The Pirates have played 79 games this year and Andrew McCutchen is still not hitting.
It was easy to dismiss a slow April because the Pirates were winning and he stumbled out of the gate in 2015 before pulling it together. May was a little disappointing, but it looked like he was heading in the right direction.
Now the reality of the slump is starting to set in. It’s no longer just an early season swoon. The halfway mark is a few games away and he is currently a .239 hitter and the definition of a league average run producer with a 95 wRC+. There is practically no chance that he will be named when the All-Star roster is announced July 5. It will be just the second time he played a full season and did not go to the midsummer classic.
He obviously has plenty of time to turn it around, but things have gotten much worse rather than better in June. His wRC+ this month is 54. That’s the lowest it has ever been in a month in his entire career. You have to go all the way back to July of 2010 to find his next lowest figure: 79.
“I have to tell myself to stay the course, and don’t worry so much on the results. Just worry on the feeling and think about the feeling,” McCutchen said on June 12 after going 1-14 in a series where the Pirates were swept by the Cardinals. “That’s all that matters, the feeling, and I felt good…the results will come.”
The quote may have had the feel of last year’s “get me while I’m down” soundbite, but it has not had the same results. That interview was the turning point for McCutchen in 2015. He has posted a .296 OBP with as many strikeouts as hits (13) in 51 at-bats since the Cardinals series.
He just is not hitting like Cutch anymore. There are moments of brilliance, like his two home runs against the Dodgers last Saturday, a 3-4 night in New York and his three dingers in Colorado earlier in the season, but the overall body of work has taken a nose dive.
In fact, McCutchen’s campaign through 79 team games falls eerily in line with one of the hitters the Pirates let go this offseason: Pedro Alvarez.
McCutchen’s average and on base percentage are virtually identical, and he’s walking and striking out at the same pace as El Toro. What is concerning is he is swinging and missing at about the same rate and Alvarez did this all while slugging 50 points higher (.469 to .419).
The Pirates cannot compete when McCutchen hits like Alvarez. He needs to hit like Cutch.
So what happened? Well, there are a couple of suggestions.
McCutchen’s right thumb has been in the news lately, and it is possible that it is bothering him more than he and Clint Hurdle have (or will) led us to believe. It’s the same injury that hampered Ryan Braun in 2014 and held him to the worst season of his career.
Perhaps there was a psychological roadblock about hitting 2nd. While hitting in the two-hole this year, McCutchen had a .718 OPS. Although it is a small sample size, that figure jumps to .831 when he’s back in his traditional third spot in the lineup, but it is still lower than his career average (.874).
It could just be bad luck. His BABIP average is 37 points lower than his career average even though most of his peripherals are better than normal, albeit with a noticeable uptick in soft contact.
Tying in with bad luck, McCutchen might not be getting the same calls he was in the past, leading to worse counts to work with. Like most hitters, he excels when he is ahead in the count instead of behind. When he’s up 1-0, he has a 130 wRC+. When it’s 0-1, it’s 51. There’s a 127 point swing in run creation between 1-1 and 0-2 (84 to -43) and a 112 point difference between 1-1 and 2-0 (84 to 196).
McCutchen voiced frustrations about not getting calls back on the 12th, and Pirate fans and a national audience saw that frustration boil over Sunday when he was ejected after being rung up on a pitch that was low. It was the first time he had ever been ejected from a game, but he said it was something that had been building all year and that he did not want to feel like he was being “stepped over.”
“It’s probably been something that’s inside of me that came out…it wasn’t just tonight. It was over the span of the season,” McCutchen said after the game.
Teams are also approaching him differently. With Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte serving as great protection, managers cannot pitch around him anymore, so they are employing more shifts.
He has been in the batter’s box for 9,991 pitches in his career. He has faced a shift in 1008 of those pitches, which is just a shade over 10 percent. In 2015, he faced any type of shift in 208 of the 1461 pitches he saw (14.2 percent). In 2016, 223 of the 715 pitches he’s seen have been with the defenders playing out of position. That’s 31.1 percent, and his wRC+ on batted balls in the shift is 39 points lower than a normal setup (94 to 55).
So what’s to blame? The shifts? Head games? Thumb? Bad calls? Failing to hit it where they ain’t? A combination of the five? More importantly, how do you fix it?
There’s no way of knowing right now, or if it can even be fixed in 2016. All we do know is that McCutchen has gone from perennial MVP candidate to league average overnight. That does not sound right for a 29 year old who had been the cornerstone of the franchise since the day he was promoted.
There should be a rebounding coming. The only question that really matters is “when?”
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