2015 Center Field Recap: A New Andrew McCutchen and a Possible Future Without Him

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 Future

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.

  • The bold move…would be to make that big trade before that final season if the minor leagues play out development wise as we hope…the return could be huge from a big market team looking to OF help and first shot at resigning him.

    • I don’t think that would be a bold move…it would be a monumentally poor decision if he wasn’t traded prior to 2018.

      If they were to let one of the best hitters in baseball walk for a #30ish draft pick, it would be out of sheer stupidity. A winning small market team doesn’t have the luxury of top-10 picks…and they need to turn their overvalued assets into a revolving door of talent.

      When the right deal is there, Cutch should be traded ASAP.

  • Read this after I mentioned a small part of this in another chat. Great to see all the stats that backup what I thought I was seeing in 2015. I know he had the knee thing but Cutch is thickening up a little. Not fat, but natural filling out. His parents aren’t small people. It’s the natural progression of life. I’m sure I will get nailed if I am wrong and I welcome it but I haven’t got to watch as much as I liked the last two years and when I see Cutch he just seemed slightly thicker, filled out, wider, whatever you want to call it. Cutch also seemed to take more pitches. Maybe with more talent around him he can do this more but it looked like a shift in approach to an almost Trout-like take the first pitch type of routine. I don’t know I could be wrong.

  • I am starting to think Cutch is where he should be. Marte prevents a ton of runs (and doubles) in left. Cutch would have a tough time hitting the cutoff man from the wall in left. Plus as Tim alluded to, he is protected on each side by two speedy guys with great arms.

    • Because the Bucs play 81 games/year @ PNC Marte needs to be in LF. Polanco should be in CF. Cutch should move to RF — less wear & tear on him. He can play deep & still come in on balls because RF is not as deep as CF.
      The other option for Cutch would be to move to 1B. While this is probably not realistic it would really help the Pirates they way the organization is constructed player personnel wise.
      This opens up RF for Bell, Meadows or H. Ramirez.

  • The other issue here is that Cutch gave up a big payday by signing a very team-favorable deal with the Bucs, because (a) he realized he had enough money and (b) he wanted to play in Pgh. If the Pirates take advantage of his bargain contract and trade him (assuming he still wants to stay), it will compromise their credibility for any player considering doing the same in the future.

    Maybe there aren’t that many players out there who would do what Cutch did anyway, but still it’s bad form if you ask me.

    Then again, he could have asked for a no trade clause.

  • Stanton’s opt-out occurs after the 2017 season. That same off season Coonelly will announce a billion dollar TV deal commencing in 2019 that the PIrates can borrow against. Nutting is drugged at a charity banquet and signs the 30-year old Stanton to a 7 year quarter billion deal. Bob Smizik has a coronary. Cutch goes closer to home in Florida in exchange for a couple of second round pitchers who become Kershaw and Grienke. Everybody wins.

  • I’m hopeful the NL adopts the DH so Pirates can keep Cutch. If no DH, I doubt Cutch is extended.

    As for moving to LF, probably won’t happen, most definitely should happen.

  • Speed peaks at age 22, so it’s no surprise that part of his game is starting to fade, though I think this year is a bit of a dip because of the knee thing. He never really took time off for it, so he was probably being careful with it this year. I’d expect his SB attempts to tick back up to 25-30 next year if he’s healthy, and for his defensive numbers to improve a bit over this year’s, but he’s in regression on his athleticism, and it’s probably time to slide him into left field.

    • Wow. Didn’t think you were a “Cutch should go to Left” guy. I thought left was harder to play than center at PNC.

      • Sure, but 1) they play half their games on the road where that isn’t the case, and 2) his arm is probably the bigger problem anyway and the reason he’s better suited for left.

    • I also hope he was protecting the knee and I remember the cautionary comments from Hurdle at the beginning of the year about Cutch occasionally turning down the meter. That said I am tired of hearing all the talk about his great speed while he makes no attempt to take the extra base in obvious situations. I wish teams were more open on injury issues, post season . If he had a lingering knee issue disclose it, and tell us if it will heal with rest or if surgery was actually an option then or now.

      • During the season, i dont see why any fans feel they are owed any information. I absolutely dont want to know the extent of any player injuries, because its gifting other teams info they shouldnt know.

        So long as the team knows and is serious about keeping their guys as healthy as possible and playing that should be enough. Even now, who cares? We need to know everything the team does? Unless a player is out for a year (like TJ or breaking a leg) I really hope the team rightly keeps that info as close to the vest as possible. Especially with players that drastically alter the quality of the team.

  • Cutch’s defense is and has always been a result of positioning and an average arm, at best. He plays deeper than just about any CF in the game, presumably because of a lack of confidence going back on balls. Hasn’t changed yet, and I don’t see much reason for optimism.

    Baserunning could certainly be blamed partially on the knee, but there’s almost certainly also an increased awareness of injury prevention as he gets older. Healthy knee or not, Cutch probably isn’t a threat on the bases any longer.

    Unfortunately that means all the sudden you’re left with a player that’s only a real positive in one area of the game. Still a great player, no doubt, but without a pretty substantial offensive increase the days of Cutch’s peak as a 7-8 win player are over. That’s another win or two that the club is silently losing. It’s impossible to get that upset about a guy who is still one of the best in the game, but that’s real value the club will have to makeup somewhere.

    • It is possible Cutch could bounce back next year with a year like the three previous to last year. All he needs to do is avoid a disastrous April and have the Pirates find a dangerous 4 hole hitter. Once Kang went down teams stopped pitching to him and he seemed to lose a little plate discipline as as result. Anyway, it is too early to say Cutch is in decline.

  • I can honestly see his being traded a year from now. The free agent market next winter looks to be very weak, and with two years remaining on his contract he could easily be worth two top 25 overall prospects plus a couple of more pieces.

    • That’ll be tough to find a fit for. You have to find a team with that many top 25 prospects (or a solid ML player+a top 20 prospect) and have that team be willing to part with all that out of big need somewhere in the OF.

      Doable, but i think PGH will want a stupid high return if he has 2 years left on a favorable deal and no team will trade 3 damn quality options. If i was NH i’d be asking for 2 top 30 prospects and a ML starter.

      • I think it’ll all depend on how Cutch plays next year.

        If the speed is no longer an asset, you’re not talking about a player who is any better than Jason Heyward.

        You’re right in that a fit would be difficult, as Cutch’s perceived value among Pirate fans/maybe organization would far outstrip his actual value on the field.

        • Jason Heyward??

          Cutch and Heyward both came into the league about the same time, so it’s pretty easy to compare their numbers. From 2010-2015, Cutch’s offense is better than Heyward in every measurable way.

          HR: 139-97
          R: 565 -446
          RBI: 504-352
          BB%: 12.2% – 10.8%
          K%: 17.4% – 18.5%
          ISO: .200-.163
          OBP: .391-.353
          SLG: .499-.431
          wRC+: 147 – 118

          Heyward’s best year (2010, 134 wRC+) is slightly better than Cutch’s worst year (2010, 124 wRC+) They aren’t even close.

        • Pirates probably won’t pay him what he’d cost on the open market. So, Cutch staying depends on him deciding that money isn’t the most important thing to him (as he did before) and Pgh having a place for him –which is what most of the comments here are about. If he could play 1B, he’d have a spot into his mid 30s. If he can’t make a switch, he may indeed be replaced.

          As he’s a fan favorite and a favorite of mine, I hope they can find a way to keep him that also helps the Buccos. I’d hate to see him play out his career as a Dodger or a Yankee, or any other team for that matter.

    • Maybe not next year, but I doubt Cutch plays out his option. Probably depends a lot on how quickly Austin Meadows moves through AA.

  • Love Cutch but I need to see him stop Cadillacing on the bases and in the field. I stopped counting how many times he didn’t get the extra base simply because he assumed the fielder would always make the play. Additionally we all saw teams take advantage of him in CFon balls in front of him. Maybe it was his injuries that had him play so cautious and lazy but as the leader of this team he needs to show Polonco, Marte and everyone else that it is not beneath him to hustle everything out and play with energy and passion.

  • Reposting something i posted in another forum recently. Maybe it’s a non starter, but what if: Cutch to 1B, Bell to LF, Marte to CF.

    PRO: less wear and tear on your best hitter. Removes weakest outfield defender from CF and allows your best defender (Marte) to play there. Allows Bell to abandon the first base experiment and go back to the OF.

    CON: He’s only 5’10”, not sure how much this truly matters for a 1B. The switch to 1B is non trivial, as we’ve seen with Pedro and Bell.

    • If PGH ever committed to switching up the OF alignment, id hope they’d consider Polanco in LF and Bell in RF. Polanco with better speed to cover ground in LF, and a big arm. Bell with a good enough arm to cover RF, Cutch sliding to 1B.

      But that seems like a pipe dream to me. Dont seem them moving Cutch off CF next year, and Bell seems likely to slide into 1B at some point next year.

      • Never happen with Meadows waiting. Besides, Bell needs all the time he can get working on his defense at 1st base.

        • None of it will happen. I suppose Cutch could request to be moved, but that’d be rather odd of him unless he’s just planning on staying a Pirate his entire career and not considering FA market.

    • …Pedro to Catcher.

  • Move Cutch to LF and Marte to CF.

    • Joe, I was just about to post the same thing.
      Would they do that at this point in the two
      player’s careers? I hope someone in the
      know will respond.

    • The only way that will happen is if McCutchen requests it. This, or any organization, would never try to force a player of his stature to do that.

      • The Pirates did it with Bonds. It was the right move then & it’s the right move now. Question is, is Hurdle in charge or is Cutch

        • I believe with Bonds they did it for his 2nd season, not when he was more “established”. I agree that the team would be better with Marte and Cutch switching but I don’t see it happening.

    • I actually don’t like this move. Marte is good enough at throwing guys out that he makes sense to be in a corner position. He and Polanco throws guys out on the base paths.

      Cutch is good at many things, but his throwing arm is a weakness. His ability track a ball and his speed is why I like him in Center. He can make great defensive plays while being an exceptional hitter, but with a guy running from 2nd to home if rather have Marte

      • Why not put one of your better arms in a spot where they might have a ball hit in their zone more than 100 times more a season? All those extra chances not only to throw out a runner but sometimes more importantly to hold a runner without even having to throw because the arm is respected. This is not in the stats but is one of the little things that over 162 games, is a huge thing.

        • I know freaking Dreker or Tim will get on here with some stats that say these things ARE measurable…and I will eat those stats up.

  • Unless Meadows falters within the next two years, there really isn’t a reason for the Pirates to keep McCutchen. However, accepting McCuthen in a different uniform will require a lot of hard liquor. 🙁