Buc-ing the trend: Pirates' outfield playing shallower

McCutchen playing 17 feet closer to home than in 2015

May 9th, 2016

The Cubs decided to position Dexter Fowler a bit deeper in center field this season, and it might have saved a no-hitter. Anthony Gose, vocal critic of defensive metrics, also finds himself a bit further from home plate, likely due in part to those same metrics. Research done by Baseball Info Solutions owner and chairman John Dewan in 2013 suggested that, generally speaking, fielders who play shallow in center, like Fowler and Gose used to, don't save enough runs on the balls hit in front of them to make up for the runs lost on balls hit over their heads.

The arrival of Statcast™ has given fans and teams alike previously unprecedented access to information regarding fielder positioning, and the most visible team-mandated adjustments this season have been those that move outfielders closer to the fences in an effort to prevent costly extra-base hits at the expense of a few more singles.

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But the Pittsburgh Pirates are their own team with their own identity, and if we've learned anything about how the organization operates during the Neal Huntington era, it's that they're constantly searching for ways to use data to their advantage, and that they're not afraid to institute a radical change. So while a deeper center field may seem en vogue, the Pirates are zigging while the Cubs, Tigers and others zag. They have instead instructed not only McCutchen, who played one of the five deepest center fields in baseball last year, to bring it in, but the rest of their outfield, too.

From a Travis Sawchik story last month, for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

"In reviewing the numbers last year, there was so much collateral damage done in front of us, balls that fell in, extra bases that were taken by guys trying to get to balls," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It was glaringly apparent that we could make an adjustment, especially with the athleticism of our outfielders and change the dynamic of what's gone on as far as run prevention."

The team spray-painted white dots in the outfield during Spring Training to help guide its outfielders to their new more shallow assignments. Alterations are made from that standard point based on the ballpark, hitter and which Bucs pitcher is on the mound, but the overarching message is clear: we want you closer to home plate.

Just to make sure this isn't one of those instances where a team is all talk in the spring and no walk in the regular season, Mike Petriello's got the data, and nobody's playing a more shallow center field relative to last year than McCutchen. In 2015, McCutchen lined up 316 feet from home plate, on average. This year? He's averaged a touch under 300 feet (data current as of May 2).

Let's run through a few possible explanations for why the Pirates may have mandated this shift. The first explanation is the easiest, and it might be all we really need: maybe the Bucs just thought McCutchen and the rest of the outfield was playing way too deep, regardless of circumstance. McCutchen was one of the most extremely-positioned outfielders in the league, and any time a player is doing something that could be perceived as an outlier, it's worth considering the motive for that behavior. Hurdle did mention that McCutchen is more comfortable coming in than going back, but evidently not so much to prevent a change.

The more logical explanations are those that consider the individuals at play, though. Like, for example, McCutchen has never had the reputation of a strong-armed outfielder. Quite the opposite, in fact. It could be that putting McCutchen closer to the infield is a way to help mask his deficiencies with the arm. In 2014, according to data provided by Baseball Info Solutions, McCutchen had one of the worst throwing years by a center fielder on record. In 97 instances in which a baserunner was deemed to have an opportunity to take an extra base on a ball hit to McCutchen, the runner did so 70 times. That 72-percent advancement rate was the second worst on record by a center fielder, dating back to 2006. Only Denard Span's 75-percent advancement rate in 2009 was worse.

And while this year's sample is admittedly small, few runners have tested McCutchen. In 18 advancement opportunities, only eight extra bases have been taken. That 44-percent rate is the sixth best in baseball, right alongside some of baseball's best outfield arms like Yoenis Cespedes and Kevin Kiermaier. McCutchen's arm strength likely hasn't changed much, but his positioning has, and that runner thinking about taking an extra base might have to think twice if the center fielder is breathing down his neck:

There's also the factor of the Pirates' pitching staff. Among the first traits associated with the revitalization of the Bucs was their organizational philosophy to throw two-seam fastballs inside in order to get ground balls hit into their defensive shifts. Well, that philosophy has now extended to the outfield. Last year, Pittsburgh pitchers induced more ground balls than anyone. Not only does it make sense for a ground-balling team to bring in its outfielders so they can scoop up those ground balls quicker, but ground-ball pitchers also tend to give up shallower fly balls than average, and last year's Pirates were no exception:

Shallowest average air balls allowed, 2015

Cubs, 284.8 feet

Yankees, 285.8 feet

Pirates, 286 feet

Consider this heat map of the Pirates' air balls last season, compared to baseball's most extreme fly-ball pitching staff, the Angels:

Gif: Pirates, Angels Heat Map

The main blobs remain fairly consistent, but the real difference is what's behind and in front of those main blobs. Look at all the blue over the heads of the Angels' outfielders, and the blue in front of the Pirates' outfielders that doesn't exist in Anaheim. Just like with their infield shifts, the Bucs are simply playing their outfielders to their pitching staff.

There isn't one correct way to position an outfield, but the Pirates think they've found what works best for them. While the Cubs and Tigers have pushed their outfielders back in an effort to track down those deep flies that do the most damage, the Bucs have brought their outfielders in, because the way they pitch doesn't lend itself to as many of those deep flies. Instead, they're more worried about gobbling up all those ground balls generated by two-seam fastballs, and helping McCutchen's arm by putting him closer to the bases to which he throws. Big data in baseball isn't one-size-fits-all; it's situation specific.

Like Hurdle said last month, "We continue to do what's best for us."

A version of this article first appeared at FanGraphs.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.