Moving Andrew McCutchen to the second spot in the order required Clint Hurdle to change the way he thought about lineup construction.
"I told Andrew the challenge for me is for 47 years, the baddest dude in the game hits third," Hurdle told MLB.com during spring training. "I've got to rearrange my thinking on it and what's best for our team. How do we maximize our run production?"
The logic behind the move and the empirical evidence that supported it was presented to both McCutchen and Hurdle by the Pirates' analytics team and they bought in.
Over the 2014 and 2015 seasons, McCutchen led the league in plate appearances with bases empty and two-outs. These low run opportunity situations gobbled up a full 24 percent of his plate appearances. Over the same time period, second hole hitters faced the same base-out state 11.4 percent of the time.
As the Pirates approach the quarter pole of the season, Hurdle pronounced the move a success.
"I think it's definitely put us in a place of where what we were hoping to see, we've definitely seen," Hurdle said during this afternoon press meeting. "The two out, nobody on thing, it's silly the difference in those opportunities."
|Plate appearances with 2-out bases empty||Percentage of total plate appearances|
|2016 Pirates third hitter||32||17.5%|
In addition, McCutchen has had a higher rate of plate appearances with men on base, 46 percent to 43.2 percent last year, and 44.5 percent for the Pirates' third hitter this season.
McCutchen is also at the center of another fundamental adjustment the Pirates made this season and he is excelling at it, according to Hurdle. As part of the Pirates' larger outfield defensive adjustments, McCutchen is playing a decidedly shallower center field.
"I don't think he has ever played a better defensive center field since he's been here, which is really encouraging," Hurdle said. "For me the balls that he has gone and got over his head with his range after we brought him in shallower. The throwing, all of it; the left, the right, the gap coverage, that's been impressive to watch."
Defensive metrics are notoriously imprecise, especially this early in the season, but here's what the numbers look like:
Fangraphs UZR/150 score suggests McCutchen is off slightly from last year, -7.8 to -6.1 runs allowed.
On the other hand, Baseball Reference's Total Range statistic ranks him second amongst center fielders, with seven runs saved above average. Also, balls hit to center field are being turned into outs 56 percent of the time, compared to 52 percent last year, and 54 percent career rate. Most dramatically, runners are being held (not advancing first-to-third on a single, first-to-home on a double) at a 55.8 percent clip, way up from 42.4 percent in 2015 and 40.6 career.
Finally, Brian Cartwright's defensive metrics have McCutchen with .670 catch percentage, which is good for fourth in the MLB. Both are career bests.
With all the changes in his work environment, McCutchen's offensive production is slightly off from his career numbers. Hurdle said he's noticed his centerfielder chasing pitches out the strike zone more than usual: "We've seen some chases that sometimes we don't see."
McCutchen's swing and miss rate is up over five percent from his career number (13.5 percent 2016, 8.8 percent career). His chase rate is a career high 25.5 percent and his strike out percentage is 23.6 percent compared to 19.1 percent career rate.
The location of the chases? They appear to be up and in.
2015 Swing rate:
2016 swing rate: