Cutch sees no need to move from center field

Despite down year defensively, Pirates could switch him with Marte

Cutch sees no need to move from center field

PITTSBURGH -- When the time comes, Andrew McCutchen says, he'll be willing to talk about it. But he doesn't believe it's time for a position change yet.

Almost as stunning as McCutchen's nearly season-long slump at the plate was how poorly he graded out on defense, according to advanced metrics. By two prominent figures -- defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating -- McCutchen was the worst fielder in baseball this year. His DRS total (minus-28) was the lowest in the Majors, and his UZR (minus-17.6) was better than only shortstop Alexei Ramirez.

It seems unlikely that McCutchen could have fallen so far in just one year; in 2015, he was worth minus-8 DRS and posted a minus-4.5 UZR. Last week, Pirates GM Neal Huntington said the club's internal evaluation of McCutchen was "a little bit different" than the publicly available metrics. Still, the Pirates will be asked this question throughout the winter: Is it time to move McCutchen to an outfield corner?

"I don't see myself needing to move. I don't feel like I'm slowing down and hurting my team because of where I play," McCutchen said in an interview with MLB.com. "Playing center field is one thing, but being a leader out there is another. That's something we need."

McCutchen is flanked by Starling Marte in left and Gregory Polanco in right. Polanco has developed into an above-average right fielder. Marte grades out and passes the eye test as one of the game's best outfielders, with a 2015 Gold Glove Award and 17 DRS this season.

When Marte came off the bench in this year's All-Star Game, he played center field for the National League. Should Marte play there for the Pirates as well, or is he more valuable in left? Pittsburgh's PNC Park has the deepest left field in the Majors, stretching 410 feet into the "notch" in left-center.

"We've gone through dynamics and models of trying to figure that out," manager Clint Hurdle said. "There are probably going to be plays that Marte can make in center field that maybe Andrew doesn't make, [but] there are plays Marte makes in left field that nobody can make."

At different points of the season, Huntington and Hurdle said McCutchen was playing center field as well as -- if not better than -- ever before in his career. In particular, Huntington said lateral range, going from gap-to-gap, remained a strength for McCutchen.

Hurdle said the team will continue to discuss its outfield alignment this offseason and confirmed the Pirates dug into another theory around the All-Star break: McCutchen's positioning this year may have been partially responsible for the sharp downturn in his defensive numbers.

This spring, the Pirates made a point of playing their outfielders shallower, hoping to take away bloop hits and prevent runners from swiping extra bases.

That decision was based on batted-ball data against previous Pittsburgh pitching staffs, however, not the group that too often struggled on the mound this year. As a result, the Pirates saw more balls than expected sail over their outfielders' heads -- particularly McCutchen -- and those extra-base hits were more costly than singles that may have dropped into shallow center field.

"As this staff played out, it didn't match up to the same analytics off the mound that we were looking to work with the defense," Hurdle said. "We have some thoughts moving forward on how to adjust."

The Pirates could choose to move Marte into center field next spring. They could trade McCutchen this offseason, if they get the right offer and feel the time is right. Or they could decide that a change of positioning is more appropriate for McCutchen for now than a position change.

"[Hurdle] trusts my judgment, and he trusts me as a player, knowing that if I feel like something is hindering me, if I feel like center field is too much for me, then that's something I'd be open to talking about," McCutchen said. "Personally, I don't feel that."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.