Pirates’ outfield may have few defensive peers
BRADENTON, Fla. — One morning during batting practice, the topic in the McKechnie Field press box was how the Pirates might morph their infield shifts as hitters adapt to the newfangled defenses.
A longtime National League scout gazed out to the grass where Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco were shagging flies. He saw a deep fly ball caught. A shot slicing to the gap caught. A screamer to the warning track caught. A shallow blooper caught.
And he got to thinking …
“Defensively, that could be one of the all-time great outfields,” the scout said. “Nobody has the speed and athleticism defensively that those guys do.”
The scout paused.
“They might be able to play a two-man outfield,” he continued. “Put Marte in left-center and McCutchen in right-center, then let Polanco roam around somewhere.”
He was only joking about shifting Polanco into the infield. But the scout was sober with his evaluation that the Pirates’ “Dream Outfield” has the potential to be one of the best ever defensively.
McCutchen won a Gold Glove in 2012, and Marte has been a finalist for the award. Polanco has yet to play a full season in the majors but also has great skills.
“We know how good we are out there,” Marte said. “We make it hard for the hitters because they know we can run and catch every ball. Even when they think we can’t make the play, we still make it.”
Every now and then, though, a ball is going to drop. Even then, the Pirates outfielders can make an impact
“Not only can we catch, we can throw too,” Marte said. “They don’t try for extra bases. They know we have very good arms. We try to get everybody out.”
When it comes to throwing arms, Marte is the class of the group. He’s an elite left fielder, especially in other team’s ballparks that play normal to all fields.
With its vast left field, PNC Park is not a normal ballyard. Marte’s arm is strong and accurate enough to be a difference maker.
According to The Fielding Bible, Marte ranked sixth among NL outfielders with seven runs saved last season. In 2013, he led the league with 18 runs saved.
Opponents have learned not to press their luck when Marte is fielding the ball.
When he was a rookie in 2012, runners took an extra base on him 40 percent of the time. That rate dropped to 29.8 percent in 2013 and was 36.8 percent last year.
Polanco is still learning how to play fly balls in big league parks. Last season, he lost four balls in the sun/lights, according to The Fielding Bible, and struggled to run good routes.
Polanco also had five balls tick off his glove. That tied him with San Francisco’s Hunter Pence for fourth among NL right fielders — although it should be noted that Pence played 800 more innings than Polanco.
“You don’t need a good arm in right field in Pittsburgh because it’s so short,” an American League scout said. “But Polanco’s arm plays fine, home or road.”
Of the three outfielders, McCutchen probably has the weakest arm. Last season, runners took an extra base on him 72 percent of the time, and he cost the Pirates 13 runs defensively.
“McCutchen doesn’t throw that good,” the AL scout said bluntly. “He needs to hit the cutoff and keep the ball down. He throws accurately, but his arm strength is not that good. When he was younger, he’d overthrow the cutoff a lot. Now, he’s wised up and knows his limitations.”