In late December/early January, my Twitter feed starts to get overrun with tweets regarding the baseball Hall of Fame voting. The incredibly dedicated Ryan Thibodaux (@NotMrTibbs) diligently chronicles every publicly revealed ballot and tracks the rise and fall of players on the ballot to forecast who will make the HOF.
This has led me to reflect on the career of one Barry Lamar Bonds while he was a Pittsburgh Pirate. I’m not going to touch the 3rd rail on whether or not he should be in the HOF. Rather, I was curious to see how one Andrew Stefan McCutchen compared to one of the greatest players to wear a Pirates uniform.
To set the comparison, I’m going to try and compare red apples to red apples as much as is feasible. So that means just looking at Bonds’ 6+ years to McCutchen’s first 6+ years. This will take McCutchen from his debut in June 2009 through the end of the 2015 season, which is good so that his two most recent down years don’t muddy the waters. It also helps that these 6+ year periods also happen in the virtually the same age timeframe — Bonds debuted in 1986 in his age-21 season and left after his age-27 season in 1992. McCutchen debuted in 2009 in his age-22 season and this article will cover up to his age-28 season in 2015.
Things get a little more interesting once you start to get into the rate stats and look at things season-by-season. It’s odd to look back now at Barry Bonds’ nascent career and try to remember that he wasn’t very good to start out. McCutchen, on the other hand, has been very good right from Jump Street.
The lowest wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created above average, which is adjusted for every era) of McCutchen’s first 6+ years was his rookie year when he had a 122. By contrast, in Bonds’ 6+ seasons with the Pirates, he had three years below that mark. Of course, that’s obfuscated by the fact that he started to ascend into demi-god mode in his last three from 1990-1992 when his wRC+ marks were 165, 155, and 198, respectively. McCutchen’s three peak years were 2012-14 when he posted wRC+ marks of 158, 156, and 168.
Both of them were no stranger to the MVP voting, either. Bonds went 1-2-1 from 1990 to 1992 and really should have won in 1991, but the voters bizarrely gave Terry Pendleton of the hated Braves the MVP that year. McCutchen went 3-1-3 in his 2012 to 2014 run. Maybe I could say he should have finished 2nd in one of those two other years, but the competition was quite stiff. In all honesty, Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks has probably been robbed of a MVP along the way somewhere.
The one point of separation between these two is defense. Bonds started off in CF, but as a result of Andy Van Slyke’s defensive wizardry, Bonds and his candy arm were put in LF. He was not thrilled by this, but his excellent range resulted in the defensive rating system of his day, Total Zone, to give him very high marks and thus inflate his WAR more than it probably should have been. And as we know, Andrew McCutchen should be in LF, but his pride has kept him stationed in the middle of the outfield. This has led him to either mediocre or negative ratings by Ultimate Zone Rating, which has depressed his WAR more than it probably should have been.
By Fangraphs’ WAR, Bonds accrued 48.4 during his time with the Pirates. In contrast, McCutchen accumulated 40.0. I’m not one to typically parse data, but as I mentioned above I think their values are slightly closer than these raw numbers. What’s interesting is if you chart their year-by-year WAR during the same stages of their careers:
|Call Up Year||3.3||3.4|
Aside from Year 6 when Bonds got Fukushima hot, the negligible differences could be mostly attributed to the different defensive components to assess the players. And here’s a look in chart form of their cumulative WAR totals, done year-to-year:
Now of course, I’ve constrained this exercise to just the first 6+ seasons for each player, since Bonds left via free agency at the first opportunity to join the Giants. He went on to do some better living through chemistry, but put up numbers unlike any ever seen on a baseball field. McCutchen’s path to the Hall of Fame has taken a head-scratching downturn since that 2015 season. What was looking like a massive contract for him in the 2018 free agency bonanza may end up being one that some team will deeply regret just a few years in to it.
But in terms of early career excellence, Andrew McCutchen can make a case to be the 2nd greatest OF in Pirates history. The key phrase there is ‘early career’ (i.e. first 6+ seasons). Roberto Clemente was not anything spectacular in his first few seasons. It wasn’t until his 6th full year that he crested 5 WAR, but he took off after that. Players like Max Carey and Paul Waner were very good, too, but not as great as McCutchen.