This offseason has been a whirlwind for Andrew McCutchen. Multiple reports claimed the Pirates were aggressively shopping the former NL MVP following the worst season of his MLB career. Many Pittsburghers were coming to grips that McCutchen would no longer be wearing the black & gold in his baseball career. But here we are in mid-January and Cutch is still a Pirate.
After a rumored trade with the Nationals fell through, general manager Neal Huntington said at the end of the winter baseball meetings that McCutchen would be on the Opening Day roster in April. The trade talk didn’t seem to significantly bother the Pirates center fielder, who still showed up to PirateFest last month. He even posted a tweet showing he is still working, despite all the noise around him, to improve last season’s disappointment and show it was only a blip on the radar.
— andrew mccutchen (@TheCUTCH22) December 8, 2016
It is great to see McCutchen re-dedicating himself to his craft in preparation for this upcoming season. Last year was cringeworthy to say the least. Fans watched a five-time All-Star go from being one of the top players in baseball to a .256 hitter, the lowest batting average of his 8 year career. Not only that, Cutch was down in almost every major stat category except home runs, hitting 24 compared to 23 in 2015. This plunge in stats, along with his play in center field, culminated in 0.7 WAR, which was 2.7 points lower than what he put up in his partial rookie season.
But if you have paid close attention to McCutchen’s stats over the last few years, you will see that his drop in production did not just begin last season. Let’s start with his hits in each season for the past five years. In 2012, Cutch led all of baseball in hits with 194. Next season, the year he won the NL MVP, his hits dropped by 9 to 185. The trend continued from there, 172 in 2014, 165 in 2015 and 153 in 2016.
Along with his hit production, McCutchen’s batting average has followed the same downward trend. After hitting .327 in 2012, his average went from .317 in 2013, .314 in 2014, .292 in 2015, and as I mentioned before, .256 last season. We’ve also seen Cutch’s runs scored fall and strikeouts rise during this stretch. McCutchen posted a career high 107 runs in 2012, but they fell to 97 in 2013, 89 in 2014, 91 in 2015 and 81 in 2016. Yes, I know he increased his run total from 2014 by 2, but the downward trendline is present.
His strikeouts began to increase following his MVP season when he struck out only 101 times. From there on, Cutch’s strikeout total went to 115, in 2014, 133 in 2015 and a whopping 143 last year, a career high. Granted, strikeouts in baseball have gone up and up and up over the past decade, but for one of the so called best hitters in the game, this is not good.
And as you know, Pirates’ management is adamant in their use of analytics. That is why we have to endure another season of John Jaso. But when the staff crunches the numbers coming into this season, they will see McCutchen’s numbers have also decreased in on-base percentage and slugging. In 2014, he led the NL in OBP at .410 and while it only dropped 9 points the next season, it went off a cliff in 2016. Cutch posted a career-worst .336 OBP, 29 points less than what he tallied in his first 2 years in baseball. Ironically, he had his worst OBP season in the same year the Pirates tried to gravitate their offensive philosophy to getting on-base more. His slugging has gone down in a similar three year trend. It went from .542 in 2014, to .488 in 2015 and bottoming out to a career low .430 in 2016.
Things have not only gone south on McCutchen at the plate, but in the field as well. The former Gold Glover seemed to be a step or two slower in center field last season. Balls normally tracked down by Cutch were now dropping for singles. Singles hit his way were turning into doubles, especially ones hit into the gap. Many, including me, have called for McCutchen to move out of his center field spot into right field. Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco are much better defenders at this point. But since Cutch is the franchise player and alpha dog of the locker room, he has not wavered to give up his place in center field. The longer he stays in center, the longer his WAR will continue to slide negatively. In his MVP season of 2013, Cutch’s WAR was 8.4. Since then, yes this is another trend, it’s fallen to 6.8 in 2014, 5.8 in 2015 and, it pains me to write this again, 0.7 last season. I can truthfully say this; his WAR will not be negative this season.
Now, having a WAR that is no longer hovering near zero doesn’t mean it will be a turnover year for Cutch. There are a lot of factors that have to go the right way. First off, will McCutchen still be hitting in the three spot in the order? Last season, he began the year hitting in the two hole, which turned out to be worst thing Clint Hurdle could have done. Cutch batted a horrendous .237 with an equally bad .317 OBP in 61 games in the spot. At least to start out the year, I would bat McCutchen down in the order, possibly fifth or even sixth. His ego isn’t going to take it well, but when your career has been sliding the way it has, it may be the motivation he needs.
Though I am rooting for McCutchen to turn it around this year, I don’t feel we will see him return to being a full-fledged superstar. Granted, there are going to be bright spots, more than you can say from last year. Cutch will hopefully hit around .280 this season and his OBP won’t suck. I can see him hitting for a bit more power in 2017, but don’t expect him to hit for a career high or anything. Also, you will see McCutchen at one of the corner outfield positions. If he truly cares about leading this team back into postseason contention, he will finally check his ego at the door with the center field position and move out.
None of this is guaranteed. McCuthen could fall even more down the rung, if that were possible, this season. For the Pirates’ hopes of success, he better be.