Giles: Andrew McCutchen Is Happening, Again

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:

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 11.12.02 PM

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.

  • Prior to this week, Cutch looked to me like he was swinging with much more intent (for power). When he gets hot, you see a lot of hard hit balls between third and short; but more importantly he starts going to center and right field late in counts (when he’s almost always thrown offspeed pitches low and outside). I think his K rate so far could be chalked up to him not trusting his bat speed and trying to clobber the few decent pitches he sees. He clearly hates taking walks (the way he seems annoyed setting down his bat and taking off the shin guard), so he’s going to be swinging the bat when he can. The one thing I wish he’d do is try to start hitting to right with a runner on first or second – he must have an abnormally high rate of reaching on fielder’s choice.

  • Very interesting Ed, thanks. Any evidence on whether his move to the 2 spot contributes in any way to the increase in strikeouts (directly or indirectly, e.g. maybe more PAs w/ RISP)? Are there numbers for league-wide strikeout rates by batting order position, and if so are there any noticeable trends?

    • I don’t think they’re available in those splits league-wide, but I would avoid using those rates to draw any conclusions, especially about McCutchen, since he’s had less than 250 PA batting second in his whole career.

      • Fangraphs had an article on Tulo’s alarming decline in zone contact percentage and while Cutch’s decline isn’t as pronounced it is still pretty bad. He is really missing a lot of pitches in zone that he used to demolish.

  • If GP is hitting into bad luck, what is his ceiling if it evens out? That is scary (for opposing clubs).

  • These statistical based research pieces always facinate me. It isnt the whole story because it could be age or it could be he’s having trouble at home, baseball is such a mental game anything can become distraction and affect performance.
    We certainly cant afford to lose his productivity while trying to compete with the most difficult team in baseball.

  • Good article but I do find the year by year decline in his zone contact percentage disconcerting.

    Cutch spoiled us. Not sure he is a guy you can pencil in for 5.5-6 war every year. He might be a 4-4.5 war player with his defensive decline which is still really good but

    • no extension for him, that’s for sure now?

      • I couldn’t see it before, and certainly can’t see it if the decline becomes evident after this year. One thing I think might make the extension conversation more interesting is if the new CBA enacts a DH in the NL. He could have much more long-term value in that case. But I have no idea whether an NL DH is even on the agenda for this CBA, and I would still be surprised if the Pirates pay $20M+/yr for any player on their third contract.

        • Eric Marshall
          May 13, 2016 1:11 pm

          or for a DH for that matter. DH’s have never commanded that kind of payment… other than players playing out bad contracts.

          • Yeh my comment was more along the lines of an OF for another three years and then you have the fallback of a DH / 4th OF role if the defense declines rapidly for the latter half of a contract. But either way, I agree with you, no way they pay anyone that money, and certainly not a DH.

        • I would say Cutch’s chances of being extended here are well less than 1%.

        • Dh in the national league is simply signing the death certificate for mlb. Making a game that is already excruciatingly boring due to all the shifting and swing for the fence mentality that is dominating baseball. Adding a dh won’t save a game that has become a yawn fest, it may however hasten either mlb’s demise or it’s renaissance (when the $s stop flowing they may get back to baseball that’s fun and exciting to watch )

          • I don’t really have a stance on NL DH, as I can see pros and cons of both sides. I like the additional strategy that is added by having the pitcher spot in the order, but I don’t exactly enjoy watching most pitchers bat. I do think the DH will happen eventually though, because in the end I think the league will favor offense for entertainment value to casual fans.