By mulling shifting McCutchen, the Pirates are re-thinking big

While batting third for the Pirates, Andrew McCutchen finished second in the majors to Paul Goldschmidt in plate appearances with two outs and no one on last season. Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- You may have heard this week that the Pittsburgh Pirates are thinking about moving Andrew McCutchen up to the No. 2 hole in their lineup. OK, that’s totally true. Nevertheless, it isn’t totally accurate.

Because what the Pirates are really thinking about is, well, everything.

If you just focus on this one maneuver, you’re missing something. Something larger. Something landscape-changing. Something that opens a window into what the Pirates have become here in the 21stcentury.

To say they are now one of the sports world’s great think tanks doesn’t quite capture it. What they’ve actually become is one of the sports world’s great re-think tanks.

“In our constant evaluating, we don’t just say, 'This is the way it’s always been done,’” said their free-thinking manager, Clint Hurdle. “Tradition can be a wonderful thing. But it can be a vision-killer.”

So the Pirates now find themselves in constant pursuit of both vision and revision. And this winter, that pursuit led them to a deep study of the lineup card.

McCutchen has occupied the third spot on that lineup card for all but two of the last 628 regular-season games he has started, a streak that dates way back to September of 2011. But this winter, as his team began kicking around various strategies that could lead to more runs scored, the people doing all that kicking found themselves asking a fascinating question:

Were they hitting McCutchen in the 3-hole because that was the best spot? Or were they just doing it because that’s the way they’ve always done it?

“For 47 years, the baddest dude on the team hit third,” the manager said. “Well, you know what? It shouldn’t be that way anymore. There’s a better way to get it done.”

But if there is, they have to keep something else in mind: This isn’t just about the 3-hole. And it isn’t just about the 2-hole. Because the 2-hole is connected to the leadoff hole. And the 3-hole is connected to the “cleanup” hole. And every spot on that card is connected to every other spot.

So this can’t be only about sliding one piece around this chess board. It’s about every piece.

“It’s almost like, when you leave the house, your furniture was all in one place,” Hurdle said, at his “Extreme Makeover” best. “Now you come back and your wife has rearranged the furniture. Same furniture. But you’ve got to find a different way across the room. And it may turn out to be a better way.”

But if the Pirates were going to figure out whether it is or isn’t a better way, they needed to attack this on many more levels than you might think. Mathematical. Practical. And human.

The mathematical side, in some ways, is almost the easiest, because you start with this fundamental principle: The No. 2 hitter will come to the plate approximately 30 more times this season than the No. 3 hitter. But even that, Hurdle said, might be over-simplifying the equation.

“You know, the immediate response I got from some people,” he said, “was, 'Well, if you hit [McCutchen] fourth, then he’s got a better chance of getting 100 RBIs.' And I understand that concept -- if you have another third hitter with a high on-base percentage to put up in front of him. If not, you’re taking away 30 at-bats from the best hitter on your team, rather than adding 30 at-bats (in the 2-hole). So it’s actually a 60-at-bat swing. And if he gets 60 more at-bats, what can he do?”

For a century, in the Way We’ve Always Done It world, getting that cleanup hitter his 100 RBIs was a priority. But now, here’s a manager asking a different question.

“How many more runs can he score?” Hurdle wondered, “because truly, what’s the game about? It’s about community. It’s about scoring more runs. . . . So he might score 25 more runs because you’re putting a guy who gets on base 40 percent of the time second in your lineup.”

And then there’s the practical side of this. Which involves how best to line up the guys hitting in front of McCutchen -- and behind him.

In front of him, as things now stand, would be John Jaso. As leadoff men go, Jaso isn’t your basic Usain Bolt sprint-champ base-stealer. But his career on-base percentage in 517 plate appearances out of the leadoff spot is a dazzling .380 -- which is what attracted the Pirates to him in the first place. So how much sense does it make to slot someone with McCutchen’s skill set in the No. 2 spot behind a leadoff hitter with Jaso’s own unique skill set? Quite a bit, actually.

But then, if you pair those two at the top, does it allow the players who hit behind those two to do what they do best, in a way that maybe they couldn’t if they were hitting in front of McCutchen?

“When you talk to different guys, if they’re base-stealers, sometimes it’s hard for base-stealers to run in front of Andrew, because they don’t want to give up an out on the bases,” Hurdle said. “So maybe (Josh) Harrison could be down behind McCutchen. (Gregory) Polanco could be down behind McCutchen. Does that free them up to be more aggressive on the bases and steal more bases?”

Obviously, the Pirates are thinking: Yes, it does. So let’s see how that shakes out.

But before any of these plans can be carried out on a baseball field in games that matter, there is still a human side that has to be tackled before any change can work. So that, Hurdle said emphatically, is where communication “is always critical.” Asked if he’d talked to McCutchen about this a little bit, the manager shook his head and boomed: “No. A lot of bit.”

“Andrew is a sharp guy, a team guy,” Hurdle said. “And I told him his challenge is my challenge. It’s that 'the No. 3 thing’ isn’t really a 'thing.’ And we make it a 'thing,’ because I’ve seen on paper now that it’s not what I thought it was. The game has evolved in different ways. Some people say, 'It’s a different way to look at it.’ No. It’s a better way.”

So what the deep thinkers in the sport are beginning to understand is that the No. 3 spot might not be the best place to station your team’s best offensive force -- that it actually ranks behind the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 slots in importance, in fact.

“It’s about lineup construction, and the number of at-bats you get, and the weight that you put on the outs you make in those different spots,” Hurdle said. “It’s still an optimum place to hit, but it’s weighted differently now. When you look at it, most of the models that are put together are based on on-base production (from) guys at the top three out of four spots. So you still want a guy (hitting third) who can swing the bat and do some things. But it’s not the same, because the highest percentage of the time, they go up with two outs and nobody on.”

To reinforce that point, the Pirates showed McCutchen a list of hitters who batted the most times with two outs and the bases empty last year. And there he was, second in all of baseball on that list, with 158 plate appearances. Only Paul Goldschmidt (164) ranked ahead of him. Virtually all the names behind them were also No. 3 hitters. So you didn’t need to be Bill James to see the trend in those numbers.

“I told Andrew, 'I don’t know what these other guys are going to do. I’m not going to call them,’” Hurdle said. “But I said, 'I know what we need to do -- and what we need to look at.’”

Well, that answer, again, is everything. They need to look at everything.

So they’ve contemplated who best fits their definition of a modern No. 4 hitter -- “a game-changing big-swing guy,” the manager said. They’ve also contemplated what the bottom of a lineup like this needs to look like – and whether that might involve the pitcher hitting eighth. But that’s a conversation they’ve decided to resume next winter, so that, if they decide to do it, Hurdle said, “everyone knows going in, so we’ve got 32 games (in the spring) to work on it.”

Maybe that’s a sign that what a team can put in place will always move along at a slower pace than the thinking that powers every action. So for now, no matter how convinced they all are that the thinking behind rearranging the lineup furniture is dead on, they haven’t fully committed to lining up this way on Opening Day. Or in the 161 games to follow.

But at least, said the manager who has to maneuver his way around this chess board, “it’s given us another lens to look through.” And one thing we now know about the Pittsburgh Pirates, here in the 21st century, is that while we debate where Andrew McCutchen should hit, they’re already back in the lab, peering at the game through 100 other lenses.