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New metric affirms Pirates’ decision to move Andrew McCutchen to right

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MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Pittsburgh Pirates Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

With the Dominican Republic eliminated from the World Baseball Classic on Saturday, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are set to return to Grapefruit League action this week. Each of them played just five spring training games before leaving the team, so this will be our first chance at an extended look of the team’s new outfield alignment.

Of course, Andrew McCutchen, the third member of the Bucs’ trio, remains with Team USA for the semifinal against Japan this evening, but considering the final game is scheduled for Wednesday, he’ll be rejoining Marte and Polanco before too long. He’s recently been vocal about his displeasure with management for shifting him away from center, but it’s hard to side with Cutch when he fails the eye test and the analytics scream that he no longer has any business playing there. In fact, Statcast unveiled a new defensive metric, Catch Probability, earlier this month that underlines quite clearly that, in the absence of a trade, the move to a corner outfield spot was the only logical move for the Pirates to make.

“Catch Probability” statistics do precisely what their title suggests; they express the statistical likelihood of a ball hit to the outfield being caught, and they do so by answering the following two questions: “How far did the fielder have to go?” and, “How much time did he have to get there?” In other words, they utilize the minimum distance (or most direct route) an outfielder must travel to make the play and the opportunity time he has to cover that distance. The first part is straightforward enough, but it is important to understand that the opportunity time is calculated from the moment a ball leaves the pitcher’s hand instead of the moment of contact because it seeks to recognize skilled fielders’ ability to excel from first step as they read the catcher and pitcher prior to throw.

To simplify things, Statcast converts the catch probability statistics into a 1-5 star scale similar to the “Insider Edge” field ratings on Fangraphs as is depicted below:

Star Ratings

Play Caliber Catch Probability Percentile
Play Caliber Catch Probability Percentile
5 Star 0-25%
4 Star 25-50%
3 Star 51-75%
2 Star 76-90%
1 Star 91-95%

Center fielders will generally have more opportunities for four- and five-star plays, but other than that, this metric is designed to indicate who made the more difficult plays, who was more consistent in converting opportunities, and who played better regardless of outfield position. (Statcast is working on a modified version that incorporates direction into the equation, but that isn’t available publicly at this point.)

Pirates’ “Catch Probability”

Statcast: Catch Probability

Player Season 5 Star Outs Opp % 4 Star Outs Opp % 3 Star Outs Opp % 2 Star Outs Opp % 1 Star Outs Opp %
Player Season 5 Star Outs Opp % 4 Star Outs Opp % 3 Star Outs Opp % 2 Star Outs Opp % 1 Star Outs Opp %
Starling Marte 2016 3 21 14.3 4 10 40 10 14 71.4 10 15 66.7 26 29 89.7
2015 4 39 10.3 8 13 61.5 10 14 71.4 11 12 91.7 36 38 94.7
Andrew McCuthcen 2016 0 32 0 10 27 37 14 27 51.9 10 13 76.9 45 53 84.9
2015 1 26 3.8 5 15 33.3 11 20 55 20 25 80 47 53 88.7
Gregory Polanco 2016 2 26 7.7 7 18 38.9 13 19 68.4 15 19 78.9 36 38 94.7
2015 1 34 2.9 7 16 43.8 7 11 63.6 10 11 90.9 40 41 97.6
League Average 15-16 - - 8 - - 42 - - 68 - - 84 - 0 93

Starling Marte

Obviously, Marte displayed more consistency in 2015 than 2016, but the key takeaway is that he is only one year removed from displaying above-average ability across the board, which is more than McCutchen can boast. That doesn’t prove Marte is a perfect fit for center field, especially given he’s only played 443 innings there, but it does reveal that his range and conversion rate numbers are comparable to average center fielders.

Regardless, his ARM (outfield arm runs) trails only Leonys Martin over the past two seasons, so there’s plenty of room for optimism that Marte can make a smooth transition. That isn’t to say he’s going to be able to stick at center over Austin Meadows when an outfield spot opens, but as long as he’s not expected to look like Kevin Kiermaier or Billy Hamilton out there, he should be capable of manning center in a more palatable manner than McCutchen did last season.

Gregory Polanco

Polanco has committed more errors than the team would like to see, but he’s still displayed the range and arm to make him a top-five fielder over in right. Unsurprisingly, his Catch Probability statistics from 2015 support that as they reveal he missed only 2 of his opportunities for the routine one- and two-star plays. He also flirted with league average when it came to three- and four-star plays in both 2015 and 2016 in addition to five-star plays in 2016.

Even if he doesn’t have Marte’s range, he has been a more talented outfielder than McCutchen despite not playing the premium position. This is likely why the team is inclined to have him handle left in PNC Park rather than McCutchen. Granted, there’s room for debate about whether his arm and Cutch’s lack thereof justifies Polanco returning to right field.

Andrew McCutchen

Unfortunately, these stats don’t offer any more hope than McCutchen’s Ultimate Zone Rating or Defensive Runs Saved numbers, because Cutch was by the far worst in Catch Probability statistics of the three Pirates starters. What is particularly troubling to see in this evidence is that McCutchen has converted just one five-star play in two years and that he has been below-average for even one- and two-star plays. Additionally, he was horrendous when it came to three-star plays, so there’s really no reason that a player of such limited range should be in center.

Cutch, however, has openly disagreed with the move, citing the Pirates’ decision to have him lineup incredibly shallow as the culprit-

“I felt I played some of the better defense in my career last year, with the exception of playing in. If you play in, you’re going to have to pay those consequences. When you’re playing somewhere you’re not comfortable, sometimes the ball is going to get by you or go over your head."

In his defense, he’s not wrong about the positioning difference. Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post gazette chronicled the work of MLB.com that revealed no other outfielder averaged a shallower depth relative to the previous season than McCutchen, who was lining up 17 feet further forward. The shallow positioning was undoubtedly a response to the high ground ball rate the Bucs’ pitchers produce, and anyone who has played outfield in even a slow-pitch softball game knows that it’s a lot easier to run up on a ball than chase it behind you.

These statistics don’t account for running up or down on a ball, so they can’t say definitively that positioning wasn’t a factor in McCutchen’s decline, because it probably was. Yet, what we do know from these statistics and the other metrics is that even prior to the new positioning in 2016, McCutchen struggled to exhibit both range and proficiency.

Overall thoughts

Supposedly, the 2017 Catch Probability statistics will be publicly available soon after a game is played, so it will allow us to immediately examine how the underlying statistics support or challenge the eye test when it comes to the new outfield alignment. Perhaps McCutchen’s position claim has some merit, and he’ll be an above-average fielder over in the corner, but I wouldn't hold your breath for anything higher than that. His days in center field on a regular basis appear to be done whether he’s in a Pirates uniform or not, as he needs to simply focus on consistency with the routine one- to three-star plays.

Nevertheless, it’s the resurgence of his bat and not his glove that the Pirates are banking on in their quest to make the playoffs.