Once again, Pirates’ Opening Day outfield will change
The Pittsburgh Pirates have used 18 Opening Day outfield alignments over the 19 seasons since the turn of the century. An injury will force them to make it 19 combinations in 20 years.
With Gregory Polanco expected to miss the first one to two months of the season as he recovers from September shoulder surgery, the Pirates once again will have change in their outfield. A year after Starling Marte (permanently, this time) moved to center and Corey Dickerson took over in left following a spring-training trade, this year it’s Lonnie Chisenhall who joins the likes of Derek Bell, Matt Lawton and Travis Snider as Pirates right fielders on Opening Day since 2000.
“I have never played here before as a visiting player,” Chisenhall said from PNC Park at PiratesFest late last month, “so it will be kind of new the first few weeks kind of getting used to the (21-foot) right-field wall and how it play balls (and) what an approach can be as a hitter.”
Signed to a one-year contract in November, Chisenhall was a third baseman over the first 4½ seasons of his major league career but has been primarily a right fielder since. Though injuries have limited his playing time in recent seasons, there is reason to believe Chisenhall can be more than adequate defensively. The advanced metrics considered him an elite right fielder (albeit in a limited sample size) during his 51 games there for the Cleveland Indians in 2015.
Still, Chisenhall isn’t considered Gold Glove-caliber, but the Pirates’ two other starting outfielders have been so honored. Marte won it as a left fielder in 2015 and ‘16, and Dickerson won it last season in left.
“You want to push each other,” said Dickerson, who had a reputation as a below-average fielder when he arrived in Pittsburgh. “Just the way we practice, we practice all the details and fundamentals. The fundamentals are probably the most important thing to me. I try to set a tone in that in spring training.”
The metrics — traditional and advanced — support Dickerson as a Gold Glove left fielder: per baseball-reference.com, he led National League left fielders in fielding percentage (.996), range factor/game (2.11), double plays turned (four) and total zone runs (18).
Marte in 2018 embraced a return to center, a year after a move there was interrupted by his 80-game suspension for violating MLB’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Pirates management over the 2016-17 offseason determined Marte was the superior defender to Andrew McCutchen, and they moved Polanco to left. When Marte returned in August, McCutchen stayed in center. But McCutchen was traded in January 2018, leaving Marte as the center fielder, the spot he played through the minors.
“After I get called up (to the majors) in ‘12, it changed to left field, so then I concentrated on being good in left field,” Marte said. “Now I have to come back and do the same I did before, but I feel good to be (in center) and will play hard.”
Marte had 10 outfield assists last season, fourth-most in the NL, and his 388 putouts ranked third. The sabermetrics liked Marte’s 2018 play in center, too, as he led NL center fielders in total zone runs (16) and was second in range factor/game (2.50).
“Everything is different in center field,” Marte said. “In center field, you have to worry about everybody else. You have to be running. No matter where the ball is going, you have to be the backup. You have to be talking with the guys on the side, everything. But it’s fun to be there to be catching a lot of balls and saving the game, doing a lot of throwing.”
When the Pirates made postseason from 2013-15, strong defense was a primary reason why. They slipped defensively the following two seasons, and it’s no coincidence losing records resulted. An outfield with Dickerson, Marte and a combination of Chisenhall and Polanco has the potential to be one of the best defensively in the NL.
“We have been talking a lot how we can get better and help the team,” Marte said. “But we can be very good.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .