Pittsburgh Pirates: Andrew McCutchen Next Up in Right Field For Pirates

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the move from center to right field, Andrew McCutchen joins an impressive trio of right fielders in Pittsburgh Pirates history.

The Pittsburgh Pirates recently announced that they would change their outfield defensive alignment next season. It’s not often you see a team take the same three starting outfielders and move them all to new positions from one year to the next, but the Pirates are doing just that.

Andrew McCutchen has been the Pirates center fielder since June of 2009. He’s the team leader in the clubhouse and has been their best player over the last eight years, but struggled for the first time in his career in 2016. Not only did he have his worst season with the bat, he also graded poorly on defense.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been on the forefront of using statistical analysis to help their low payroll team compete with the big spenders. Their analytical team is behind this positional change for the three Pittsburgh outfielders. The new alignment will be Starling Marte in center, Gregory Polanco in left, and Andrew McCutchen in right.

Starling Marte has been the team’s regular left fielder since 2013 and has been very good there. He’s won two straight Gold Glove Awards and has a career UZR/150 of 13.7. The Pirates are moving him to center field. He’s only played 443 innings in center field in five years but hasn’t been very good there (-11.8 UZR/150).

Gregory Polanco has been the team’s right fielder the last two years. Polanco is a 6’4” gazelle whose legs seem to make up 70 percent of his height. He played 52 innings in left field in 2015 and 202 innings there last year. It’s a small sample size, but Polanco’s UZR/150 in left field is 13.9, which is very good. It’s actually better than Marte’s league-leading 11.6 UZR/150 last season, when he won the Gold Glove.

Andrew McCutchen will move to right. He’s never played anywhere but center field in his major league career, so this will be totally new to him. The Pirates are hoping the new defensive alignment will help their outfield defense. Last year, Pittsburgh’s outfield was 25th in baseball in UZR.

One interesting aspect of this move for McCutchen to right field is that the team has had two of the 10 best right fielders in the history of baseball and another who was a dominant player in the 1970s. Hopefully, McCutchen will follow in the footsteps of the previous greats who have patrolled right field in a Pirate’s uniform. Let’s take a closer look at these Pirate right fielders.

Paul Waner

  • With Pirates from 1926 to 1940
  • .340/.407/.490, 2154 G, 9536 PA, 136 OPS+ (with Pirates)

Paul and his younger brother Lloyd played on the Pirates together from 1927 to 1940. Paul was the much better player and was known as “Big Poison” with Lloyd Waner being “Little Poision.” The reality was that “Big Poison” was only 5’8″ and 153 pounds, but he could really hit.

The Pirates purchased Waner’s contract from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League prior to the 1926 season and Waner led the National league in triples in his first season. He hit .336/.413/.528 that year, then was even better in his second when he hit a league-leading .380. He also led the league in hits, triples, RBI, and total bases, and won the NL MVP award.

The Pirates made the World Series in Waner’s MVP season in 1927, but they ran up against the “Murderer’s Row” New York Yankees and lost the series in four straight games. Waner was 5-for-15, with 3 RBI.

Waner played for the Pirates for 15 years and had 2,868 of his 3,152 career hits with the team. He also led the league in hitting three times and finished in the top five in NL MVP voting four times. Based on FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, he’s the eighth-best right fielder in baseball history behind Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline, and fellow Pirate Roberto Clemente.

The Pittsburgh Pirates honored Paul Waner 10 years ago when they retired his #11 on July 21, 2007. Owner Kevin McClatchy said, “You look at Paul Waner’s numbers and where they rank, not just with the Pirates but also with Major League Baseball, and it’s clear he’s deserving. And you could say he’s one of the top three or four players to play for the Pirates.”

Roberto Clemente

  • With Pirates from 1955 to 1972
  • .317/.359/.475, 2433 G, 10211 PA, 130 OPS+ (with Pirates)

As good as Paul Waner was, there is one right fielder who played for the Pirates who was better—Roberto Clemente. Clemente and Waner are seventh and eighth for right fielders in FanGraphs WAR. Clemente wasn’t quite the hitter that Waner was, but he made up for it with his excellence in the field.

Certain names come up when longtime baseball fans talk about the greatest outfield throwing arms in baseball. Current players with strong arms include Yoenis Cespedes and Aaron Hicks. When Ichiro Suzuki came over from Japan in 2001, he made waves with laser beam throws from right field. Future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero had a powerful arm that wasn’t always the most accurate. Dual-sport athlete Bo Jackson once threw out Harold Reynolds at the plate with a throw that traveled from deep left field to the catcher on the fly, and Reynolds was running on the pitch. Jackson, Vlad, Ichiro, and Cespedes appear in this video collection of great throws in MLB history:

In the 1980s, Jesse Barfield hit home runs and made strong throws. One great outfield arm of the 1970s belonged to Pittsburgh right fielder Dave Parker. His predecessor on the Pirates was Roberto Clemente, who may have had the best arm of them all. He showed off his arm in the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles.

Clemente was recognized for his fielding prowess with 12 consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1961 to 1972. Of course, he could also hit. He led the NL in batting average four times and hits twice. His .317 career average is sixth in Pittsburgh Pirates history for players with 5,000 or more plate appearances and the players above him all played in eras more conducive to hitting then Clemente.

As good as Clemente was on the field, he was an even better person off it. He played in the major leagues in a time when the game was still getting used to dark-skinned Latin American players. Clemente was proud and could come across as angry and had a contentious relationship with the press early in his career.

One Pittsburgh reporter, Phil Musick, said of Clemente, “He was anything but perfect. He was vain, occasionally arrogant, often intolerant, unforgiving, and there were moments when I thought for sure he’d cornered the market on self-pity. Mostly, he acted as if the world had just declared all-out war on Roberto Clemente, when in fact it lavished him with an affection few men ever know.”

Musick also said, “I know that through all of his battles . . . there was about him an undeniable charisma. Perhaps that was his true essence—he won so much of your attention and affection that you demanded of him what no man can give, perfection.” Clemente’s brilliance on the field and strong personality in the clubhouse made him the team leader in the 1960s and he held that role through the end of his career, even as young Willie Stargell moved into the spotlight in the early 1970s.

Clemente’s final season was 1972. He picked up his 3,000th hit on September 30. It would be the last regular season hit of his career. A few months later Clemente died in a plane accident as he was trying to get supplies to victims of a massive earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua.

An award that had originally been named the Commissioner’s Award was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award in 1973 in honor of the off-the-field humanitarian acts of Clemente. The award is given annually to the MLB player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contribution to the team.” Two Pittsburgh Pirates players have won the award—Willie Stargell in 1974 and Andrew McCutchen in 2015.

Dave Parker

  • With Pirates from 1973 to 1983
  • .305/.353/.494, 1301 G, 5267 PA, 131 OPS+ (with Pirates)

Dave Parker joined the Pirates the year after Roberto Clemente died. With Clemente gone, Willie Stargell was the man who took over as the team’s leader and the young Dave Parker was able to grow into his role as one of the team’s best players. His first great season was in 1975. He had over 100 RBI for the first time and led the NL in slugging. He also finished third in NL MVP voting behind Joe Morgan and Greg Luzinski.

Two years later, Parker took it up a notch. He led the league in hits, doubles, and batting average. He also made the all-star team for the first time and once again finished third in NL MVP voting. He also won his first Gold Glove, in part because he had an incredible 26 outfield assists. His 26 assists that season hasn’t been topped in the nearly 40 years since (last year’s outfield assist leader was Adam Eaton, with 18). He also participated in nine double plays.

Parker followed up that 1977 season with another excellence performance in 1978. He once again led the league in batting average. He also led the league in slugging percentage, total bases, and intentional walks. He finally won the MVP award that had eluded him and he won another Gold Glove.

Parker was already a big name in baseball by this point and would add to his fame during the 1979 All-Star Game in Seattle’s Kingdome. Despite having trouble with the Kingdome roof and the bounciness of the turf, Parker’s cannon allowed him to make two terrific plays.

He didn’t play as long with the Pirates as Clemente or Waner, and he wasn’t as good as either of them, but Dave Parker was a heck of a player for the Pirates. He’s the third-best right fielder in team history.

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Andrew McCutchen

  • With Pirates from 2009-2016
  • .292/.381/.487, 1190 G, 5179 PA, 138 OPS+ (with Pirates)

McCutchen was a 1st round draft pick in the 2005 amateur draft who was on the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list four times before reaching the major leagues in 2004. The Pirates kept him in the minors until June that year and it may have cost him the NL Rookie of the Year Award. He played two-thirds of the season and finished fourth behind Chris Coghlan, J.A. Happ, and Tommy Hanson.

Over the next six years, McCutchen averaged 6 WAR per season and was an all-star five times. He won the NL MVP Award in 2013 and finished in the top five in NL MVP voting in 2012, 2014, and 2015. The only player in baseball with more Wins Above Replacement (per FanGraphs) than McCutchen from 2010 to 2015 was Mike Trout.

Last year was a struggle for McCutchen. He had his worst stretch during the middle of the season. From June 9 to August 11, McCutchen hit .227/.295/.365 and struck out in 25 percent of his plate appearances. This was unusual for McCutchen. He has a career strikeout rate of 17.8 percent. He did rebound after that. From August 12 on he hit .289/.374/.495 and resembled the McCutchen of old at the plate. His strikeout rate during this stretch was a much-improved 14.6 percent.

McCutchen has had mixed reviews on his defense over the years, but it declined precipitously last season. One interesting aspect of McCutchen’s defensive decline was the influence of analytics. The Pirates are one of the most analytical teams in baseball and their numbers-crunchers found that Pittsburgh outfielders had been hurt more often by fly balls in front of them than by balls over their heads in 2015. So last year they had their outfielders play more shallow. This was also done because McCutchen had allowed too many runners to advance on the base paths in previous seasons. At mid-season, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said that McCutchen was playing “the best center field of his career, without a doubt.”

The numbers did not agree with Hurdle and now the Pirates are moving McCutchen to right field, with Marte going to center and Polanco to right. This new defensive alignment is expected to improve the Pirates defense. It will also allow Andrew McCutchen to play the position of some of Pittsburgh’s best players from the past—Paul Waner, Roberto Clemente, and Dave Parker.

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