A Case for Optimism Regarding Andrew McCutchen

This is Alex Stumpf’s fourth piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read the work of previous residents here.

Andrew McCutchen is struggling early in the season. If you’ve followed him for the last three years, you’re aware that this is nothing new.

In 2015, he hit .194 in April. In 2016, he slumped his way to a .719 OPS through the first four months of the season. After getting benched for a series in Atlanta, he posted an .852 OPS over the rest of the campaign, just north of the .844 career mark he’d possessed entering the year.

Last year’s strong finish created optimism for this season. So far, however, McCutchen is slashing just .212/.218/.401, with a career worst 84 wRC+.

The absence of both Jung-Ho Kang and Starling Marte — due to visa issues and a PED suspension, respectively — means that the Pirates require an excellent performance from McCutchen just to keep the offense afloat. So far, that hasn’t happened. In fact, the results have been even worse recently: entering play Sunday, McCutchen had recorded a .132/.207/.302 line in 58 plate appearances since April 29th.

As usual, though, the results only tell part of the story. The quality of contact is sloping downward, too. In 2015, McCutchens’ exit velocity averaged out to 90.7 mph. In 2016, it was 89.6 mph. Through May 13th of this year, it was 87.6. The rate of balls hit at 95 mph or above is down, from 44.8% in 2015 to 42.6% in 2016 to 39.3% in 2017. The same goes for barrels, too, dropping from 9.5% to 8.5% to 5.6%.

Perhaps most concerning is his bat speed. According to Baseball Savant, in 2015, his estimated swing speed was 62.1 mph. That was the 99th best in baseball. Last year, he dropped 100 spots, when it fell to 61.2 mph. Through May 13th, he was 260th, averaging out to at 59.2 mph. That’s only a tenth of a mile better than the league average — a league average that gets lowered every time a rookie pitcher like Paul Sewald comes to bat.

Every year has featured a different hardship. In 2015, McCutchen was hampered by his left knee. The popular theories for his troubles in 2016 include (a) an injury to his right thumb, (b) the influence of pressure to become more of a home-run hitter, and (c) the effect of being moved to second in the order. At the beginning of this year, the potential roadblocks appeared to be psychological. The move to right field and then back to center. The persistent trade talks. A loss of invulnerability — whether in relation to the team, fans, or his own body.

Simply put, McCutchen has lost a step. Last year’s defensive performance and a reduction in stolen-base attempts over the past few seasons are both evidence of that. He isn’t as explosive at 30 as he was at 25. This is what is commonly referred to as “being human.” Just about every player in MLB history has lost a step around 30, but that loss doesn’t usually lead to such a sharp decline. McCutchen never had the brute strength or frame of a Judge or Giancarlo Stanton or the speed and range of a Billy Hamilton, but he was a five-tool player not that long ago. Losing five tools over such a brief period seems unlikely.

Unlikely or not, here we are in May again with Pittsburgh’s superstar underperforming. So how close is he to snapping out of it? Is this a 2016 slump that will continue for weeks or months, or a 2015 skid that has an end in sight?

The most obvious case for why this will be an extended dry spell has already been laid out: the swing is getting slower, meaning the ball isn’t traveling as fast (or far) off the bat. That’s all true, but McCutchen also isn’t terrible by any of those metrics. He’s just been roughly league average. It stands to reason that league-average bat speed and exit velocity with a good launch angle should yield a close to an average BABIP mark. Right now, that BABIP stands at .221, about 80 points below the .300 clip around which the league usually hovers. It’s true he’s facing more shifts — 28 of his 133 at-bats have been with the defense moving around — and is hitting only .107 in those scenarios, but some extra hits are bound to drop in eventually.

If that happens and the walk rate ticks up — which it might since, since he’s offering at only one-fifth of pitches out of the zone, which is his best mark in years — he’s a slightly better than average hitter. That’s what he was in 2016. His defense will still hurt his value as long as he is in center, but he was a plus defender in his first look in right. A good, not great hitter who has a good, not great glove at a corner-outfield position translates into a good, not great player. Roughly 2-3 WAR, with it probably being closer to 2 depending on how much center he plays. A far cry from his MVP days, but still a quality major leaguer.

But there are glimmers of a 25-year-old McCutchen still around. One of those glimmers came Sunday in Arizona, as McCutchen homered, drew a walk, and stole a base against the D-backs. His week-long west-coast road trip featured more of the same. Of the 20 balls he put in play, 14 featured an exit velocity of at least 94.7 mph. The downside? He only went 5-for-28, but three doubles and a homer is a big step in the right direction. If a few of those hard-hit balls found a gap, or if he bloops a handful, this piece probably would have had a much happier tone.

And of course, there’s the swing. Here is McCutchen in 2015 sending a belt-high mistake 426 feet to center.

And here he is Sunday clobbering a ball 420 feet to center.

This might be the type of statement that reveals why I’m a resident writer instead of a full-timer, but those two swings look mighty similar. It’s a good stroke with the type of explosiveness he needs from his legs. McCutchen’s struggles in 2015 were because he didn’t have his legs. Once he got them back, he was one of the most feared hitters in the game. If he can match that energy from the lower half, he is golden.

McCutchen was worth 0.1 WAR through his first 36 games. It’s hard to imagine him continuing that pace throughout the year. He is bound to heat up. If he has the swing, is driving the ball and continues to keep a good eye, it’s 2015 McCutchen. If not and the law of averages brakes his way, it’s 2016 McCutchen.

Either way, it’s a step up, and it could be coming soon.

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6 years ago

I think he’s a league average hitter with poor defense and, at best, average baserunning skills going forward.

6 years ago
Reply to  BillClinton

Not sure why you’re getting down-voted. If anything, your comment is a bit generous to what Cutch is right now.

6 years ago
Reply to  Peter

Seems like you saved me from more down-votes. Thanks, Peter.

tramps like us
6 years ago
Reply to  BillClinton

The longer a player performs at a certain level, the less likely his performance is an aberration. Add in the age variable and your analysis is dead on. Not that he can’t bounce back; he can, but it’s more and more unlikely every week.