First Pitch: How Long Can Andrew McCutchen Post MVP Numbers?

Andrew McCutchen Pittsburgh Pirates

Andrew McCutchen has averaged a 7.5 WAR in the last two seasons. How long can this continue? (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Neal Huntington has made a lot of good moves in his time as the General Manager. This past off-season he signed two of the biggest values on the free agent market when he brought in Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. He traded for A.J. Burnett the previous off-season, getting the starter for next to nothing in prospects and at a reduced price. He’s drafted well, and those drafts are starting to produce results in the majors. But perhaps his best move of all involved a player who was already in the organization.

Prior to the 2012 season, Huntington extended Andrew McCutchen under a six-year, $51.5 M deal. The deal came with an option year for $14.5 M in 2018 with a $1 M buyout, which gives the deal a maximum value of seven years and $66 M. There are also performance bonuses involved. For example, McCutchen won the MVP award tonight, which comes with a $125,000 bonus. He also receives $25,000 for each All-Star, Gold Glove, and World Series MVP selection. He’s sure to earn more awards, and possibly more MVP awards. But even with all of those awards, McCutchen’s deal looks like one of the best values in baseball.

The timing of the McCutchen extension couldn’t have been better. Here are the numbers before the extension, followed by the numbers since the extension.

Pre-Extension: .276/.365/.458, 30.88 AB/HR in 1824 PA

Post-Extension: .322/.402/.531, 22.62 AB/HR in 1347 PA

McCutchen took off in the year after his extension. He posted a .953 OPS, with 31 homers in 593 at-bats, also leading the league in hits with 194. He finished third in the MVP voting, while being named an All-Star, winning a Gold Glove, and winning a Silver Slugger. There were questions after last season about whether McCutchen could follow up with another good season. His offensive numbers dropped in 2013, but his .911 OPS and 21 homers in 583 at-bats were still great. His defensive numbers also improved, and he posted an 8.2 WAR, which was up from his 6.8 WAR in 2012. As far as value goes, he has been worth $71.7 M in surplus value in the last two years, which pays for his entire extension, including the 2018 option.

Now the question is whether McCutchen can keep this up going forward. He’s had three years in a row with a WAR over 5.0, and the last two years he has averaged 7.5 WAR per season. To put that in perspective, only five players in the game this year had a WAR of 7.5 or greater. Only eight players had a WAR of 6.8 or higher, which was his 2012 mark. The idea is that players can’t perform at this level every year. It’s definitely rare for a player to achieve this mark so often. Consider the following players from 2000-2013 who have had multiple seasons with a 6.8 WAR or greater.

Albert Pujols – He achieved this for nine seasons, including eight years in a row from 2003-2010.

Alex Rodriguez – He had six qualifying years, including four in a row from 2000-2003.

Barry Bonds – He had five years in a row from 2000-2004.

Chase Utley – He had five years in a row from 2005-2009.

Those are the only four players who achieved 6.8+ WAR for more than three years in that time span. There were other players who had multiple seasons. Listing those players by the number of years:

3 Years – Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Todd Helton

2 Years – Andrew McCutchen, Andruw Jones, Bret Boone, Chipper Jones, Grady Sizemore, Hanley Ramirez, Jason Giambi, Jeff Kent, Jim Edmonds, Lance Berkman, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman

There have been a lot of people who played at this elite level for only 2-3 seasons. That’s not to say those players were bad players after their numbers faded. Pretty much all of the guys mentioned above are great players. There are some who got there due to steroids, and that includes the list of four up above.

Basically what this tells us is that McCutchen could repeat this performance going forward. However, to do so, he would need to perform like one of the best in the game over the long-term. So is McCutchen capable of being one of the best players in the game over the long-term?

One thing that could give McCutchen plenty of value is his defense. He saw some improvements this year defensively. Throughout his career he has been up and down, with a career UZR/150 of -2.8. That’s not great, but McCutchen actually plays a hard position. Albert Pujols, for example, played first base, and most of his results were with the bat. So McCutchen doesn’t have to hit as well as Pujols did to provide the same overall value.

There’s also speed to consider, which is a huge part of McCutchen’s game. He has some base running issues, but he’s provided positive base running value each year. His speed also leads to extra bases, with 38 doubles and five triples in 2013. McCutchen has home run power, and has enough for at least 20 homers a year. But the speed and the extra bases will always boost his power numbers, bridging the gap between McCutchen and some of the elite power hitters.

The speed and the defense will help McCutchen maintain a high value, but what will really help is the patience at the plate. McCutchen posted a 15% strikeout rate and an 11.6% walk rate in 2013. Both numbers are close to his career numbers. In 2013 the average strikeout rate in baseball was 19.9% and the average walk rate was 7.9%. McCutchen is above average in both regards. That combination will keep him from going into constant slumps. He’ll still have some down months. We saw that this year in April when he posted a .731 OPS. However, his OPS was above .800 the rest of the year, and was .994 or better the final three months of the season. McCutchen might slump on occasion, but when he’s not slumping the performance is going to be great.

Can McCutchen be one of the best players in the game over the long haul? That remains to be seen. He definitely has the tools for it. If he plays defense like he did this year, then he’ll have speed, defense, home run power, extra base power, value on the bases, and most importantly a great approach that avoids slumps. That’s the perfect recipe for a few more $125,000 bonuses at the end of the year, and it will only make his extension look even more valuable than it already looks.

Links and Notes

**Pre-Order the 2014 Prospect Guide

**Andrew McCutchen Wins the NL MVP Award

**Prospect Rewind: Should Justin Wilson’s Future Be in the Rotation?

**Baseball Prospectus Looks at 12 Bargain Free Agents

**MLB Owners Approve Instant Replay For the 2014 Season

Winter Leagues

**Winter Leagues: Two RBIs For Polanco, Home Run For Sands

**AFL: Hanson Drives In Run As Scottsdale Loses Season Finale

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • skliesen

    Seems to me Cutch is highly likely to remain one of the game’s best players for the balance of his contract. Not because of his physical tools, although they’re exceptional, but due to his attitude and desire.

    He learned the value of hard work early on in life, and winning this award won’t change it. And hearing him say by winning this award just makes him want to work harder to bring a championship to Pittsburgh, tells me he has insatiable appetite to succeed.

    Enjoy Pirates fans, we’re just getting started on what promises to be an epic run! Thanks in large part to one Andrew McCutchen!

    • Mr. Goodkat

      The attitude, work ethic, and passion he has is what would make it so darn hard for me to stick to a “blue-print” of when to move players if I was the GM of this team (and running it on a similar budget).

      Is he a corner-stone player you lock down again once the current deal is up? If he’s still playing like this can you even justify trading him (to maximize return)?

      Obviously on paper the answer can easily be justified. Can you imagine the haul a guy like Cutch would return with a year or two of control left? Could any team even meet the price tag for such a deal?

      At the risk of being a homer, I think its very possible ‘Cutch will have too much value to the Franchise — on the field, in the clubhouse, and off the field — to ever trade if he continues to play at this level through his current contract.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: I wish I had read this before writing under the column about the award. Andrew McCutchen is not only a performer, but he also seems to be well grounded, and willing to be a positive contributor in the community. Does it get any better than having his mother singing the National Anthem, and his father at just about every game? These are the “new” Pirates where team chemistry and performance has the fans flocking to the stadium every night.

    I hope the Pirates consider a substantial Bonus and extending ‘Cutch for at least 3 more years – if they do that, he will still only just turn 35 if he is signed through 2021. And, by then he may add a few more pounds and be a 25-35 HR/yr RF at PNC.

    • Ron Zorn

      emjay, I agree. Think we should consider a 3 year, $66M extension now, with a $15M signing bonus spread over the next three years. Makes his latter years more affordable in a small market and pays him some bonus money early on. Spreads the risk and he certainly deserves it. And I am almost never a fan of big money, long term contracts.

      • emjayinTN

        RZ: Your idea of a substantial bonus ($15 mil) is a great deal more than my idea of a substantial bonus, but we are still in the same ballpark. Are you talking $66 mil, $15 of which is a bonus or are you talking $66 and another $15 as a bonus?

      • stickyweb

        I don’t see the point of extending him at this point. Yes he’s the model player for your franchise, and if you could throw money at anybody, it would be Cutch. But the Pirates can’t throw money at anybody, no matter what. They signed him to that extension for a reason, and that was to get cost certainty for 6 or 7 years, at the risk that he would only produce the numbers he had up to that point, or even slide back slightly. Throwing a $15 million bonus and locking themselves in for another $66 million starting 5 years out would defeat the whole purpose. Who knows, after 2018 he may be so entrenched as the face of the franchise and want the team to continue dominating the league so much that he gives a hometown discount, a la Crosby with the Pens.

        More likely though, the Pirates get to a point where they trade him. I don’t think there’s any way it’s after just one more year. But if Meadows continues to develop into the next Jay Bruce, and Marte and Polanco establish themselves like we all are counting on in the next 3 years, before the 2017 could be the optimal time. Remember Marte and Polanco didn’t get millions in bonus signings and may be easier to sign to club friendly contracts similar to Cutch’s. And it would make more sense to trade Cutch (due $28 million over the next 2 years, and get 3 or 4 prospects) than Meadows (who would still be at league minimum and only bring an equivalent prospect). Even if Meadows doesn’t develop, they still have Bell as an option, Lambo if he proves to be a major leaguer, or Ramirez may be knocking on the door by that point.

        No need to over react either way right now. I’m just going to enjoy having one of the best players in the league, see if that grit and determination can make him even better, and see how far he can carry the franchise in the future.

  • Monkshot

    I personally think McCutchen has the talent to be even better than this. The guy is a talent, but I don’t think his stolen base or power numbers are where they could be. I’m sure he will work on his game and be even better next year, that’s the kind of guy he is. When do you see the dreads being swapped for a fade? Over/Under two years?

  • deacs

    If Marte improves on his 2013 performance do you think they try and extend him a couple years past his arbitration as well or into 2020? I mean if the Pirates can’t afford a 5 year/$90 million Hunter Pence contract (nor would I want Pence for that amount) don’t they have to take this approach for all their rising stars? Raise excellent talent and hold on to them for as long as possible by locking them up early? I realize there’s some risk if this year was Marte’s peak but who really believes that.

    • https://www.facebook.com/scott.skink Scott Skink

      I believe it might be. As Charlie Wilmoth noted last year, Marte’s could become a superstar or Jeff Francouer.

      When you look at advanced metrics like wOBA and wRC+, Marte is barely ahead of Tabata. And the main reason he’s ahead in those stats is because of the 24 HBPs, not his hitting or plate discipline.

      Yes, he provides baserunning and defense (when not dropping cans of corn).

      I’d wait before offering an extension.

      • deacs

        I guess I’d like to see some strides at the plate before offering him an extension. I think we should all let the dropped fly ball go. But man……..I can still see that dropped ball. I left the room to tend to my crying new born and when I came back to see the replay there weren’t enough 4 letter words that I could use to make me feel better.

  • leadoff

    IMO, McCutchen can post above average numbers for another 6-8 years. I think Above average is more of term I would use than WAR numbers because this guy could have a 3-4 WAR and be very good. After this year If I were the Pirates I would do some reevaluating and if some if’s happen I might either consider trading McCutchen or extending him, but one or the other might happen if it were me.

    • csnumber23

      Yeah lets consider trading the MVP of the league just entering his prime and under a cost efficient long term contract. That is the most absurd post I have read on this site to date.

      • Mr. Goodkat

        The idea of eventually trading him is not absurd — just unpleasant. Eventually it will make sense to…on paper. That doesn’t mean they necessarily should, but, from a commodity standpoint, the long-term value of his theoretical return would outweigh his last year or two of his current contract. That would be assuming they would not/could not re-sign him, of course.

        Trading him after THIS YEAR could very well be absurd though. Tim did a post on Giancarlo Stanton at the beginning of this year I believe that, in essence, determined that most teams could give up their top 10 prospects and STILL not meet Stanton’s value from a WAR perspective (due mostly to the years of remaining control).

        I would think the same would hold true for ‘Cutch, though it would be interesting to see a similar analysis (cough, cough).

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

          I looked at this two years ago before the extension.

          http://www.piratesprospects.com/2011/11/why-an-andrew-mccutchen-deal-would-be-impossible.html

          Since that point, you could argue that the WAR value has gone up. Also, you have to factor in the extension years. My guess is that it would be the same result. A team would have to trade their entire farm system to get him.

          • stickyweb

            I was typing my comment above while you guys posted yours here. Yes the many years of control plus the incredible value Cutch is signed for right now, makes it impossible. But once the years are reduced (i.e. when there’s only 2 years) and the salary climbs to $28.75 million for those 2 years, it becomes much more plausible. Assuming he maintains an 8 WAR (even though you show the near impossibility of that in the artice) for those 2 years and keeping the WAR at $5 mil (I was going to adjust up but figured the return prospects would go up in value the same if adjusted), his value for those last 2 years is about $51 million. Seems like a top 10 overall prospect, a top 20 or 30 prospect and a MLer with a couple of years left would do the trick. Just hope that top 10 prospects pans out.

            But there’s a lot of ball to be played before then, and probably another CBA to be ironed out, so who really has any idea?

        • csnumber23

          Goodkat,. Yes it is absurd!!!! The guy said to consider trading him after next year right in his prime, that is ABSURD!!!!

  • https://www.facebook.com/marty.leap Marty

    Andrew Just turned 27 a little over a month ago, so he should be just about to enter the prime years of his career. So his best seasons my still be ahead of him. I full expect Cutch to remain one of the 5-10 best players in the game for the next 6-10 seasons. The Pirates have control of him until he’s 32, but if there’s one guy I’m 100% for locking up past 32 it is Andrew McCutchen. The guy is more than just a great ball player, he is the face of the franchise and helped revived the franchise. He should be a Pirate lifer.

  • bucnright

    First off so glad NH is our GM and not any of u guys…only in pittsburgh do we want to extend a guy thats under control for five more years lol n if we dont extend him trade him in a year lol you guys are funny but as to how long do we keep cutch? For ehh verrr!!!or the last year of his contract then trade him to the idiots willing to give up the farm(basically all the teams except the rays) for one year of cutch n I can already tell u they wont win the WS whoever itll be teams never learn im just glad we have NH on our side bc he does what works for the PIRATES and doesnt care what anyone has to say about it!!

  • jon6er

    I’m really baffled by such a negative article before the luster has even darkened on Andrew’s MVP trophy. The kid has been nothing but a total positive influence on the franchise since he has been up. He has proven himself in every aspect of what you really would like a professional athlete to be. I would think (but it won’t happen most likely) that a good employer would reward a great employee down the road if he has done anything above and beyond his present contract and unfortunately this is America. You can run a company into the ground, be fired and get a bonus for what you did previously. But if you are an athlete like Andrew he could have great seasons for all but one year of his contract and he will be a bum. This kid deserves at least a moment or two of admiration before we start saying “what have you done for me lately”!

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      How is this article negative? It asked whether McCutchen could be one of the best players in the game, and concluded that he has the tools to do this every year.