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Andrew McCutchen’s fielding should improve

He’s fast, playing a better position for him and has an advantageous home ballpark now

New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

If you use advanced metrics in order to evaluate defense, Andrew McCutchen was, and has been for a while now, bad with the glove.

It’s very difficult to write that sentence, but it’s true. There is almost no advanced fielding metric that has liked him over the past three years. Here are his totals since 2016:

McCutchen defensive metrics

2016 -28 -14.7 -9.4
2017 -14 -5.8 -11.1
2018 2 -0.9 -6.8

What was amazing is that looking at his player card on Baseball Prospectus, you’d find that there is only one season where he has a positive FRAA number. That is amazing. The problem I have is that a lot of those numbers, other than the overall negative view I take with any fielding numbers, came from his negative views in center field while he was still in Pittsburgh. What credence can we even give those numbers when you realize that while he was there, the team was screwing around with his positioning, bringing him in an average of 16 feet closer to the infield only to back him up the following year. It skews the numbers and doesn’t give us much.

Last year, while in San Francisco, the Giants switched him to right field and as you can see, he went from a poor fielder to an average one. That’s a good thing, but it’s far from his reputation as a good glove man in the field. Remember: McCutchen was once a Gold Glove winner (yes, yes, I know...) However, if we look at Statcast a little bit, we can find some hints that the outlook for Andrew McCutchen, man with glove, will probably improve.

He’s fast

When looking at outfielders, it’s generally assumed that you don’t want a plodder out there trying to track down flyballs. This is partially why Rhys Hoskins never worked because he wasn’t exactly fleet of foot. McCutchen, though, still has the speed necssary to be an asset in the outfield. According to Statcast, his sprint speed is still an elite tool, especially when you compare it to those players the same position.

He’s almost two feet per second faster than league average among all right fielders. Take that speed and put it into left field for 2018, and it looks a lot better. His 28.7 feet per second would have ranked as the second fastest player for the position. While speed can be known to deteriorate as a player gets older, McCutchen’s has only ever so slightly dropped, from 28.8 ft/s in 2017 to 28.7 ft/s in 2018. We can probably expect a still smaller drop, but even still, that is an elite tool to have in the outfield, especially compared that what was there in 2018 for the Phillies.

Public information doesn’t really help too much

Tom Tango gave a brief explanation about how to use fielding data publicly available on Baseball Savant by using McCutchen as an example. One thing that stuck out to me in that article was this quote:

You see all those gray dots below the redline? Those are all the balls that were uncaught. Which makes sense: even with his speed, he can’t get to those. Some guys COULD if they get a better jump, but Cutch is not one of those guys. That’s ok to some degree. As long as he gets the balls above the red line. And there are alot of them uncaught there. That’s the more concerning part. Alot of the uncaughts are short flyballs, which you can see at under 40 feet and under 4 seconds. Those are reaction plays or confidence plays. But there are others as well that are uncaught.

This is the chart Tango is referring to.

The issue with using this chart as the main part of analysis is that it doesn’t take into consideration where McCutchen was positioned when some of those gray dots were hit, his reaction time, weather conditions, etc. Sure, we can see catch probability and things like that, but there are other outside things to consider. It’s useful in that we can see he’s still getting to a lot flyballs he’s supposed to, but beyond that, we simply don’t know. We can look at this chart for a little more help.

We can see from this chart where his average starting position was (see that little green dot?). While those gray dots right next to him might be a little disconcerting, remember - we don’t know what happened there as far as all of the extenuating circumstances. If you head to the site (linked here), you can run over them with your mouse to see catch probability and the like and while some of them have probabilities at 90%, we don’t know where he started, the weather, etc. Again, we’re left to mercy of what we know and cannot account for what we don’t know.

Citizens Bank Park will help...a lot

Now, right field in San Francisco, where McCutchen played the majority of last year, is known for being very difficult to handle defensively. The large alley in right center coupled with the shorter porch down the right field foul line means there is a lot of real estate to cover. When looking at that graph, again, where those gray dots hit to? To his credit, while in San Francisco, McCutchen managed to rebound a bit and post “better” (i.e. not as negative) metrics. There can be a myriad reasons why - better scouting reports, better data for positioning, etc. Whatever it was, bouncing back defensively, as little as it may have been, shows that there was still something left in the tank.

Now, he’ll move to the right field in Philadelphia, which doesn’t have the extreme amount of space to cover that San Francisco or even New York has. He could even benefit from the fact the Phillies have acknowledged their shortcomings last year when it came to defensive shifts and positioning, and their plan to actively get better at it. This could have been one of the reasons he was targeted as a free agent. They see something with their data analysis that we do not when it comes to defense.

So, how can we be so sure that McCutchen’s defense will improve? Well, we can’t. We know he’s fast, which helps. There is a decent chance he’s reinvigorated by playing for a better team (he did post better numbers once he went to a playoff chasing Yankees team). And he’s going to an easier, less expansive home ballpark to try and catch flyballs. While this is purely objective reasoning, it’s probably alright to assume that his numbers will come back to reflect an outfielder that isn’t as bad as he seems.