Just How Good is the Pirates Outfield?

For the past few years, there has been quite a buzz surrounding the outfielders on the North Shore. Once the final piece to the outfield, Gregory Polanco, made his full season debut, the thought of Pittsburgh having the best outfield in baseball was very real. Already having an MVP in Andrew McCutchen and a rising star in Starling Marte (pun intended), Polanco was going to round it out in hopes of becoming only the ninth team in MLB history to have three outfielders hit four double digit homers while swiping at least 18 bags.

What also fueled the buzz was the defense these three could potentially display. Cutch had already won a Gold Glove, we knew Marte had quite a few coming in his future, and Polanco’s defense tool also carried that potential. It was going to be an exciting few seasons just to watch these three guys develop and become one of the best outfields in baseball EVER. Well, now we are just two weeks from Opening Day and still in search of this amazing outfield. You probably think I am here to tell you that it will happen this year. As a matter of fact, I’m here to say expect about the same.

Just recently, statcast revealed a new set of defensive metrics that the analytical baseball community has been salivating for since the induction of statcast. They revealed a catch probability metric with graphs to measure just how well an outfielder gets to and makes an out on a ball verse league average. Before this, there was no way to truly see just how good a player was defensively. Sure, there are those highlights that stay in your head that look amazing on video, but was that play amazing because of its true difficulty or was that fielder just very inadequate and made a typical routine play look extremely difficult?

To put this in context, many of you likely watched the World Baseball Classic game featuring the U.S. vs. Colombia. If you did, you will recall that tremendous looking play by ex-bucco Tito Polo robbing Adam Jones of a base hit. He took off running, bending and twisting, and finally making an over the head catch to make the out. Well as amazing as that looked, it was technically deemed a catch 98% of the time. While he travelled 63 feet, the ball only travelled 41 feet away from where Polo started. This tells us that his play that looked pretty amazing was actually just a ton of blunders and poor route efficiency. This type of data can be useful game by game as well as over a full season. In 2017 we finally have a tool to show just how great or poor a players range is in the outfield.

Statcast has rated all of these plays by a five star ranking system. Based on the probability of the ball being made an out compared to the average in baseball are how the stars are awarded. Here is the exact ranking:

0 to 25 percent — 5 Star play
26 to 50 percent — 4 Star play
51 to 75 percent — 3 Star play
76 to 90 percent — 2 Star play
91 to 95 percent — 1 Star play

S0 in essence, Polo’s out made was a one star play that is routinely caught on average 98% of the time by a major league outfielder. With this new data in mind, I figured we would breakdown the Pirates outfield and how it compared. Well, let’s just say it wasn’t as promising as I expected.

Andrew McCutchen

We will start with Andrew McCutchen. His defensive woes have been well documented and has warranted a position change this year. For the first time in his MLB career he will be playing right field. His -28 defensive runs saved ranked dead last among outfielders last year. It would not be surprising to see Cutch not fare well with this data, though it was said that much of his poor play came from his positioning. This data simply takes in consideration of where you were standing when the ball was hit, how far the ball travelled away from that initial position, and the % of times that ball is caught on average by every MLB player.

courtesy of www.baseballsavant.mlb.com

Here are the actual charts that show just what balls Cutch was able to catch, and what balls he was not. As you can see, he was not able to make many of the low percentage plays, but more importantly he allowed some really easy outs become hits. This is what’s most alarming to me. Again, catch probability measures the percent the ball that is hit would be a catch on average in MLB. This chart here shows me that Cutch was still a troublesome outfielder regardless of the positioning.

Starling Marte

Now obviously Marte is coming off of back-to-back gold glove seasons. It should be no surprise to see that he fares quite well in these graphs and sustains top tier defensive prowess. Well, not quite. This was where I became greatly shocked at what the data informed. As pictured below in the graph, Marte was not all that exceptional in the field last year. Granted, when you look at the 2015 numbers he was much better, but in 2016 he definitely took a dip in production.

Marte has always been prone to a few bonehead plays a season. I do not think any of us are in complete shock that this graph shows he allowed a few easy hits that should have been caught. What did fascinate me was the fact that more of the more difficult balls were not caught. With Marte now moving to center field at PNC, I surely hope to see this stats improve and get back to the 2015 Marte who hunted everything down.

courtesy of www.baseballsavant.mlb.com

You can clearly see here that Marte was able to get to quite a few more balls than Andrew McCutchen was able to get to. Where Cutch had zero five star plays, Marte had 3 with a full month less of action. Everyone knows the speed that Marte brings so this makes some sense. As mentioned, Marte does seem to forget what he is doing at moments on the field and this could be the reason why he doesn’t produce as well as you would expect in catch probability. Something that catch probability does not factor in though is arm strength. What Marte may lack in this analysis, he makes up with those beautiful throws to second and/or home plate gunning down the baserunner.

Gregory Polanco

Yes, the baby giraffe got his very first full season in the majors to show everybody what he can do. Based on his numbers pre trade deadline, it looked like we had a future MVP candidate on our hands. Then the deadline passed and Polanco hit a .206/.249/.383 slash and a 66 wRC+ and looked like he was ready to go back to Indy. There were also plenty of times he looked awkward in right field, though no worse than he looked right here. With this said, I was intrigued to see how Polanco panned out in catch probability.

courtesy of www.baseballsavant.mlb.com

What I noticed with Polanco was the fact that he caught all of the easy balls, and then looked almost as identical to Marte. He may not have gotten to as many five star catches (Polanco had two compared to Marte’s 3) but he was pretty consistent in getting the out. By no means was he a human vacuum, but I think this was about what we would have suspected with Polanco who is still growing into his body.

What I can appreciate from this graph is the fact that he seems to be a solid defender. With his move to left field this year, I do not think it is going to be a disaster based solely on this data. Nobody knows how he is going to adjust with the new field and the nuances it comes with. Things like the way the balls comes off of the bat, the spacious amount of field he now needs to cover, and the tricky notch in left center are all things we will have to examine on the go to truly test his capabilities. However, his glove alone tells me that he can be a worthy replacement with Marte shifting to center. Also like Marte, this doesn’t equate for the arm that Polanco brings. There will be plenty of opportunities to see a Marte-esque assist from Gregory as shown here.

The Outcome

With this data now available, I thought it would be worth seeing where everyone stacked up against the rest of the Major League. I have created a table to show where each outfielder ranked in terms of % of balls caught in each star category.

These numbers here are quite shocking in my personal opinion. For all the buzz surrounding this outfield for these past few years, only Marte’s five star outs rank in the top 30. Regardless of what defensive shifts or alignments were in place for 2016, it’s easy to say that the Pittsburgh outfield wasn’t all that great defensively. Solid enough is closer to the term I would give this club when you factor in all the other analytics and arm strength of Polanco and Marte, but there is some real concern. With Marte not being as exceptional as expected, he will see quite a few more balls hit his way in center. Polanco and McCutchen are going to be in a completely new environment as well making adjustments on the fly.

To show you how well a couple really good outfielders looked with this data, here is Kevin Kiermaier and Billy Hamilton‘s data:

Moving Cutch to right makes me feel even more comfortable now that I see this data. He will need to cover a much smaller area with less activity. With foul territory to one side of him and Starling Marte still to his right, Cutch should be able to get to more balls this season. It still will not look pretty at times, but it is the absolute best move for this team. And sure, his arm will be tested A LOT, but its a compromise I will gladly take.

As for Marte and Polanco, their athleticism will ease their transition. Marte is no Hamilton or Kiermaier as you can see, but he posses one of the best arms in baseball and will give Pittsburgh a threat in center it never quite had before. Unfortunately, we may not see a streak of gold glove awards for Starling with this move now. Polanco has now proven with this data that he isn’t a terrible fielder as many have been saying, but there is still plenty of work to do.


One thought on “Just How Good is the Pirates Outfield?

  • March 21, 2017 at 12:57 PM

    I have a couple questions. The ranking of the 5 stars are by percentage caught on average. Is that of ALL OFers, or is that position specific? They look the same, but I was just wondering. The percentage used in the last tables, that’s percentage of balls in 1 star territory caught, correct?

    Is there any indication as to when the variance is gone and the stats are more predictable? Considering Hamilton and Kiermaier are ranked high in 1 star outs, and Hamilton in 2 star outs, I’m assuming one season isn’t enough for the noise to be gone. Especially considering they’re high in the range of those star limits.


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