Stats Geek: McCutchen is top center fielder in Pirates history


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Andrew McCutchen might be voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player tonight but, even if he isn’t, there’s something we can say right now.

McCutchen is the best center fielder in the 132-year history of the Pirates.

He’s better than the two Hall of Famers, Lloyd Waner and Max Carey, and better than the All-Stars many still remember: Andy Van Slyke, Al Oliver and Matty Alou. McCutchen’s past two seasons top any they ever had, and his five-season body of work beats ’em all, too.

Comparing players from vastly different eras is tricky. Putting runs on the board today is worth more than a player putting up similar statistics in the steroid era or the high-scoring 1930s. Baseball-reference.com adjusts for that with wins above replacement (WAR), and says these are the top five seasons by Pirates center fielders:

Year/Name: WAR - R - HR - RBI - SB - BA - OBP - SLG - OPS

2013/McCutchen: 8.2 - 97 - 21 - 84 - 27 - .317 - .404 - .508 - .911

2012/McCutchen: 7.2 - 107 - 31 - 96 - 20 - .327 - .400 - .553 - .953

1999/Brian Giles: 6.6 - 109 - 39 - 115 - 6 - .315 - .418 - .614 - 1.032

1988/Van Slyke: 6.4 - 101 - 25 - 100 - 30 - .288 - .345 - .506 - .851

1992/Van Slyke: 6 - 103 - 14 - 89 - 12 - .324 - .381 - .505 - .886

McCutchen’s year also is tied with Roberto Clemente’s MVP season in 1966 for the 12th best at any position in Pirates history. (Honus Wagner’s 11.5 WAR in 1908 tops ’em all.)

WAR isn’t universally accepted, and any fan is welcome to take such rankings with a grain of baseline chalk, but McCutchen earns points with his hitting, baserunning and glove. The top five defensive seasons by a Pirates center fielder, according to defensive WAR, are: Van Slyke, 1989, 1.5 dWAR; Omar Moreno, 1977 and 1980, 1.5 and 1.2 dWAR; and Bill Virdon, 1958 and 1957, 1.2 dWAR each year. McCutchen’s 2013 season finished just behind Virdon, with a 1.0 dWAR. His 2011 dWAR season ranks ninth.

Those are just numbers. You have to visualize the singles, steals, long balls and circus catches behind them. But among the 98 seasons that a Pirates center fielder went to the plate at least 450 times, McCutchen has three of the top 10 WAR marks and four in the upper third. He has accumulated more WAR in five seasons than Moreno had in eight, Virdon had in 13 or Lloyd “Little Poison” Waner had in 17. By the end of next season, McCutchen should top what Oliver did in 10 Pirates seasons and Van Slyke did in eight.

That would leave McCutchen and Max Carey, a Hall of Famer whose career began in Pittsburgh 99 years before McCutchen’s, as the last men standing in the argument for best Pirates center fielder of all time. Here are the Pirates’ career WAR rankings for the position:

Years/Name: WAR - R - HR - RBI - SB - BA - OBP - SLG - OPS

1910-26/Max Carey: 52.1 - 1,414 - 67 - 719 - 688 - .287 - .363 - .391 - .754

1987-94/Van Slyke: 30.8 - 598 - 117 - 564 - 134 - .283 - .353 - .458 - .811

1968-77/Oliver: 27 - 689 - 135 - 717 - 54 - .296 - .335 - .454 - .789

2009-13/McCutchen: 26.9 - 459 - 103 - 379 - 125 - .296 - .380 - .489 - .869

1927-45/L. Waner: 24.1 - 1,151 - 27 - 577 - 65 - .319 - .356 - .399 - .755

Waner doesn’t rank higher, despite that batting average, because the entire NL hit .294 in 1929 and .303 in 1930. With no power, this Waner was essentially Jason Kendall without the catching equipment, a very good player but not a great one. He seems to be in the Hall of Fame only because his brother “Big Poison” Paul deservedly got in ahead of him and Cooperstown wanted a matching set.

Carey is another story. He led the league in steals 10 times, and the only center fielders with more thefts in their careers are fellow Hall of Famers Billy Hamilton and Ty Cobb. Steals may be overrated but, in his prime, Carey finished consistently in the top five in runs scored and among the 10 best players in NL WAR.

Yet three of McCutchen’s five seasons already are better than any Carey ever had. Among Pirates center fielders, Carey’s best five seasons rank 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th and 22nd on the WAR list.

In fact, only 11 center fielders in baseball history have a higher WAR than McCutchen through age 26. The Hall of Famers are in italics: Cobb, 63.2 WAR; Mickey Mantle, 60.8; Ken Griffey Jr., 49.9; Tris Speaker, 48.4; Joe DiMaggio, 42.7; Andruw Jones, 42.3; Willie Mays, 40.6; Vada Pinson, 40.3; Cesar Cedeno, 39.9; Duke Snider, 28.5; Grady Sizemore, 27.9; McCutchen, 26.9.

Two things should strike you about that list: First, how ridiculously good Cobb and Mantle were as young players. Second, how players such as Pinson, Cedeno and Sizemore fell hard from their early promise.

McCutchen, who debuted at 22, had a later start than all those players. Through their age-26 seasons, Cobb and Mantle had played about 400 more games. If we look at how center fielders are ranked through their first five seasons, no matter the age, McCutchen moves up to fifth in WAR:

Years/Name: WAR - R - HR - RBI - SB - BA - OBP - SLG - OPS

1936-40/DiMaggio: 33.6 - 613 - 168 - 691 - 17 - .343 - .402 - .623 1.025

1951-56/Mays: 32.3 - 419 - 152 - 412 - 83 - .306 - .382 - .584 - .966

1989-93/Griffey: 30.1 - 424 - 132 - 453 - 77 - .303 - .375 - .520 - .895

1951-55/Mantle: 29.5 - 510 - 121 - 445 - 33 - .298 - .400 - .528 - .928

2009-13/McCutchen: 26.9 - 459 - 103 - 379 - 125 - .296 - .380 - .489 - .869

McCutchen isn’t in their class, but that’s no insult. The player most similar to him statistically through age 26, according to baseball-reference, is Carlos Beltran, now making a strong case for Cooperstown. Other Hall of Famers with comparable numbers by age 26 are Andre Dawson and Billy Williams. McCutchen has all three beat in WAR.

If you can stand one final chart, these are the top three Pirates players, at any position, through age 26. (Honus Wagner isn’t listed because he didn’t become a member of the Pirates until he turned 26, and Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell didn’t begin their careers as strongly as McCutchen.):

Years/Name: WAR - R - HR - RBI - SB - BA - OBP - SLG - OPS

1932-38/Arky Vaughan: 48 - 65 - 569 - 54 - .332 - .425 - .484 - .909

1986-91/Barry Bonds: 41.1 - 142 - 453 - 212 - .269 - .367 - .485 - .852

2009-13/McCutchen: 26.9 - 103 - 379 - 125 - .296 - .380 - .489 - .869

Change the criteria to the first five seasons of a career begun as a Pirates player, at any age, and Vaughn and Bonds still lead but Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner (31.0) moves up to third and Paul Waner (28.0) to fourth.

However the vote goes today, Pirates fans are looking at a special player who isn’t going anywhere. McCutchen is signed through 2017 with a team option in 2018, when he will be 31. McCutchen’s best years will be in a black-and-gold uniform.


Brian O’Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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