By Cliff Corcoran
The Pittsburgh Pirates are moving Andrew McCutchen to right field for the 2017 season. Manager Clint Hurdle announced on Sunday that the team is rotating its outfield clockwise, putting Starling Marte in center, Gregory Polanco in left and McCutchen in right in an attempt to optimize their play in the field. It's the smart move.
Marte and Polanco were both Minor League center fielders blocked at their natural position by McCutchen. Since taking over in PNC Park's spacious left field in the second half of the 2012 season, Marte has been one of the best defensive outfielders in the Majors, winning Gold Glove awards in each of the past two seasons. Meanwhile, age has whittled down McCutchen's range in center, resulting in an age-29 season last year that found him falling 18.7 runs below average per Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and 28 runs below average per Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), the worst showings by an outfielder in those metrics since 2014 and 2010, respectively.
In November, MLB.com's Statcast™ guru Mike Petriello illustrated McCutchen's range revealing that what little remained of it was to his right (toward left field). Surely, the Pirates, an organization at the leading edge of advanced analysis, particularly as it pertains to defensive positioning, made their decision about their 2017 outfield alignment based on similar data. Moving McCutchen to right should not only give him the smallest of PNC Park's three pastures to cover, but should match up perfectly with his current skill set, which should find him comfortably ranging into the right-center power alley when needed. For his part, McCutchen has embraced the move, recognizing that he will now be playing the same position as Pirates great Roberto Clemente, considered one of the greatest defensive outfielders of all time.
The realigned Pirates outfield stands a very good chance to be the best defensive outfield in the Majors in 2017. That got me to wondering about the greatest defensive outfields in history. The Pirates have had their share, with the 1992 alignment -- Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Glenn Wilson from left to right -- and 1977's Al Oliver, Omar Moreno and Dave Parker troika among the franchise's best. However, given the imprecision of defensive statistics, determining the greatest defensive outfield of all-time is a bit more art than science. Nonetheless, limiting eligibility to outfields in which all three primary outfielders were above average in the field, here are five that my research suggests should lead the conversation.
5. 1999 Braves: Gerald Williams (LF), Andruw Jones (CF) and Brian Jordan (RF)
This list would be incomplete without an outfield built around Jones, and while there are many to choose from, particularly the '05-'07 outfields with Jones in center, Jeff Francoeur in right and a rotating cast of left fielders, this may have been the best. Jordan, signed as a free agent prior to the season, and Williams, who left as a free agent after the season, were reliable 32-year-old veterans, both fast and athletic and above average in the corners. Jones, meanwhile, was 22, in his third full season in the Majors, and at peak of his abilities in the field. Given that some consider Jones the greatest center fielder who ever lived, that's saying something. Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) rates his defense as 47.8 runs (nearly five wins) above average for this season, the best figure by any player at any position since 1950 (which is as far back as BP's fielding data goes). Baseball-Reference's numbers, which use Total Zone Rating prior to 2003, are more conservative, rating him as 3.8 wins above replacement in the field for 1999, but that's still an extraordinary figure, ranking Jones' 1999 among the 40 greatest defensive wins above replacement (dWAR) totals in Major League history.
4. 1992 Padres: Jerald Clark (LF), Darrin Jackson (CF) and Tony Gwynn (RF)
These three spent two seasons together, and, unsurprisingly, the numbers point to the latter, 1992, as the better. The play of center fielder Jackson (3.8 dWAR in '92), is what elevates this trio, but his doing so brings needed attention to Hall of Famer Gwynn's excellence in right field. The Padres' pennant-winning 1984 outfield -- with Gwynn in right, Kevin McReynolds in center, and Carmelo Martinez in left, a trio that also spent two seasons together -- was also a contender for this list, and edges the '92 outfield in total FRAA. However, this alignment was more consistent across its two seasons.
3. 2012 Braves: Martin Prado (LF), Michael Bourn (CF) and Jason Heyward (RF)
This was the only full season these three spent together in the Braves' outfield. The lightning-quick Bourn, who won Gold Gloves with the Astros in 2009 and '10, was acquired by Atlanta at the 2011 non-waiver Trade Deadline, joining the defensively versatile Prado, who became the Braves' primary left fielder that season, and the 21-year-old sophomore Heyward. In 2012, all three played at an elite level, each surpassing 10 runs save above average per both UZR and DRA. Heyward, the best defensive right fielder of his generation, won his first Gold Glove that year, but that fall Bourn left as a free agent and Prado was traded to the Diamondbacks, who made him a third baseman.
2. 1978 Expos: Warren Cromartie (LF), Andre Dawson (CF) and Ellis Valentine (RF)
The Montreal Expos churned out an impressive string of outfielders in the mid- to late '70s, starting with Cromartie's debut in 1974 and extending through the arrival of Hall of Famer Tim Raines in 1979. Their best overall defensive outfield during that period, however, pre-dated Raines' arrival. Cromartie, Dawson and Valentine spent three years together in the Montreal outfield. 1978 was the middle year, when the three were 24, 23 and 23 years old, respectively, and Valentine, who had one of the greatest right-field arms in the game's history, won his only Gold Glove. Though Dawson made the Hall of Fame, none of the three had the careers their early success promised. Dawson's knees were destroyed by the Stade Olympique turf, forcing him to right field. Cromartie moved to first base in 1980 and spent his 30s playing in Japan. Valentine battled injuries and drug addiction and was out of the game at the age of 30. Still, at their early peak, they were arguably the greatest defensive outfield in Major League history, surpassed in my estimation, by just one, coincidentally contemporary, rival.
1. 1980 A's: Rickey Henderson (LF), Dwayne Murphy (CF) and Tony Armas (RF)
The prototypical three-center-fielder outfield, this trio spent three years together under manager Billy Martin and helped define Billy Ball with their legs, gloves and bats. Armas, the slugger of the group, came up as a strong-armed center fielder in 1977, and would return to the position after being traded to the Red Sox after the 1982 season. Murphy, who won the first of six Gold Gloves in 1980, arrived in '78 but didn't stick until the next year, when he was joined by legendary speedster and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Henderson. In 1980, the first of their three full seasons together, Armas, Murphy and Henderson were 26, 25 and 21, respectively, and they devoured nearly everything hit their way in the spacious Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. With their help, the A's went from 108 losses in 1979 to 83 wins and a second-place finish in the AL West in 1980 followed by a split-season playoff berth in 1981.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on the MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.