Sunday, December 26, 2010

Should the Pirates Extend McCutchen?

With Jay Bruce recently signing a six year $51M contract that buys out all three of his arbitration and his first three free agent seasons, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review took a look at the potential impact it could have on Pirates ability to keep budding star Andrew McCutchen in the fold long-term. 
General manager Neal Huntington has not yet approached McCutchen's agent about a multi-year contract extension. But you can figure McCutchen's market value is close to that of Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce, who just received a six-year, $51 million deal.


McCutchen, who debuted in the majors June 4, 2009, has 1.123 years of service time (262 games). Bruce, who debuted May 27, 2008, has 2.125 years of service time (357 games).


Bruce was eligible for arbitration this year as a "Super Two" player — that is, those with less than three years' service time who are among the top 17 percent for cumulative playing time in the majors in this class of players and were on the major-league roster for at least 86 days in the previous season.

Unless he also becomes a Super Two, McCutchen won't be eligible for arbitration until 2013.
McCutchen just turned 24 years old in October, and has above average skills for his age.  Offensively, he makes solid contact (18.7% line drive rate), gets on base at an above average clip (career walk rate of 10.8%), and is very effective on the base paths (+5.4 runs on EQBRR scale, 78.5% success rate on stolen base attempts).  McCutchen has shown decent power (103 extra base hits in 1146 plate appearances) so far, and has potential to develop additional power as he enters his prime (60-70 extra base hits per season would not be far fetched).  Purely in terms of age and offensive value, Jay Bruce and Justin Upton look like excellent comparable players.

McCutchen's defensive value is another question entirely.  While scouts and fans have rated him very highly, the defensive metrics greatly disagree.*  Over the past two seasons, John Dewan's Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) has him worth -18 runs, while Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has him rated at -15.7 runs.  McCutchen's ratings vastly differ from the ratings Jay Bruce (+28 DRS, +29.5 UZR) and Justin Upton (+18 DRS, +15.3 UZR) have received.  While this discrepancy is due, in part, to the fact McCutchen plays a more physically demanding position (center fielding) than either Upton or Bruce (right field), the gap between the parties would still exist even if we were to adjust for difference in position (approximately 5 runs per season).  Unless McCutchen can turn these numbers around, Bruce and Upton project to be more valuable commodities over the course of the next 5-6 seasons.

*  Why the difference in opinion?  Well, for starters, the advanced metrics don't become statistically valid until a player has accumulated three seasons of data.  While the data is helpful, the two year sample size makes the findings less than ideal.  On the flip side, the scouting argument is not without holes either.  Scouts and fans rely on memory when making assessments of a player's defensive skills.  Memory, by it's very nature, is flawed and subject to emotional bias.  We tend to remember only the moments we feel are significant (in this case, either the tremendous or embarrassing defensive plays), while we forget the ones that seem routine.   

Additionally, the plays monitored by fans and scouts are subject to selection bias.  It's impossible for a single observer to watch every single play in every single game over the course of a season or a group of seasons.  Typically, the majority of fans will watch games played by their favorite team.  As a result, they tend to rate their team's players much higher than those from other teams.  Furthermore, we only see the end result of each play.  Very rarely do we take note of things like defensive shifting, reaction time, or the route run by the player fielding the ball.  If a player makes a diving catch, we assume it was a great play.  That may be true, but it's that's not always the case.  Perhaps the fielder reacted slowly.  Maybe he misjudged a fly ball's speed/angle, or took a bad route to the ball, which forced him to make a diving play.  In those cases, the diving catch was the result of a series of errors that was saved by the player's athleticism and agility, not by his defensive talent.  

Advance metrics don't take all of these factors into account, but they are more inclusive.  Metrics like UZR, DRS, Total Zone, and SAFE measure every play in every game, not just a small sample of the total plays made over the course of the season.  While these metrics don't take the speed in which a ball is hit (instead it uses categorized batted ball types like line drives, pop-ups, etc.) or the speed/agility of a particular player, it does take range, arm, and park factors (among other factors) into account.  The Field F/X system, which was instituted in 2010 will have a huge affect on the future improvements of these systems. The data is not yet available, and will likely take a few years before it proves to be meaningful. 

Another major factor in determining the type of extension McCutchen (potentially) receives depends on whether he receives "Super Two" status (for arbitration eligibility) after the 2011 season.  If he does, it makes sense for the Pirates to try and negotiate a contract with McCutchen that would buy out not only his four arbitration seasons, but also two or three of his free agent years.  If he doesn't receive "Super Two" status, he won't become eligible for arbitration until after 2012.  This would allow the Pirates to exercise the reserve clause on McCutchen, and then re-sign him to a one year deal at or near the league's minimum salary.  In all likelihood, the Pirates would choose to wait until mid-2012 season before opening up serious negotiations with the centerfielder.

On one hand, by holding off, the Pirates could risk additional market inflation for a player with McCutchen's skills; thereby, pricing themselves out of the market and forcing them to trade away another young talent.  On the other hand, waiting to re-sign McCutchen allows the Pirates to more accurately project his future value (in particular, his defensive value), thus allowing them to avoid risk from signing a relatively unproven commodity.  Based on everything I've seen from McCutchen, I see no reason not to expect him to be a 4-5 WAR player (on average) over the next six or seven seasons.  While I still think it would be wise for the Pirates not to buy out his pre-arbitration seasons, I think giving McCutchen a contract on par with the six year $51M deal Jay Bruce signed two weeks ago, could end up looking like a huge bargain by the time the contract expires.

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