Andrew McCutchen Sets Sail for Home

Andrew McCutchen
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

After five seasons and four different teams, Andrew McCutchen is returning to the ballclub where it all began. On Friday morning, the 36-year-old outfielder came to terms with the Pirates on a one-year, $5 million contract. The deal is pending a physical, but the official hype video is already up on Twitter.

McCutchen was remarkable in his first stint with Pittsburgh, putting up 46 WAR from 2009 to ’17. Only five players were more valuable during those nine years: Mike Trout, Buster Posey, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, and Robinson Canó. McCutchen hit 203 home runs, stole 171 bases, and led the Pirates to three straight postseason appearances, including their first in more than 20 years. He’s the best player in the history of PNC Park and the greatest Pirate since Barry Bonds.

McCutchen joins a Pirates team that isn’t too different from the one he left. The 2017 squad finished fourth in the NL Central with a 75–87 (.463) record. Another fourth-place finish feels about right for 2023, and that’s precisely how our projections see things shaking out:

2023 Projected Standings – NL Central
Team Projected W%
Cardinals .526
Brewers .516
Cubs .465
Pirates .465
Reds .420
Projections as of Tuesday, January 17

Furthermore, the present-day Pirates might be looking to deal another star outfielder: Bryan Reynolds, who came to Pittsburgh from San Francisco in exchange for McCutchen, has reportedly requested a trade amid frustrating extension negotiations. The Pirates have expressed a desire to hold onto their young star, but no one would be all that surprised to see Reynolds in a new uniform by the trade deadline.

Gone are the days when McCutchen was an elite baserunner or even an adequate defender. At present, his only job is to hit, and unfortunately, he was below average at the plate in 2022 for the first time, finishing with a 98 wRC+ thanks to career-worst power numbers, including a .385 SLG and .149 ISO. Only 31.4% of his batted balls were classified as hard-hit (per SIS), a tick above league average but well below his career norm. The decline in his hard-hit rate was most evident on fly balls, which are more likely to fall for extra bases than ground balls or line drives:

Andrew McCutchen’s Hard-Hit Balls
Timeframe Hard% on GB Hard% on FB Hard% on LD
Career 26.3% 41.4% 50.4%
2021 25.7% 41.0% 49.3%
2022 22.4% 33.8% 45.1%

Overall, hard-hit fly balls accounted for 12.7% of McCutchen’s total balls in play last season and 16.5% the year before. He made up the difference with more medium-hit flies, and the drop-off from hard to medium-hit fly balls is steep. Hard-hit fly balls had a 487 wRC+ and 1.150 ISO last season; medium-hit flies had a -56 wRC+ and .050 ISO.

On the bright side, McCutchen continued to make plenty of “extra-hard” contact on fly balls. Statcast defines a hard-hit ball as any batted ball with an exit velocity over 95 mph. It’s a useful metric, but it’s also important to remember that not all hard-hit balls are equally dangerous; there’s a big difference between a 95-mph exit velocity and a 100-mph exit velocity. Therefore, I like to use the term “extra-hard” contact to refer to balls hit over 100 mph. And by this particular metric, McCutchen didn’t decline at all in 2022. His Statcast hard-hit% on fly balls dropped by 13%, but his extra-hard-hit% on fly balls stayed remarkably consistent:

McCutchen’s Extra-Hard-Hit Fly Balls
Year Fly Balls 100-mph Fly Balls Extra-Hard-Hit FB%
2021 108 31 28.7%
2022 111 32 28.8%
via Baseball Savant

Thus, all the missing hard-hit fly balls were in the 95–99.9-mph range. That isn’t nothing — fly balls in that range had a .355 wOBA last season — but it’s far more important to crush balls over 100 mph. Extra-hard-hit fly balls had a wOBA of 1.273 in 2022.

The other big thing missing from McCutchen’s game was his elite walk rate. He drew free passes at a respectable 9.8% pace (118 BB%+), but that pales in comparison to his 13.7% walk rate (153 BB%+) from 2018 to ’21. He showed a terrific eye at the plate, laying off pitches outside the zone, but he swung more than usual at pitches in the zone, taking a hack at 71.6% of pitches over the plate, significantly higher than his 63.5% z-swing rate from 2018 to ’21. Simply put, swinging more means walking less.

Despite his falling walk rate, McCutchen still has one of the best eyes in the game. His chase rate ranked in the 92nd percentile (in a good way), and as I said, he knows better than almost anybody when to keep the bat on his shoulders. He was worth +7 runs on takes in the shadow zone last season, the fifth-best mark in the league. Another great example of his discipline was the difference in his approach against sliders and curveballs. McCutchen is great against curves and terrible against sliders, as has been the case for much of his career. Accordingly, he was much more likely to chase on a curveball and lay off a slider outside the zone. He chose to chase at just 17.8% of sliders compared to 23.5% of curves, because chasing at sliders wasn’t going to be worth the risk. McCutchen’s walk numbers will continue to decline as his bat becomes less of a threat, but his elite plate discipline should help him remain productive as he ages.

Indeed, there’s a lot to like about McCutchen despite his advanced age. He’s a surprisingly fast runner, and although his baserunning metrics haven’t been impressive lately, his 90th-percentile sprint speed says good things about his athleticism and ability to defy the aging curve. In addition, he’s still a major threat against left-handed pitching, posting a 169 wRC+ against southpaws in 2021 and a 152 wRC+ the year before. That number dropped to 106 last season, but it was heavily influenced by a career-worst .248 BABIP. His .214 ISO and 10.3% walk rate against left-handers paint a much more positive picture, and odds are that McCutchen will continue punishing opposite-handed pitching next season.

Even more promising are McCutchen’s numbers over the final four months of the 2022 season. He was dreadful in April and May, but from June 3 through October 3, he posted a 114 wRC+ in 408 PA. His walk rate was 11.5%, his isolated power was .171, and he succeeded against both lefties (129 wRC+) and righties (109 wRC+). Those numbers are held up by a particularly strong June and July, but even so, it’s a good sign that he has that level of production in him over 400-plus PA. His power and plate discipline skills might not have declined as much as the full-season stats suggest:

The Two Halves of McCutchen’s Season
04/07-06/02 172 60 .094 5.8% .263 -0.7
06/03-10/03 408 114 .171 11.5% .285 1.0

The Pirates have been surprisingly active this winter, signing Carlos Santana, Rich Hill, Austin Hedges, Jarlín García, and Vince Velasquez, and trading for Ji-Man Choi and Connor Joe. The result is a team that should be more watchable in 2023. McCutchen is another move to that end. Not only is he a local hero and delightful clubhouse presence, but he’s also a talented ballplayer who makes Pittsburgh a better team.

After two straight 100-loss seasons, the Pirates have improved from dreadful to mediocre, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. What’s more, considering the state of the NL Central, there’s a non-zero chance they could contend if all their young players take another step forward. It’s unlikely, but if the stars align for the Pirates in 2023, it will be pretty amazing that Andrew McCutchen was along for the ride.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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CC AFCmember
1 year ago

At least one thing is right in the world