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Andrew McCutchen’s defense can bounce back in 2017

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While the Pirates want to move Cutch to right field, the solution to 2016’s defensive problems may just be playing a deeper center field.

Pittsburgh Pirates v San Francisco Giants Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When I don’t have a clear idea for an article, I ask my dad for suggestions. He always comes back with two names: Clayton Kershaw and Andrew McCutchen. He doesn’t tell me what to write about, just that I should “write about the best.” But in 2016, McCutchen wasn’t the best, especially with the glove. In fact, he was the worst defensive center fielder in baseball by both UZR (-18.7) and DRS (-28).

McCutchen knows he was in a slump and attributes it to a variety of factors — some mental and others more institutional. The past is merely prologue to the 2017 season, and Cutch says, “I’m going to have a monster year, whether it’s in Pittsburgh or somewhere else.” When it comes to his defense, I agree he is likely to bounce back with authority.

McCutchen’s defense has been on the decline since his 2013 MVP season. However, he’s had a pattern of defensive volatility throughout his career. So 2013 was increase, 2014 was a decrease, it wasn’t quite as bad in 2015, then it took a nosedive last season. If the roller coaster continues, he could see a bit of an upswing in 2017.

McCutchen defense

Year UZR DRS
Year UZR DRS
2013 6.9 5
2014 -10.8 -13
2015 -4.5 -8
2016 -18.7 -28
Data via FanGraphs

Defensive aging curves start to turn downward around age 28 — Cutch was 29 last year — but this decline is still pretty drastic. The question from here is whether the data supports the idea that McCutchen has gotten worse. I looked at FanGraphs’ Inside Edge fielding data, and he’s still pretty solid when it comes to “routine” plays. Not so much the “likely” plays, though, or the ones tougher than that.

McCutchen inside edge

Year 1-60% 60-90% 90-100%
Year 1-60% 60-90% 90-100%
2013 46.6% 100.0% 99.7%
2014 40.0% 83.3% 99.3%
2015 8.3% 91.7% 100.0%
2016 20.5% 54.6% 99.3%
Data via FanGraphs

The first column in particular is worth noting. Last year, McCutchen had 9.3 percent of his plays rated “remote” (1-10 percent), “unlikely” (10-40 percent) or “about even” (40-60 percent), which was more than any other center fielder in baseball. Since he wasn’t catching those balls as often, that really ended up hurting him. What could’ve caused that? Why was he not making as many of the likely plays?

The Pirates had McCutchen playing much more shallow than he had in the past, a trend that lasted throughout the season. To find a point of reference, I took a look at the catches made by Dexter Fowler. Below is the Statcast data from Baseball Savant. Those bright blue portions are the highest concentration of catches, a good visual indicator of where the center fielder is normally planted.

It’s evident that McCutchen played much more shallow defense than Fowler and also shaded a bit to the left. In May of last year, MLB measured relative outfield positioning. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Stephen Nesbitt, “None had moved further back than Fowler (18 feet) or further forward than McCutchen (17 feet).”

In terms of results, the two outfielders went diametric opposite directions last season. Fowler moved back and had the best UZR and DRS (1 for both) of his career, while McCutchen moved in and plummeted to a new low in each.

Don’t believe that playing too shallow is the reason for this? Just ask Cutch:

“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."

The Pittsburgh pitching staff may bear the blame for this. Playing a shallow center field is fine if you’re backing up a ground ball pitcher. In 2016, the Pirates hurlers had the third-highest ground ball rate in the majors at 46.9 percent. While that’s impressive, it was actually a 3.5-percentage point drop from 2015, when their staff had MLB’s highest ground ball rate (50.4).

Maybe the Pirates kind of had a point in wanting to bring McCutchen in, if they were using the 2015 data? I don’t think so, but even then it just wasn’t as effective in 2016 because there were more fly balls and fewer grounders. If Pittsburgh’s pitchers can’t return to their 2015 ground ball rate, Cutch should shift back to his 2015 position.

McCutchen’s discomfort playing that shallow, along with how UZR and Defensive Runs Saved place value on individual batted ball events, created a perfect storm of fluky defensive awfulness. If Dexter Fowler’s playing too far back and a ball drops in front of him for a single, that’s not going to drive down his defensive rating nearly as much as a triple that gets over McCutchen’s head simply because he couldn’t get back in time to make the catch.

Personally, and there’s a huge bias here, but I think the Pirates should stick with McCutchen in center field. They won’t — they’ll shove him in right — but any other team who trades for him should know that McCutchen may still be passable defensively. Just play him further back than the Buccos, and he’ll have a more productive season in the field.

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Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.