To be honest, Andrew McCutchen has had better seasons than the one he put up in 2015. This year saw his lowest OPS and WAR totals since his big breakout in 2012, along with a drop in his power.
Some of that was probably due to a knee issue early in the year, which coincided with a slow start in April. McCutchen has started slow in the past, but this was a bit different. He had a .636 OPS in April this year, which is down from his career .764 OPS during the month. Every other month in his career is over .860, with May-July seeing an OPS over .900. He once again exploded in May-August, then faded in September, with a .743 OPS.
McCutchen has been so good that he brings about unrealistic expectations. His season this year was not among his best, but even his worst season in the last four years amounts to one of the best seasons among all hitters in baseball. Out of 141 qualified position players, he ranked 12th in WAR, and led the Pirates. Any team would take that “worst performance”, although it does open McCutchen up to some unwarranted criticism in Pittsburgh, especially when he doesn’t come up big in every key situation.
There were some areas where McCutchen declined this year, and the most alarming decline was on the bases. His Base Running Runs Above Average was -1.1 this year, which was the first season where he posted negative value, and well down from his 6.2 BsR in 2013. Part of that could be due to a decline in his stolen bases. He stole 11 bases this year in just 16 attempts. Last year he only attempted 21 stolen bases, but managed to steal 18 bags. In his previous full seasons, his attempts were over 30, and his half season in 2009 saw 27 attempts.
I’d say the decline is due to McCutchen’s place in the middle of the order, but that wouldn’t be accurate. He was the number three hitter in 2013, and stole 27 bases in 37 attempts that year. It could just be that McCutchen is losing a bit of his plus-plus speed that he entered the league with.
Defensively, there are more concerns when it comes to his speed. His Range Runs Above Average was -4.3, which isn’t too uncommon, since he’s posted negative numbers in previous years. However, his numbers of plays outside of his zone (tracked by Baseball Info Solutions) was at 50 this year, and has gone on a steady decline the last few years, ranging from 107 in 2011 to 58 last year.
Inside Edge tracks the probability of certain plays being made, and McCutchen also saw a decline here. When it comes to “Remote” plays (1-10% chance of making it), he made zero of 16 plays this year. In previous years, he was able to make 1-2 per year. The unlikely plays (10-40% chance) also saw a drop to 25%, down from 50% last year.
Once again, you could chalk this up to outside factors. In this case, it would be the presence of Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco on either side of him in the outfield. However, McCutchen has been playing next to Marte for three full seasons now, and shouldn’t see such a drastic decline in his numbers because of Polanco.
Overall, I think we’re seeing a bit of a change in McCutchen’s game as he gets older. He’s still an exceptional hitter, but he might not get as much value from his speed and defense as he did during his first six years in the league. Even without that added value, his hitting is enough to make him one of the best players in baseball. This is a new version of McCutchen, but it’s still a version that is good enough to make him the MVP of the team, and one of the best players in baseball.
The big question in the future is whether the Pirates will keep McCutchen beyond the 2018 season. He currently has three years remaining on his contract at a very affordable price. The Pirates have Starling Marte under control for six more years, and he won’t make more than $13.5 M in any of those years, pending any performance bonuses. Gregory Polanco hasn’t been extended yet, but still has five years of control remaining.
Polanco and Marte are currently under team control through the 2020 and 2021 seasons, and I wouldn’t rule out a Polanco extension in the future. Marte signed his extension before Spring Training heading into his second full season, which is the point that Polanco is approaching. McCutchen signed his deal one year later in his career. So we’re just now getting to the early stages of when players normally sign extensions.
In the minors, the Pirates have one of the best outfield prospects in baseball in Austin Meadows. He ranks in a lot of top 50 lists, and has shown off some great hitting skills, plus plate patience, the ability to play center field, and untapped raw power. Meadows is a future starter, and could be an impact player.
The Pirates also have Harold Ramirez in the minors, who looked to be the best pure hitter in the system, while showing good defense in the outfield, and some speed on the bases. Ramirez doesn’t hit for a lot of power, but has a good line drive approach and great plate patience that makes up for the lack of power.
The reality here is that it might eventually make sense to move on from McCutchen. When he’s eligible for free agency, he will have just turned 32, and he will be due for a big payday. Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco will still be in their prime years, and will both be much more affordable. There will also be young prospects coming up who could probably provide the same impact in their early seasons as McCutchen in his age 32-36 seasons.
A team that didn’t have Polanco and Marte in the majors long-term, plus Meadows and Ramirez in the minors, might have a different outlook on McCutchen’s future. But the Pirates are loaded with outfield talent, and that could eventually lead to them parting ways with a guy who is currently one of the best in the game.