In what has become somewhat of a perennial phenomenon, Andrew McCutchen has not consistently performed to his high standards in the early part of the season, and he enters the weekend series in Chicago with a .248/.353/.465 season line (120 wRC+).
That 120 wRC+ would have been good for a top 20 finish among qualified NL position players last season, but it falls well short of McCutchen’s 146 wRC+ in 2015, when he struggled with a knee injury in the early part of the season.
Once fully disclosed, that injury presented a clear cause for McCutchen’s uncharacteristically bad performance, which bottomed out at a .188/.279/.292 line through 26 games played. Though he has certainly not found a valley as deep as that this season, his .213/.337/.347 line through April 24th certainly cultivated a sense of deja vu, and McCutchen was given the next day off at the beginning of the series in Denver.
Either he was able to effectively hit the reset button, or the inevitable regression arrived exactly on cue, as McCutchen hit three home runs the next night, and is hitting .296/.377/.630 in 61 plate appearances since, with half of his 16 hits going for extra bases (5 HR and 3 2B).
Obviously, the results have been good in the last two weeks, so it would be easy to dismiss the initial concerns and assume that McCutchen found whatever he needed to get back on track, just as he did last year. But I decided to look a little more deeply into the issue to perhaps move closer to concluding whether he was hurt, or having problems with his swing and/or his approach, or perhaps just plain unlucky.
I think the injury concerns can be dismissed fairly easily by looking at McCutchen’s contact profile. Last April, he traded line drives (6.8%) for ground balls (47.5%), which more often became outs (.211 BABIP), and his average exit velocity on balls in play was roughly six miles-per-hour slower in April compared to the rest of the season.
This year, it is not the same story. He hit more line drives (14.7%) and far fewer ground balls (29.4%) in April, and his average exit velocity numbers before and since the Colorado series are nearly identical. Absent other information, it seems reasonable to conclude that he is not managing any injury as serious as what bothered him last season.
I do think there is at least one legitimate thing about his mechanics or his approach, at least so far. Though he’s still consistently able to draw walks, McCutchen has seen his strikeout rate increase to 22.7%, the highest of his career, and noticeably above the NL average of 20.6% for non-pitchers. Supporting that high K% are his higher swing rates and lower contact rates across the board. They also explain his career-worst 13.1% whiff rate, well above his career average and previous career worst of 10.5% last season.
Put simply, he’s getting beat more often both inside and outside of the zone, despite no noticeable increase in strikes thrown to him. We know that he is still hitting the ball hard when he does make contact, but unfortunately there has been a decrease in the amount of contact he’s been able to make.
I can’t say with confidence whether this might be a mechanical problem, not being able to pick up pitches as easily, age-related decline, or some combination of those and other factors, but his increased strikeout rate is something to be concerned about, as it will drive his performance down in this year and beyond.
The last factor to consider is luck on balls in play, which can be difficult to tease out given that so many teams are using more individualized shifts and other advanced defensive strategies. It’s not as simple as looking at a player’s BABIP and concluding he must be lucky or unlucky. We can consider McCutchen’s .284 BABIP, well below his .335 career average, and conclude that he’s been unlucky so far this year, but fortunately we have an increasing amount of batted ball data to give us more detail about those balls in play before we draw that conclusion.
Baseball Prospectus added a new feature this week which uses the Statcast system to develop linear weight values for balls in play by each hitter. For those not familiar with linear weights, they assign a numerical value (measured in runs) to each game event, and are the foundation behind stats such as wOBA, wRC+, and FIP.
What Baseball Prospectus did was develop linear weight values for the average ball in play with a certain exit velocity and launch angle. They can then compare those values to the actual plays, and the difference will indicate whether the hitter’s performance is congruent with the typical production for the quality of his contact.
Here are the 2016 numbers for the Pirates’ regulars:
From the chart, you can see that McCutchen has been among the three most disadvantaged Pirates, given the kind of contact they’ve had so far this season, along with David Freese and — surprisingly — Gregory Polanco. I hesitate to draw any sweeping conclusions from this data, but it does support the earlier, more simple hypothesis that McCutchen’s diminished production is due in some part to bad luck on balls in play.
The quality of his contact indicates some poor luck, and diminishes fears related to possible injury, but it does not resolve the concerns about his increased strikeouts, which is now an important indicator to watch moving forward. I suspect that McCutchen will end up having another strong season, even with a slight increase in strikeouts, but managing that problem will be critical to supporting the Pirates’ offense as they attempt to keep up with the Cubs in the NL Central race.