Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Center Field Recap: Another MVP Season For McCutchen?

Andrew McCutchen had the highest WAR among NL position players. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Andrew McCutchen had the highest WAR among NL position players. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

The Future

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.

  • As much as I love the Pirates and Cutch, I don’t see him winning the MVP this season – although he did have a very good year to say the least.

    Personally, I think Kershaw and Stanton are both more deserving. And, if he didn’t get hit in the face, Stanton would have won it easily IMHO. Although he doesn’t get mentioned much in the discussion, its hard to ignore Adrian Gonzales’ numbers as well – another very good year.

  • There is one glaring issue regarding this analysis. It’s one sided. We know Marte can play center better than Cutch, it’s a given. What is there to say though, that Cutch, who has literally probably never played left field in his life, wouldn’t be more a liability there, than he is in center field. Perhaps he is a significantly better center fielder, and that Marte is equally good at either place. Do you want the game’s best hitter worried about learning a new position, or focusing on continuing to hit as he always has. Basically- what analysis shows that Marte in center and Cutch in left is better than Cutch in center and Marte in left. None.

  • I agree that Cutch should win MVP #2 this year, but Kershaw was just ridiculous putting up 7.2 WAR is 80% of a season. I personally don’t like the pitcher for MVP thing, but I don’t think Cutch has much of a shot at all.

    • 162 games , 27 starts does not make an MVP, but a Cy Young Award winner.

      • I’m not big on pitchers winning the MVP unless they’ve had a ridiculous season and no position player did. And Kershaw did that. Had the Marlins crept into the 2nd WC and Stanton not gotten hurt, he’d have been my 2nd choice.

        • In addition to McCutchen. whose OPS was around 20 points higher this season than last, and if it wouldn’t have been his tremendous September there would not have been a WC game in Pittsburgh, there is Stanton, who crushed the ball till his own injury. Then, let me introduce you to Buster Posey, and also to Anthony Rendon.

  • But for the “beanball heard round the burgh” there would be no question about cutch winning back to back mvp awards. As for the defensive metrics, I have said it before and I will say it again, THEY ARE A JOKE! Period. Baseball has always been a numbers game but all these speculation numbers are getting out of hand, all ya see any more is, this guy should be doing this and that guy should be doing that. Key phrase here is “should be”, this “should be” (pun intended) what is the player actually doing on the field on a nightly basis. As I’ve said before stats are a great tool but should not be used as as the first measure of a player ( unless it’s the offseason and your looking at players to aquire or trade) what any player should be measured by is game time performance, anybody that watches cutch in the outfield and says he is not a good centerfielder because his defensive metrics are bad has a hole in his head that should not be there. By the way, these are also the same numbers that say pedro is a good defensive third basemen and josh is not. Just sayin.

    • Yeah! Who cares if these stats do a much better job of predicting future production, they’re rubbish!

      BTW, better recheck that Pedro vs Harrison comp. JHey was the 10th best defensive 3B this year in MLB, Pedro was 2nd to last.

      The problem that people have with UZR is perspective. No one sits and watches every CF play 100 times a year. If you did, you’d realize that they are all very good defenders. Being average in the group of MLB CF (or MLB SS) means you are a very good defensive player. Thus to the eye Cutch looks good and he is, but there are 10-15 guys who are better.

      • That’s about the best answer I’ve seen. I watch 150 Pirates games. Yeah, we all know the arm isn’t great, but I always have a hard time wrapping my head around the concept that Cutch is a “bad” defender. He’s simply not.

    • lonleylibertarian
      October 13, 2014 6:00 pm

      Well you can be in denial all you would like. But I watched probably 80% of Pirate innings an I saw almost every runner go from first to third on Cutch if the ball was at least medium deep. He plays a very deep center field so a lot of singles drop in front of him that some other center fielders get. One assist for the year is not sabrmetrics – it is real.

      Fangraphs has his arm strength and accuracy in the 40s – Marte is in the 80s on both

      As I said – a true leader would want to help his team get better – until he shows he does he would not get my MVP vote if I had one.

      And the same applies to Jeter – you are not a great SS if you have his definsive stats – and you may be a great player – and the team may like you – but you hurt your team’s chances of winning every game you play out of position

  • Tom Brenholts
    October 13, 2014 1:44 pm

    A point could be made that due to the configuration of PNC Park, the Pirates are better off with the stronger arm in left field. McCutchen doesn’t play in a vacuum, he is flanked by the 1-2 punch of Marte and Polanco, so just about everything that can be gotten to gets gotten to. And no one is going to get thrown out at home from center, what matters more is the speed at which the player transitions from catching to throwing; after that, it’s the arm of the infielder that makes more of a difference.

    EDIT: Yeah, I guess I should read the other comments before posting.

  • McCutchen would do himself and the team a whole lot of good if he would quit complaining about every inside pitch, pitchers love that, they know they can get under his skin, McCutchen is lucky he does not have to bat against his own pitchers.
    Holliday was hit 25 times this year, McCutchen 10.

    • You seriously think that this is impacting his performance? He isn’t complaining about inside pitches, he’s complaining about getting drilled in the back or his head.

      • Obviously getting hit in the back of the head is something to complain about, but with McCutchen every pitch that is near him bothers him, just look at his mannerisms, listen to the announcers, it is a bid deal when he gets pitched inside and as long as he makes it a big deal, he is going to get more pitches inside.

        • Cutch is a great player, but he also has focus problems at the plate when he is ahead in the count in a possible “pitch around” scenario, he also adds zero impact with his speed because he is so passive on the bases. You want to stop people from hitting you, get a bigger lead, steal second. marte does it

  • McCutchen should be the center fielder on this team, the weakest arm goes to center field, the strongest arm goes to right field, Marte should be in right field, Polanco in left field. UZR is a stat that is for sabermetric people only, not for scouts or baseball people.

    McCutchen would play the same if he were in left field or right field, center field does not have much to do with how he plays, he has a mediocre arm and that goes with him anywhere, he does not get good jumps on balls, that goes with him anywhere, he slides to catch everything (terrible technique) goes with him anywhere, in fact that might not be so bad going into walls in the corner outfield positions. In other words McCutchen is not going to move because moving him is not going to improve him or the team.

    • That would be true for a ball park that has near equal left field / right field dimensions. In the case of PNC, it is deeper in left center (410 feet) than it is to true center (399 feet) and right center (375 feet).
      This past year McCutchen finished with 6 errors in 308 total chances (.981 field %), 1 outfield assist, and 0 double plays. Last year McCutchen finished with 6 errors in 338 total chances (.982 field %), 11 outfield assists, and 3 double plays. This year McCutchen has a negative 1.1 DWAR, last year he had a positive 1.0 DWAR.
      A lot of that discrepancy is luck. When do an outfielder’s put outs occur and how many men are on base when it happens.

    • UZR is a stat that is for sabermetric people only, not for scouts or baseball people.
      _________________________________________________________________
      That’s not accurate at all. All teams use some kind of defensive metrics. I think I recall the Pirates saying they use a proprietary system that’s more complex than UZR.

      • All teams use some kind of defensive metrics. I agree with that, but they don’t take a UZR stat as gospel, it is a bit more complicated than that.

        Also if UZR was the stat that the Pirates went by McCutchen would not be in center field whether he likes it or not.

    • I’m fairly sure that the term “left-field arm,” refers to the convention that the weakest armed outfielder go to left-field.

      The idea that moving a weaker defender to a corner outfield position will have no impact on overall team defense ignores the impact of opportunities, we can debate the magnitude but a center-fielder will have more opportunities than a corner out-fielder

      • The center-fielder may have more opportunities, they also have an easier field to play.
        The reason Marte should be in right field is because that position requires the strongest arm, stopping runners from going from 1st to 3rd is vital to quality defense. Most major league teams these days do put their weakest arms in left field, the Pirates put their strongest arm in left field because they think the size of left field requires a stronger arm, when in reality it does not. The Giants, Cards, both winning teams bring left fielders into PNC with the weakest arms on their teams.

        • Not sure why teams that play 9 and 3 games in PNC park should be cited when discussing the Pirates outfield defense. AT&T Park is almost the opposite of PNC a large right field and small left.

          Generally teams put their weakest arm in left for the reason you cited, but as PNC park is has the largest left field in the league preventing single from becoming doubles has value also. And as Polanco’s has a well rated arm I don’t think there is much upgrade to be derived from switching corner out-field spots.

          Where there is an upgrade would be moving McCutchen out of center-field, because it reduced the number of plays he would be involved. Players like Billy Hamilton, Juan Lagares, and Leonys Martin are regular players because of number of plays they can impact in center-field.

          • I am not sure the number of plays is important because so many plays in center-field are routine or they are hits to the wall, McCutchen might help his arm situation if he played shallower, anything over his head usually requires a cutoff man and in that case how strong your infielders arm is, would come into play.
            IMO, it looks like McCutchen does what he wants to, but the other two outfielders usually go where they are told to go to. I would have a hard time putting the weakest arm in the corners even though other teams do it.

            • I think his defensive play this year was because he was banged up for a large part of the year. I wonder what his UZR was looking like pre-injury. Does anyone happen to know?

            • The vast majority of all defensive plays are routine regardless of position, this why the defensive rating move around a lot, players are only be judged a small subset of plays. However raw opportunities are still important with the spilt for the outfield being 30/40/30, the Cardinals aren’t putting Holliday in center and Bourjous in left.

              I don’t have an opinion on how McCutchen position himself, I know the Pirates like their outfield to play deep. They like to limit extra base hits and be willing to allow a few more singles fall in front. I think it is very plausible that the deep positioning negatively affects McCutchen throwing ability, and his ratings.

        • Polanco’s arm is better than Marte’s. Anyone who disagrees hasn’t watched actual games. Marte’s MAY be slightly stronger,but accuracy is also a key component in saying “better” and marte’s accuracy is average at best. Cutch is actually more accurate than Marte

          • I think not! Marte has the best arm by far on the team. Oh and I watched every game that was on TV and went to 12 games.

    • Now someone is finally making sense leadoff.

  • Spot on Tim, I know at PNC left field is sort-of a ‘2nd center field’ but to me it is clear that Marte should be the CF in 2015. Not to mention that he seemed to pick up his offense and overall game when he played CF for that brief stretch this year. LFers are valuable too, and, Cutch would really show tremendous leadership if he suggested the move. But you are right in that it won’t happen. Shame.

  • lonleylibertarian
    October 13, 2014 10:38 am

    Good post – and thanks for going over the defense angle – I have been commenting on this all season – and getting hammered for it the sign of REAL leadership is to do what is best for the team. Until Cutch steps up acknowledges his weakness I would not vote for him as MVP if I had a vote. He is a great offensive player and not sure how the calculations would work out – but he might have an even higher WAR if he played left and hat a plus DRS.

    He is not alone in this – I never got on the Derek Jeter band wagon because he too was a weak fielder – at least for the last 8 to 10 years. A move to third when A Rod first came to NY would have been classy – A-Rod at that time was a better SS.

    • They wanted Jeter to move but he refused.

    • Cutch would have had 0.8 more WAR had he been league average in CF. That said, I think you are going a bit over top here. Cutch is a great defensive OF, but almost all MLB CF are great defenders. Cutch has been an MLB average CF over the years, that is not a huge weakness that should eliminate him from MVP discussion.

    • This is an idiotic post.

      • lonleylibertarian
        October 13, 2014 8:29 pm

        Stay classy my friend

        • I will stay classy LL by not calling that post idiotic. But I have to tell you, that is one of the most wrong headed comments I have seen from you,or any one else, in quite sometime.

    • Andrew McCutchen made 6 errors in 338 total chances this season, Starling Marte made 5 errors in 160 total chances this season. I understand your point, but who would you put in center field in place of ‘Cutch?

      Lonley?

      • It is not just about errors. Marte is a much better defensive Outfielder than is Cutch. Everyone knows this!

Menu