Andrew McCutchen’s time as a Pirate was always likely to end in one of two ways: either by way of trade or departure as a free agent. Several years ago, a significant portion of the fan base — and perhaps a significant portion of the clubhouse — would have liked to have seen another contract extension for the 2013 NL MVP, but that was always unlikely. The club had little interest in guaranteeing a player entering his 30s a nine-figure contact, and McCutchen seemed uninterested in taking another below-market deal.
After an unprecedented age-29 collapse in performance last season, the likelihood of a trade spiked. It appeared as though McCutchen might be dealt to Washington until the Nationals acquired Adam Eaton during the winter meetings. It’s possible that the club will look to move McCutchen prior to this year’s deadline, although the Pirates are short on outfielders at the moment and a resurgent McCutchen could be important in what has been a watered-down, wide-open NL Central and Wild Card field.
If the Pirates do not trade McCutchen, they will have decide whether or not to exercise his club option after the season. Few, if any, thought declining the club option was among the possible options just a few years ago. The deal calls for $14.5 million in 2018 or a $1 million buyout. So the Pirates face two decisions this year regarding their Face of the Franchise. First, either to trade or not trade McCutchen leading up to the deadline. And second: if not to trade, whether to exercise the option for 2018.
How McCutchen performs over the next two months will certainly influence their decision. McCutchen produced 0.7 WAR last season. He’s produced 0.3 WAR to date this season (though FanGraphs optimistically projects him to post 2.1 WAR the rest of the season). Whatever he does is sure either to boost or further decrease his trade value. He could help the Pirates creep into contention or push them to clear “seller” status. For McCutchen to have much trade value, for there to be a good chance that his option is exercised (and perhaps later traded with Austin Meadows the future in one outfield spot), he needs a resurgence.
While he finished the 2016 campaign with a strong August and September, McCutchen opened the current season by reaching a new low-point. McCutchen was dropped to sixth in the batting order on May 26, the first time he had batted below fourth in a lineup in his career. He entered May 24 with a .200/.271/.359 slash line.
But it was also around that time that McCutchen told Adam Berry of MLB.com that he believed he had finally figured out what had been plaguing him, what had led to one of the most mysterious declines in recent baseball history.
“Even though I’m [hitting] .200 right now, at least I know what it is,” McCutchen said. “I know what I’m doing. Last year, I had no clue.”
It might be imperceptible on video, but McCutchen can feel it in the batter’s box, and see it in the number of balls he’s hooked. He is turning his torso more than usual, so his quick hands aren’t synced up with the rest of his body.
“I need to make the adjustment to stay on some balls a little longer, especially balls out over the plate, stay on those balls and drive those balls to the opposite field,” McCutchen said. “Then, I’ll get myself back to where I need to be.”
There was perhaps a problem with McCutchen’s mechanics and approach that led him to hook and pull more balls despite the increase in defensive shifts he has faced in the last two seasons. And there appears to be some evidence backing his claim. McCutchen has generally driven fewer line drive and fly balls to the opposite field over the last two seasons:
During his peak years of 2012 to -15, McCutchen hit 42.0% of his fly balls to right field. Last year, that number dipped to 34.6%, his lowest rate since 2011. It has increased to 38.2% this year but his line-drive rate has hit a career-low 10.7%. When McCutchen was at his best back in 2012-15, he would pepper right-center and beyond with quality contact.
Remember the McCutchen who had dreads spilling from the back of his helmet? McCutchen with hair?
Since 2016, there has been too much of this …
But he said he’s made a physical and mindset change. On Memorial Day he did this:
That looked like a hitter better connecting his lower and upper halves. Note the landing spot of the walk-off home run — right field. In 2015, McCutchen hit 19 home runs to center and right field. Last year, he hit 11; to date this year, he has three.
When McCutchen was at his best from 2012 to -15, he sprayed more balls to right with authority than he has over the last two years.
Since the start of 2016, he has been more pull focused:
And over the two weeks, McCutchen has been spraying line drives around the field and looking more like vintage Andrew McCutchen:
Due to Starling Marte’s PED suspicion, McCutchen returned to center field earlier this year, the same position where he’d experienced a multi-year decline defensively, posting an MLB-worst -28 defensive runs saved last season. He’s been even worse this year in center, producing -11 DRS in 356 innings in center. That’s a 162-game pace of -42 DRS. He opened the year in right field, to make room for Marte in center. McCutchen produced +2 DRS in right. With his defense declining from +5 DRS in center in 2013, to -13 in 2014 to -28 in 2016, McCutchen’s future is likely in a corner-outfield spot, which means his value is almost exclusively tied to his bat.
If McCutchen is to be traded prior to the deadline for a return of any substance, if his option is to be exercised, then he will have to find some answers, and quickly. He believes he has. We shall see.