arrived in the majors.

All along, the Pirates have stuck with McCutchen in center field, seemingly over the notion that he’s their star player and should have the best outfield spot as a result. It’s as if it would be an insult to McCutchen to have him play left field.

That’s something I don’t understand at all. McCutchen is a star because of his offense. He puts up great offensive numbers for any position. As I wrote this week, he had a down year offensively in 2015, but even in that down year he ranked 12th in baseball in wOBA and 11th in wRC+. From 2012-2015, out of 290 qualified hitters, he ranks tied for fourth in wOBA and fourth in wRC+. The guys ahead of him? Mike Trout, Joey Votto, and Miguel Cabrera (with Paul Goldschmidt tied in wOBA). That’s not bad company to be in, as Trout is considered the best in the game, and the other three are first basemen.

The Pirates are getting offense that you’d expect from the top first basemen in the league, only they’re getting it in center field. That makes Andrew McCutchen a star. The problem is that they’re not getting good defense from McCutchen in center field. And keeping him there because of his offense makes no sense, as he’d still be a star in left field (and possibly more valuable).

The outfield of McCutchen, Marte, and Polanco is a potential Dream Outfield©, in part because of the defense and the amount of ground that the three center fielders can cover. But that outfield ranked 14th in the majors in UZR/150 in 2015, along with ranking sixth in Defensive Runs Saved, and ninth in Plus Minus.

A look at the breakdown of the three outfielders shows where the problem lies with every stat: McCutchen.

McCutchenCF

McCutchen ranks way behind Marte and Polanco in UZR, Defensive Runs Saved, and Plus Minus. He also falls behind with his arm, range, and plays made out of the zone. The Pirates have two exceptional defenders in the outfield, and neither of them are playing the spot where you want the best defender. Instead, they’ve got their worst defender in that spot, which is why this outfield full of center fielders ranks lower than they should in a lot of defensive categories.

I’ve been thinking about this problem a lot, and it’s not exactly cut and dry that McCutchen should be moved. He definitely doesn’t have the arm for right field, so that’s out of the equation. That leaves left field as the only option, and left field in PNC Park is just another center field. Plus, I think you’d have more players trying to stretch a single into a double on balls hit to left at PNC than on balls hit to center, which means McCutchen’s arm might be better in center.

The flip side to this is that the Pirates only play half of their games at PNC Park, and there are other parks where you’d rather have Marte in center and McCutchen in left.

There’s also the factor that McCutchen’s range is lower than his counterparts, which raises questions of how you address that in such a big outfield. Do you surround him with guys who can make up for the lack of range to the left and right? Is that why Marte and Polanco had so many out of the zone plays, while McCutchen put up career low numbers in that stat? Or do you put McCutchen in left field, and shade Marte and Polanco to the left a bit to help reduce the impact in left?

Getting McCutchen out of center field would solve the problem of having the weakest outfielder at the strongest position. However, it would create a new problem in left field, where he’d still have a lot of ground to cover at PNC Park, and might have his weak arm tested more often than in center. The fact that Marte and Polanco are surrounding McCutchen could reduce his range issues, but they could also attempt the same thing by fading their positions if he was in left field.

Overall, I’d have to defer to the idea that you want your best defender playing center field. That is not McCutchen. There isn’t a perfect solution here, due to the spacious left field in PNC Park, but moving McCutchen to left field and having Marte in center — fading towards left field — would seem to be the best approach.

That does bring us back to the problem of moving a star player off of his position. There have been theories that the Pirates would need McCutchen to step down and make that move, as they wouldn’t make it otherwise. I don’t know if I necessarily believe that. But regardless of who is making the decision, McCutchen’s defense isn’t helping the Pirates in center field, and a move off the position, with Marte moving to center, would help the team more than it would hurt the team.

McCutchen is the MVP of the team, and he would still be a star in left field. Right now it seems he’s only in center field because of his profile and status, and not because of his numbers and skills. That’s something that doesn’t make any sense, and needs to change if the Pirates want to try to improve their defense going forward.

**2015 Left Field Recap: Why Does It Seem That Starling Marte Is Underrated? Looking at Starling Marte’s season, and how he’s quietly been one of the best position players in the game over the last three years.

**AFL: Reese McGuire Comes Up Big in Glendale Victory

**Winter Leagues: Two Hits For Hanson, Big Game From Osuna

 

  • With all the talk of moving someone to first, I’m surprised McCutchen’s name has never come up. It would open up the log jam in outfield and make better platoon possibilities than at 1st base. Hey Stargell did it. I’m not sure I want it to happen, but it would be interesting.

  • Doesn’t appear to my novice eyes that cutch has the arm for any outfield position. We have a few decent outfielders coming along nicely in the minors. Any chance moving him to first would be worth consideration.

  • Gonna throw this out for the heck of it…

    Cutch, tomorrow, to Texas for Delino DeShields Jr., Jurickson Profar, and Joey Gallo.

    3 players, all 23 or younger next opening day, possibly capable of holding down 3B, SS, and CF until 2020 or later.

    Thoughts?

    • Why would a 98 win team, coming off it’s 3rd straight playoff appearance, trade one of the top 5 players in all of MLB when he’s under team control at a low salary for 3 more years? Thoughts?

      • Small market teams need to sell high on their assets. Cutch won’t be with the team forever. Conventional wisdom is he’s gone after ’18. I think that’s an overestimate. Can’t see the team letting him walk for only a draft pick.

        So, I’d argue he’s bound to be traded…before the beginning of ’18 would make the most sense. As the draft pick tied to him for not resigning would boost his trade value.

        Two years left with the team…or less should be a reasonable assumption. As this is an article that discusses his declining abilities, and potential help in the minors not far off, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that two-year window might not be as wide open as it seems. So, why not speculate a little?

  • Scott Kliesen
    October 23, 2015 6:23 pm

    Much ado about nothing. Would switching the OF alignment really help the team win even one more game? Color me skeptical.

    • I would agree with this. I can’t take defensive WAR all that seriously in Cutch’s case. IMO, if there’s a flaw besides his arm strength, it’s his decision making on throws. Would Marte make better decisions? Color me doubtful.

      Cutch rarely gets a bad jump, is very good at balls hit directly at him (the hardest to judge for a CF), often runs extremely efficient routes and still has plenty of speed. I’m just not seeing Marte being all that significantly better, and I think Marte’s DRS would drop while Cutch’s stays about the same.

    • Agreed, McCutchen, after regressing the numbers and some back of the envelope math McCutchen is a true talent -3 run (per season) CF, Marte is about +6 run LF.

      If you then take the positional adjustments the Pirates would be projected to have a league average CF, and an average or slightly above average LF. I don’t think there is really much of a gain to be made.

  • First Base!

    (I know, I’m a broken record)

  • For 2016: At home, play Cutch in CF as already has been mentioned Left is same difficulty at PNC. But on the road, play Marte in CF.

  • See what happens next year when his knee is healthy. Marte and Polanco still take plays off and don’t pay attention all the time. Marte lolly gags to balls still. But it is clear that Cutch doesn’t have the arm of the other 2, but Cutch is the leader.

    • and Cutch never trots after a ball?

      Don’t get me wrong…I LOVE Cutch (and Marte), but Cutch likes to trot at times, too.

      • Cutch should’ve caught that single by Fowler in the 1st inning of the Wild Card game.

        • If he had tried, he very well might’ve, but to fault him for erring on the side of caution with lead off hitter not getting a cheap triple is a cheap shot.

          Fault anyone for that run scoring, than blame JHay for tagging the dirt instead of Fowler on SB.

          • I’m not faulting either of them. The Bucs didn’t lose that game cause of that play. I’m just sayin that was a catchable ball.

    • I sure hope he would still be a “leader” in RF/LF. His defensive spot really shouldnt change that.

  • The uzr dose not account for shifts and the Pirates play a lot of them. Also, if you have the Marte and Polanco making so many out of zone plays that means less for Cutch to make. Cutch’s defense is not the the reason that the Pirates were in the bottom third of the MLB defensively. How about that our first basemen over doubled the league avg of E.

    • The infield defense was a problem, and first base was the biggest reason for that. But first base has nothing to do with the outfield, where the Pirates also needed defensive upgrades.

      You can take UZR out of it, but as a group the Pirates OF ranked 12th in DRS and 15th in Plus Minus.

  • I don’t see how you gain anything by moving Cutch anywhere. He’s going to be the weakest one no matter where you put him. As long as he’s here, unless he initiates the move, he’s going to be in center. Hurdle and Huntington are not going to upset the apple cart by forcing a move.
    What they can do is help him to improve his deficiencies. I’m sure he’s as aware of them as everyone else.

  • “…it’s not exactly cut and dry that McCutchen should be moved. He
    definitely doesn’t have the arm for right field, so that’s out of the
    equation. That leaves left field as the only option, and left field in
    PNC Park is just another center field. Plus, I think you’d have more
    players trying to stretch a single into a double on balls hit to left at
    PNC than on balls hit to center, which means McCutchen’s arm might be
    better in center.”

    This, plus NMR’s ” Cutch needs to stop playing in Blawnox” is basically everything you need to know.

  • If any of you guys get an interview with Hurdle, you should ask him about that…

  • I think Leowalter should look at that chart and again laugh at all of us whom keep saying Cutch is not a good center fielder. Someone get out the smelling salts for all those whom are blinded by Cutch’s legendary greatness

  • Can Cutch play 1b or 2b? 🙂 🙂 🙂

  • A potential long term solution is to move McCutchen to 1B when Austin Meadows is ready to join Pirates. I know he has never played there, but he can commit to learning to position and will be better as time goes by, and he solves the lack of offense at 1B dilemma we have had for a very long time.

    • I said it above jokingly BEFORE I read your post.

      No way Cutch moves to 1b….No. Way.

    • Some of you guys think anyone can play 1stbase….Good God!

      • Lots great hitting / poor fielding players move to first base. Just because Pedro couldn’t do it doesn’t mean no one can do it. Posey did it. Mauer did it. Stargell did it. TONS of guys have done it. You don’t know until you try.

        • Cutch would be the smallest player to ever be a primary 1stbasemen.

          • I think “ever” is probably an exaggeration. But yes, he would be one of the smallest for sure.

            Still, is that something that matters, or is that something we think matters because we’ve always been told it matters?

          • All firstbaseman-seasons with > 1000 innings between 1985-2015. No correlation between height and fielding percentage.

        • Moving Cutch anywhere Probably won’t happen but a move would be best for the PBC — short & long term– RF, 1B, or even 2B or to another team. Otherwise more trades need to be made to maximize the talent that is now in the PBC Organization — MLB & MiLB.
          Need more LH Bats, a true Cleanup Hitter, a 1B, a 2B, Bench guys, an above avg Fielding SS who can also provide consistent value at the plate. As always Pitching, pitching & more pitching.
          By 2017 or 2018 we need Bell in RF, Hanson, Moroff or Frazier @ 2B & Meadows @ 1B or we need to trade them.
          Maybe Cutch can bring a LH Power hitter at one of those spots.

    • I could see Polanco at first down the road, once he gets beyond 30.

      Hmmmm. Nah, DH. 🙂

    • I agree. It’s worth a shot. Maybe it won’t work, maybe it will. But the bar at 1st base is set very, very low.

  • Cutch’s arm has never been great, and he’s always struggled going back on balls over his head. He made a lot of improvement going back, but this year seemed to regress. His range as a whole took a steep decline this year, but are we sure his knee wasn’t a factor in that? Especially considering his stolen base numbers were down drastically this year also.

    I’m not disagreeing that Marte and Polanco are superior defenders regardless, and that they both have much better arms. I can’t help but wonder though if there was something else behind Cutch’s struggles with his range this year.

  • Interesting article but a more interesting article would be why are his defensive skills declining? When he first came up his arm was adequate at best and his range was pretty good (I don’t think he was ever very good at going back on balls though). For a while he compensated for the arm by getting to and getting rid of the ball quickly and making good throws to the cutoff man. Now, to my eye, he seems to Cadillac a lot of balls and the arm is woeful, both in strength and accuracy.
    He’s still in his prime so how have his defensive skills gone downhill so much? His offensive has not declined, is it normal for defense to decline first? Is it lack of focus or declining skills? Is it something that can be fixed?
    Not trying to pile on Cutch, but that outfield should be the best in the majors defensively. Cutch’s deficiencies would still hurt if you put him left.

    • as I stated above, I think his knew bothered him more than he let on.

      • Did his knee effect his arm?

        • Well yeah, any good throw involves using your whole body. You need to plant your knee when you throw.

          • Depends on the knee. Right handed throwers plant with their left leg. Not sure what knee had the issue. Makes you wonder when he can’t make an average throw, yet he can throw one out of the stadium from CF

        • My knee effects me walking through the airport.

        • Agreed, but Cutch is not an elite CF. CF is a position of elite players as the SS of the OF. The best Cutch has ever been is maybe a little better than average or maybe one good year. It’s debatable. That was fine when they had no other choices. It might hurt him in the wallet when he goes to free agency but Cutch has already shown he is not money hungry so the only reason he wouldn’t is because of ego. He’s a stud ballplayer not a nerd like all of us…he’s not gonna call hurdle on the phone and say “I was reading my fielder’s bible and I really think I oughta give one of the other guys a chance.” He wants the job because he thinks he is the best and I applaud that. This will need to be a long conversation. Cal Ripken moved back to 3B late in his career so, use that Clint!

    • He NEVER made consistently good throws, often going to second base as a runner moved to third.

    • His arm was never good. He would rainbow a lot of throws to the infield, and would overthrow bases or throw offline from the start.

    • Amen !!

  • A nice article filled with a lot of useful facts. I think you provided the why and then tripped over the reality that we need to have two CF’s in PNC. In the grand scheme, I do not see a move of ‘Cutch out of CF as a make or break type of thing so I fall back to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule of thumb. Young SP’s, 2B, 1B – let’s fix them first and see how it goes from there.

    • But it is broke. They weren’t exactly the best defensive outfield in the majors last year. As for PNC Park having two center fields, that’s true, but they still play 81 games elsewhere.

      • Tim, what’s a bigger detriment to defense at PNC, incorrect arm arrangement or incorrect range placement? Assuming Polanco stays put in RF, it seems the best arrangement for throwing is keeping Marte in LF for his 2B and Home put-outs, but at what cost of reduced coverage in CF? From your position in the article it seems you feel the misplaced range is the more important factor to optimize, but at the same time, it would seem to me that the 15 extra safe runners at 2B that Marte threw out would certainly cost the Pirates 4-5 runs and 1-2 wins.

    • Scott Kliesen
      October 23, 2015 6:29 pm

      Totally agree. Sound, logical response Emjay.

    • Do you see the deficient range Cutch showed last year? Why not swing that in your favor if you are a gm and coaching staff? Your job as management is to maximize your people’s potential and ability.

      • To be perfectly honest, I did not notice anything that I thought would negatively impact the outcome of games. We have recognized for years that Marte and Polanco may be better physical CF’s, but they seem to be contributing greatly in LF and RF. There were misplays in the OF, but they came from all 3 fields.

        What I saw from ‘Cutch in 2015 was a kid who seemed to be off his game at times – probably not a Top 3 guy in the MVP voting, but still in the Top 8. I think the knee was a nagging problem, he experienced a major change in his personal life, and he played almost every game in 2015. And he still posted a slash of .292/.401/.488/.889.

        • Cutch offense was fine. Started real slow and finished a little slow and same old cutch in between production-wise. I just think his approach is drifting towards even more patience. Cutch is a .360 & 6 HR April away from another MVP chase.

  • Well, yeah, but….

    Sidney Crosby wants to play the half wall — so, he does. Cutch wants to play CF — so, he does. Jeter wanted to play SS till he retired — and, he did.

    • Excellent response.

    • Ya gotta love superstars who put themselves above the team’s needs.

      • Btw, that refers to Jeter and Crosby….NOT Cutch. At no time have I read that he has balked moving to another position.

        • I want to think it’s something you can ease into a little maybe but I don’t know. He’s not exactly a Matt Kemp out there yet but Over a course of a season every little edge you can get could end up being huge…See: Finishing 2 wins behind the Cards.

    • ….and that response actually only makes Cutch seem less like a team player and more like a diva. I don’t know that anyone has ever said as much, but really….? Its time someone came in and said, you are moving. That’s it. I disagree with Tim on Left field, I have him play right. He doesn’t NEED a strong arm as deep as he typically plays since he is always coming in, and the wall is shallow in PNC. For half the games, his arm is irrelevant. Put Polanco’s arm in Left and Marte in Center. THAT is the best alignment for range and arm based on our home park, which is the most you can gain from a runs saved and DWAR perspective

      • I agree, right field seems like the better option, especially at PNC park. It never looks like Polanco is entirely comfortable in right field, although he is getting better.

        • the only way Polanco moves out of RF is if Garcia becomes the starting RF some day.

        • Agreed- I think Polanco feels “cramped” out there. he needs a little more room to roam

          • I LOVE your ‘cramped’ comment. Like a caged giraffe?? 🙂 🙂

            • exactly foo- he needs to get those legs moving. He’d be better in open space (center field) BUT he’d still be more useful than he is currently in Left

          • I think U are exactly right re Polanco. Because of his size & length cramped is a great way to describe him in RF. He needs room to maneuver– the further away he is & the longer he has to go to get to the ball the better. The same probably applies to him running the bases. Let him hit a deep gap shot & go full out for a 3b & he looks smooth. Going base to base not so much.

      • As long as they don’t move every player. It should just be a swap between two of them. If you think Polanco long term is the best CF then put him there. Don’t put Marte there and then be changing it in another year. Personally, I think Cutch in left because of his arm. Polanco’s arm is too good for LF. You want him disrupting players advancing bases as much as possible. That just isn’t gonna happen as much as it should with him in LF. Plus Cutch’s arm plays way better in left because it is accurate but not strong. Is Cutch’s arm even accurate? I can’t even say that anymore I don’t think.

        • Well, Marte did manage to lead the league with 15 Assists and put up double Polanco’s DRS in LF, so there will be opportunities to use the arm over in LF too. But yeh, conventional wisdom says put Polanco in right. He can get put-outs at all three bases from there.

      • I agree, except that I think Marte should stay in left & Polanco should be in CF because 1) CF is prob his natural & best position.
        2) Protecting the notch is paramount to help the pitching staff.
        The best way to turn potential 3bs/2bs into outs, or 3b/2bs into 2bs/1bs is to have a RH throwing left fielder & left hand throwing CF because their gloves are on the notch side — giving them a step or 2 advantage to get to the ball.
        If Cutch in RF is a big problem away from PNC he can switch with Polanco for those games.

        • I don’t think it matters whether you have Polanco in center and Marte in left or vice versa- as long as cutch is in right

    • Bernie Williams too. Played CF way too long. Dale Murphy too…there are so many times like this in the past but this is a new era of measurables. I’m sure that even as good of a dude as Cutch is and seems, this is a sticky situation to deal with. I love Marte or Polanco in center if anything for the chance to use their excellent arms more. I will give Cutch a slight pass because his knee was beat up a little in 2015 but I really thought that he looked like he was getting a little thicker this season. You see his parents and I’m not saying he is getting fat because he is in great shape, but it’s inevitable that he is going to get a little thicker as he gets older.

Menu