2017 Pittsburgh Pirates position breakdown: outfield

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30: Jordan Luplow /

As we continue to break down each of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ position from 2017 here at Rum Bunter next up is the outfield.

The past few seasons the Pittsburgh Pirates have been waiting for ‘the best outfield in baseball’ to come to fruition. Following 2016 the Pirate outfield seemed primed to erupt in 2017. Unfortunately for the Pirates and their fans, things did not go anywhere near according to plan with the outfield in 2017.

2016 was the best season of Gregory Polanco‘s career and he appeared to be turning a corner. Combine this with Andrew McCutchen being primed for a bounce back season – that he did indeed have – in 2017 and Starling Marte being one of the best two-way players in the National League and all signs pointed toward the Pirate outfield becoming one of the best in baseball in 2017.

After having the worst season of his nine-year Major League career in 2016, Andrew McCutchen had a big 2017 season. The Pirate superstar posted a .363 on-base percentage, .360 wOBA, 122 wRC+, a .207 ISO, he slugged .486, and his fWAR was 3.7. He was, yet again, the Pirates’ best player in 2017 and anchored the outfield.

At the start of the season Starling Marte was the team’s new center fielder, with McCutchen shifted to right field. However, on April 18 Marte was suspended 80-games for failing a drug test. This led to McCutchen moving back to center field, Gregory Polanco from left field to right field, and then when Marte returned he was back in left field.

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After returning from his suspension, Marte had his struggles. However, he finished the season strong down the stretch in September. In the month of September (100 plate appearances) Starling Marte owned an 8.0 percent walk rate, 17.0 percent strikeout rate, an on-base percentage of .380, he slugged .456, his ISO was .133, he stole eight bases, and he posted a .360 wOBA and a 122 wRC+.

Despite missing 80 games due to suspension, struggling in the season’s first two weeks before the suspension, and being miserable in the month of August Starling Marte was still able to finish 2017 with a 1.2 fWAR. A big reason for this was due to Marte being an elite defender once again as he finished the season with a defensive runs saved (DRS) of +9 in just 476 innings in left field.

If Marte can repeat his September results over six months in 2018, combined with his defensive prowess, he will be a 4-5 WAR player. This is not out of the question either as this is something Marte has already done in the past.

On top of Marte’s suspension, the Pirates’ outfield was also plagued by the injuries of Gregory Polanco in 2017. After having a trio of disabled list stints, Polanco accumulated just 411 plate appearances in 108 games played this past season.

Polanco had yet another strong defensive season posting a +6 DRS in right field and his defense is something the Pirates missed dearly while Polanco was out. Polanco’s offense was a mess in 2017 though posting a .305 on-base percentage, .391 slugging percentage, .297 wOBA, and an 81 wRC+.

The importance of Polanco to the Pirates is much more than most people realize. It is not a coincidence that the Pirates were 54-54 in games Polanco played in last season, and 21-33 when he did not play. Getting a healthy and productive Polanco is vital to the success of the 2018 Pirates.

Adam Frazier, John Jaso,  Jordan Luplow, and Jose Osuna all started games in the outfield as well in 2017. Frazier was a plus defender in the outfield and proved to be a strong fourth outfielder, while Luplow flashed some good things in September. As for Jaso and Osuna, due to their miserable outfield defense, neither should ever be starting in the outfield in a Major League game.

There is also top prospect Austin Meadows waiting in the wings at Triple-A. Due to their contracts, the Pirates are married to Marte and Polanco for the foreseeable future. This makes Meadows the center fielder of the future when McCutchen moves on in free agency after the 2018 season. That said if the Pirates fail to compete for the postseason in 2018 look for McCutchen to get moved at the traded deadline, ending his Pirate career early, and starting that of Austin Meadows.

When things were all said and done the Pittsburgh Pirates ranked 10th in the National League in outfield fWAR (5.4), 11th in wOBA (.318) and wRC+ (95), and 12th in slugging percentage (.412). All of this was despite Andrew McCutchen’s strong season. Defensively, the Pirate outfield was 8th in the National League in DRS (+15) and this was despite McCutchen’s -14 DRS in 2017.

Next: Pirates make a trio of roster moves

If the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to return to the postseason in 2018 they need their entire outfield to stay on the field, play to their potential, and become one of the best in baseball. Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte are as close to sure-fire bets as it gets and should not be worried about. In turn, this puts a lot of pressure on Gregory Polanco to stay healthy and perform.

If Polanco can do that in 2018, then the Pirate outfield will be one of the best in baseball and the Bucs as a whole will be a better team for it. If not, then we will probably see the Pirates struggle again 2018 which could end Andrew McCutchen’s Pirate career in July 2018 instead of at the end of the season.

Other 2017 position breakdowns: