The talk around town during the 2016 offseason was whether or not the Pirates would be willing to re-sign Andrew McCutchen, the guy who helped dig the Pittsburgh Pirates out of a 20 year winning drought. Then, during the following offseason, the talk shifted to if the Pirates could find a willing trade partner to take Andrew McCutchen off their hands.
The Pirates were unable to find a trade partner, probably for the better. The Pirates were unwilling to sell low on their franchise player, and that should earn them some respect from their fan base. However, McCutchen still has 2 years left on his contract (one year is a team option) and it’s still very likely that he will be traded at some point in 2017.
McCutchen looked bad last year. His at bats looked painful at times and his body language was poor throughout most of the season. Statistically he dropped off nearly across the board. In fact he did so poorly, that it was one of the biggest drop offs for a baseball player in the history of the leagues existence. McCutchen had gone from being a constant all-star to being barely on the level of Travis Snider.
The defense was never that great, and it was only getting worse. But last year McCutchen’s defense got really worse. By the numbers, McCutchen was by far the worst defensive center fielder in baseball. Maybe it was because of the Pirates new philosophy of playing their fielders back, or maybe it was because McCutchen had some knee pain in 2016 that slowed him. McCutchen was recently interviewed by Bob Nightengale at USA Today about how hectic this offseason has been. McCutchen had said “I felt I played some of the better defense in my career last year” . He then goes on to say the numbers are wrong, because he had to play back and he was uncomfortable doing so. It is possible that the numbers don’t tell the full story, and to be honest defense is a tough thing to measure. However, looking at the graph below it easily shows just how bad McCutchen was. The different points on the graph are different centerfielders across the league. Nobody was even close to being as bad as Andrew McCutchen. Of course at this point it doesn’t really matter anyway, because the Pirates have had enough and demoted him to right field duty. Right field should be much less demanding on his legs, and hopefully his weak arm won’t be abused too much.
Last season McCutchen didn’t try to steal many bases. He claims he didn’t run as much last season due to his season long slump. When he had reached base, he said he didn’t want to ruin it by getting thrown out which made him hesitant to run at all. That’s what he says, but his baserunning has consistently gotten worse throughout his career. His stolen bases have gone down, and his times being caught stealing have gone up. Never a good combination, and one that might make him less of a threat in the future. However, stealing less bases is certainly not the end of the world. He can still be a great baseball player without the stolen bases. But it is notable that his drop in stolen bases can either be attributed due to him being injured, or just due to him getting older. It really can’t be seen as a change in the Pirates philosophy because they have had an increase in stolen bases. It can’t really be seen as a change in philosophy from McCutchen either based on the previous quotes from McCutchen
To me one of the most overlooked aspects of McCutchen’s down year was the increased use of the shift against him. McCutchen is a huge pull hitter, which was never a big concern since he bats right-handed. It is much easier to shift against left-handed hitters, but teams really challenged McCutchen in 2016. In 2015, McCutchen faced the shift 57 times. In 2016 that more than doubled to 157 times. In 2015, McCutchen had hit 4.1% of his ground balls to the opposite side of the infield, the lowest number in all of baseball. He managed to hit line drives more evenly, but was still just 1% better than well known pull hitter David Ortiz.
The shift is mainly used to convert more ground balls into outs. It is important to note that the company that supplies the statisitics on the shift only consider the final outcome of a play. If a player is being shifted on and strikes out, that is not considered an out due to the shift. However, the shift can still change a batters approach. If McCutchen sees he is being shifted he may try to do too much at the plate. Last year McCutchen had more soft hit grounders, around 11% more than his career norm. The combination of more weak grounders with more shifts is a recipe for disaster.
It’s hard to know for sure if the shift caused any major problems for McCutchen due to the lack of information. We need to know the outcome of every plate appearance, not just the ones that end with a ball in play. Watching him bat last year, it seemed to me that the shift got into his head. He tried to do too much and it resulted in him popping up, hitting a weak grounder or just striking out.
Shown below is McCutchen’s spray chart in 2016 only including his line drives and groundballs hit in the infield. That shows pretty clearly why teams are starting to shift him more and more.
As far as the projections go, they are optimistic that McCutchen has a bounce back year. They don’t project him to be a 6 WAR player, but a 3-4 WAR player is still very valuable. Compared to other right fielders, he would rank in the top 5 just ahead of Jose Bautista. Of course if last year was just a weird outlier, his projections could easily be beat.
As for the rest of his career, McCutchen will be finishing that elsewhere. McCutchen might be traded during the season or the following offseason. There is no chance he retires a Pirates like many had hoped. Right now the Pirates are projected to win just 80 games and miss out on the playoffs once again. If they are struggling by July I think it’s likely that McCutchen gets moved then. However, if there is any chance that they could still make the playoffs. I think the Pirates will hold off to trade him in the offseason.
Last season is either a blip on the radar for a future hall of famer or a sad tale of things to come. Hopefully its the former.