Buc-ing the trend: Outfield playing shallower

McCutchen, Marte and Polanco lining up closer to reduce bloop hits, extra bases

April 10th, 2016

CINCINNATI -- With one out in the ninth inning Friday night, Eugenio Suarez lined a 1-1 pitch from Mark Melancon to center field. Andrew McCutchen sprinted a few steps back and to his left, jumped and reeled in the ball.

In previous years, McCutchen might only have had to take a few steps to his left. But this spring, the Pirates asked their star center fielder to play shallower.

McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco have each moved a few steps closer to the infield, hoping to take away shallow hits and prevent opposing runners from taking extra bases.

"We continue to do what's best for us," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Reviewing the numbers last year, there was so much collateral damage done in front of us last year -- balls that fell in, extra bases that were taken by guys trying to get to balls.

"It was glaringly apparent that we could make an adjustment on our end, especially with the athleticism we have with our outfielders, and change the dynamic of what's gone on as far as run prevention goes."

The Pirates presented the data supporting their plan to McCutchen, Marte and Polanco. They've found success moving their players around in the past, whether it was shifting their infielders or optimizing their lineup.

"It's supposed to be able to help. I'm like, 'All right. Cool.' You don't need to tell me much," McCutchen said. "If you think it's going to work out, put me out there and we'll see what goes on. All I'm doing is playing a little shallower, not too much, then trying to go out and make more plays."

According to Statcast™, only four center fielders lined up deeper (in terms of the percentage of the distance from home plate to the wall, an attempt to account for differing home field dimensions) than McCutchen in 2015. Marte was the second-deepest left fielder, lining up an average of 298.1 feet from the plate.

"Going in [after a ball] is a lot harder," he said. "Going back, you know the ball's hit hard, so you've got to turn and run. That's the easy part, turning around and running, as opposed to gauging how far you've got to run in."

Interestingly, the Cubs and Tigers have talked about moving their outfielders back further to take away extra-base hits. But the Pirates' information supported a shift in based on where balls were put in play against them.

Hurdle used a football analogy to help explain the shift, saying he wants McCutchen to think more like a cornerback -- "You're on top of things, and you go get balls," Hurdle said -- than a free safety.

"You give them the numbers, you show them the charts, you show them where damage is done or not done. They're really good about understanding and trusting," Hurdle said. "I think we've also earned a great level of trust over the years because of the way we've done it and the communication we've shown."