Well, that was stupid.

Those four words seem sadly lacking in many aspects of contemporary life. You’ve said them, right? You try out something new, it fails, you realize your error, go back to what you were doing before, and move on. A new diet. A new workout. A new morning routine. Once I tried to remove a spot on my jeans with bleach[1]. Once I tried washing my hair with dishwashing liquid[2]. Once I crawled under my car, armed with a socket wrench and the intent to change the oil myself[3]. They all ended with the recitation of those four words.

As people, it’s important for us to be willing to break out of our mold, not become set in our ways, try new things. It can expand us and better us. But it’s also important for us to realize when those attempts misfire, and abandon them. Sticking with ideas that don’t work is not a sign of character. Emerson was right when he said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. So was David St. Hubbins[4] when he said that it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever. Too many people hang out on the wrong side of that line.

Which brings us to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Starling Marte, and Andrew McCutchen.

Don’t worry, this isn’t about PEDs. If you’re in need of that kind of bloviating, I’d say you’ve got a good week or two before it plays out on talk radio. Have at it.

Rather, I want to talk about outfield positioning. As you probably know, last year the Pirates outfield was, left to right, Marte, McCutchen, and Gregory Polanco. This year, the team broke camp with the configuration jumbled: Polanco in left, Marte in center, and McCutchen in right.

This move generated controversy in Pittsburgh, largely focused on moving franchise icon McCutchen from center, where he’d played all eight years of his major-league career, to right. The club apparently didn’t consult with him on the move, prompting him to write about it on the electronic pages of Al Jeetzeera[5]. The logic of the move was clear. McCutchen has never rated well as a center fielder. From 2009 to 2016, he had -75.5 Fielding Runs Above Average, an average of -9.4 per season. And the advanced metrics all agreed; he accumulated -54 Defensive Runs Saved and a -47.3 Ultimate Zone Rating in his eight years as a center fielder.

Marte, by contrast, is a superb fielder. He easily won the Fielding Bible Award for left fielders in 2015 and 2016. He had 16 baserunner kills (no other left fielder had more than nine), including three assists on forceouts—forceouts!—from left field last year[6]. Polanco, while erratic, was solid in his two-and-a-half seasons in right (31.6 FRAA). At PNC Park, left field is larger than right, so moving Polanco, with his superior range, to left made sense even though McCutchen has the weakest arm of the trio.

Now, with Marte out until after the All-Star break, McCutchen returns to his old home in center. We’re not even a week into it, and we don’t know how it will go. So we shouldn’t draw any conclusions from this play:

Or this one:

Or this one:

But I think it’s worth noting that the first two catches—both during his first game back in center, last Tuesday—came on balls hit over his head. The knock on McCutchen last year was that too many balls hit deep to center against the Pirates became extra-base hits. That’s the risk in the outfield: Play too deep and you allow singles in front of you. Play too shallow and you allow doubles and triples over your head. (This is the prosecution’s argument in The People v. Four-Time Gold Glove Winner Adam Jones[7].)

The consequences of those positioning mistakes are not equal, since extra-base hits have a higher run expectancy than singles. Suboptimal positioning, plus losing a step or two as you approach your fourth decade, can lead to results like McCutchen’s last year, when, by some measures, he was the worst-fielding center fielder in the game.

And last year, McCutchen was playing his position differently. As manager Clint Hurdle said last spring:

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. 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.

So the Pirates moved their outfielders, particularly McCutchen, in. With a pitching staff that led the majors in producing ground balls, the thought was that this would cut down on hits and improve run prevention. As it happens, there were contrasting strategies regarding center fielder positioning in the National League Central last year. The stats-savvy Cubs had center fielder Dexter Fowler play deeper than he had before. The stats-savvy Pirates had center fielder Andrew McCutchen play shallower than he had before.

Who won the challenge? There wasn’t unanimity among the advanced stats, but the consensus was that playing Fowler deep worked and playing McCutchen shallow didn’t. Or just use Occam’s razor: After last season, Fowler signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal to be the Cardinals’ center fielder. After last season, McCutchen, until Marte was suspended, was moved to right. As Rob Arthur at FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, clubs have access to better defensive information than we do, and the actions of the Cardinals and Pirates in the offseason speak to the clubs’ view of Fowler and McCutchen, given their superior information.

Look, sometimes players try something new. A pitcher adds a cutter to his repertoire. A batter tries to hit to the opposite field. Some of these moves work. Some don’t. For those that don’t, there’s usually a point in the season, when the pitcher’s new offering is getting shelled or the hitter’s new approach is yielding a .175/.250/.300 slash line, and the player says, “Well, that was stupid” and goes back to the way he did things before. He avoids the foolish consistency, stays on the right side of the fine line.

Why didn’t anybody say that last year in Pittsburgh? McCutchen played shallower and played worse. All year.

And what’s McCutchen done in his return to center? He’s gone back to playing deeper:

I checked with Mike Petriello, and’s Statcast reports that his depth the next day was an almost identical 321 feet. Yes, I know, for fielding, a couple games don’t even rise to the level of a small sample size. But McCutchen has already played deeper in 2017 than he did at any point last year (excluding games at Coors), when he started 136 games in center.

Who’s responsible for McCutchen playing shallow all last year? Well, based on this interview with him in March, it wasn’t his idea:

I felt I played some of the better defense in my career last year, with the exception of playing in. If you play in, you’re going to have to pay those consequences. When you’re playing somewhere you’re not comfortable, sometimes the ball is going to get by you or go over your head.

So if it wasn’t McCutchen’s idea, it was management’s. The Pirates' front office has been one of the most progressive in baseball, playing a sort of latter-day Moneyball, as chronicled in Travis Sawchik’s Big Data Baseball. As Sawchik explains, the team’s focus on advanced concepts like catcher framing, infield shifts, and pitching down in the zone broke the team’s 21-year streak of losing records, earning it three straight trips to the postseason.

But in this case, management appears to have misfired. With the large caveat that, as Arthur points out, the Pirates have better information than you and I do, the decision to move McCutchen in last year can be viewed in three parts:

  • It made sense going into the season.
  • It didn’t work out as planned.
  • They stuck with it nonetheless.

The Pirates are a smart team. But even smart teams can get caught in a foolish consistency, stepping over the fine line between stupid and clever. In this interview with Sawchik, the team admitted as much. Nobody seems to have said, “Well, that was stupid” until the season was over.

[1] Don’t ask.

[2] Don’t ask.

[3] Don’t ask.

[4] This has nothing to do with this article, nor baseball, but did you know that Michael McKean, the actor who played the lead singer in This Is Spinal Tap, was Lenny in Laverne & Shirley, is now Chuck in Better Call Saul, and won a Grammy?

[5] Jeff Passan’s line, not mine. I am nowhere near that clever.

[6] April 13: Tyler Collins forced at second, 7-4, Ian Kinsler reaches on fielder’s choice. May 1: Tucker Barnhart forced at third, 7-5, Billy Hamilton reaches on fielder’s choice. June 27: Enrique Hernandez forced at second, 7-4, Trayce Thompson reaches on fielder’s choice.

[7] Who, incidentally, is playing deeper this year.

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Great article Rob, thanks!
I appreciate that.