Statcast outfield data may shed light on Harper, McCutchen

Nationals right fielder is playing 11 feet shallower in September than April

September 26th, 2016

One of the more interesting things about Statcast™ data is that we can use it to identify the starting positions of outfielders. After all, you can't know how far a fielder ran without knowing where they started, and that's how we plan to eventually lead to some revealing new defensive metrics. For now, we can use the data on hand to look at what defensive positioning might tell us about some of what we see in the outfield. Here are four fun facts:

 1. Might 's defense tell us something about his offense?

Despite a third National League East title in five years for Washington, there's still no clarity on what's been ailing Harper for most of the season, as an outstanding April (.286/.406/.714, nine home runs) was followed by five frustrating months (.237/.369/.395, 15 home runs). Multiple reports have surfaced suggesting Harper is dealing with a neck or right shoulder injury, and multiple times, the Nationals have denied it.

We can't know the truth, and so we won't speculate on what the real issue is, if any. But what is interesting to look at is what the data says, particularly in light of reports that Harper was playing excessively shallow earlier this month in Atlanta.

Harper monthly positioning, feet from home

April -- 290

May -- 290

June -- 283

July -- 284

Aug -- 286

Sept -- 279

MLB right-field average: 294 feet

The summer months were clearly shorter than the first two months, and September stands out as being shallower still. On a double on Sept. 16 in the Atlanta series, Harper was just 265 feet away from home, which is how a ball that was projected only at 320 feet could land so far over his head.

What about arm strength? Last year, Harper's arm strength on "competitive throws" was 95.5 mph, one of the 10 best outfield marks in the game. This year, that's 93.2 mph, and you can see what's happened over the past two months:

Harper arm strength on "competitive throws"

April -- 92.3 mph

May -- 93.8 mph

June -- 94.9 mph

July -- 94.1 mph

Aug -- 90.2 mph

Sept -- 89.8 mph

MLB right-field average: 88.9 mph

Now, Harper also has a sore thumb to worry about, injured on a slide in Pittsburgh on Sunday, which makes the situation even murkier. It might be the last thing a Nats team already worrying about injuries to and needs. A shallower position and less on his throws probably doesn't reassure fans about his right shoulder, either.

 2. might be a better outfielder than the metrics credit him for.

Per Defensive Runs Saved, McCutchen's negative-25 runs isn't just the worst mark of any fielder this year, it's the seventh worst of any fielder going back to 2008. Now to some extent, a defensive decline makes perfect sense, because 2016 was McCutchen's least-productive year on offense, too. His slugging percentage has dropped from .542 to .488 to .439 over the past three seasons, and his stolen bases have declined from 27 to 18 to 11 to 6 over the past four years. Whatever is ailing McCutchen, it's easy to see that it's affected his game in all areas. (Though he has finished strong, hitting .296/.395/.505 with nine home runs since Aug. 1.)

Still, is it possible that McCutchen's poor defensive ratings are only partially about his own performance? It was well-reported early in the year that the Pirates intended to play their outfielders shallower, in part because the grounder-heavy Bucs staff allowed flies and liners to go only an average of 285 feet last year, tied for the second shortest in baseball, and allowed the second-highest average against (.482) on those balls. (A side benefit would also allow McCutchen, and shorter throws to prevent baserunners from advancing.) Indeed, McCutchen's average of 306 feet from home plate is tied with and Michael Taylor for the shallowest of the 88 center fielders who have been on the field for 1,000 pitches -- after he played relatively deeply last year.

That's great for preventing bloop singles, but it does leave a fielder more vulnerable to balls that go over McCutchen's head, and those are more likely to be damaging extra-base hits -- it's the exact reason that the Cubs pushed deeper. Fowler, in his eighth full Major League season, has his first positive DRS score. McCutchen, also his in eighth season, has accumulated nearly half of his career negative-51 DRS mark this year alone. While Marte has stayed stable, Polanco has declined from plus-12 to plus-2. It's easy to believe that McCutchen has legitimately struggled this year; it's also easy to believe a change in positioning has made his numbers look worse than they ought to be.

3. It seems like inexperienced outfielders tend to play deeper.

Let's use a minimum of 1,000 tracked pitches, which gives us a good sample size of 130 left fielders, 88 center fielders and 96 right fielders. Looking at the deepest players puts some numbers to something you maybe already figured: Players without much outfield experience, worried about allowing hits over their heads, play very deep.

Just look at the five deepest left fielders:

313 feet --

309 feet --

308 feet --

306 feet --

305 feet --

Primarly a third baseman, Marte spent his entire professional career since being drafted in 2007 playing the infield corners. He'd never played outfield as a pro before doing so with the Angels on June 13, having been pressed into service by injuries to and . Profar to this day has still never played an outfield game in the Minors, and he has mostly played first, second and third this year after coming up as a shortstop. O'Brien was a catcher for most of his professional career, finally abandoning that to move to the outfield last year in the Minors.

How about the deepest center fielders?

333 feet --

331 feet --

330 feet --

329 feet --

327 feet --

The recently released Jennings had long been an outfielder, of course, but we see three more infield conversions here. Tigers utility man Romine had been an infielder for the entirety of his pro career before making his starting debut in the outfield in May, and Desmond's conversion from Washington shortstop to Texas center fielder has been well-chronicled. Wong, similarly, made his first appearance in the outfield this year after losing his second-base job.

And right fielders? More of the same:

310 feet -- Brett Eibner

307 feet --

304 feet --

303 feet --

303 feet -- Reymond Fuentes

We see Eibner again, and he actually is a career outfielder. That's not the case for Drury, however, as the infielder blocked by was forced into service after injuries to and . His Arizona teammate Tomas entered the bigs as a third baseman, though he did play outfield in Cuba. Perez, mainly a middle infielder since turning pro in 2008, is another utility player who made his starting outfield debut in the Major Leagues.

4. The shallowest left fielders are exactly who you think they are.

Obviously, looking at raw positioning numbers comes with one significant caveat: all ballparks aren't shaped the same way. While some of that smooths out over the course of the season due to road games, certainly home fields play a part. So perhaps you won't be surprised to see that the shallowest left fielders, all at a range of 277 to 280 from home plate, are all members of the Red Sox () and Astros (, , ). With the Green Monster and Crawford Boxes behind them, well, of course they're playing shallower.

A better way to account for that may be to look at "percentage of distance from home to the wall," to say that, for example, Rays center fielder played 81 percent of the way from home to the wall, as he did last year. In terms of raw distance, however, this certainly does remind you how cramped it gets in Boston and Houston.