In 2013, Andrew McCutchen was the best player in the National League, and he was rewarded with the NL Most Valuable Player award. In 2014, he and a few others are essentially even for the title of “best NL player,” non-pitcher division, at least among those who were healthy and not on awful teams. (Caveats included because Troy Tulowitzki has been outstanding, but doesn’t have much impact on the pennant race, is on the disabled list and has almost no chance of winning the MVP.) Combine the two years, and he’s easily been the best that the National League has to offer, and although the defensive metrics don’t seem to like him as much this year, he’s out-performing his 2013 on offense, thanks to some additional power.
On Sunday, he injured his left side, with scary statements like “he needed help from someone else to just zip up the travel bag at his feet” tossed around; he’s likely to be placed on the 15-day disabled list, and could miss several weeks in total. At the time this was all coming out before Tuesday’s loss to Miami (note: this was mostly written before the loss and not updated since the idea is to include McCutchen’s full absence, not one game into it), the Pirates were 1.5 games out of first place in the NL Central, but still only in third, since the Cardinals are in second ahead of them. They were a half-game behind the Giants for the second wild card spot, and just 1.5 games ahead of Atlanta in that chase.
Wins could not be more valuable to the Pirates than they are right now, and they just lost one of the five best players in the game. This is really, really bad.
But how bad? We’ll get to that in a second, because it’s clear that no one can write a story on McCutchen’s injury without at least touching on the events that led up to it. The short version, for those who spent their weekend not following the immature acts of tough guy ballplayers: On Friday, up 9-4 in the ninth inning, Pittsburgh’s Ernesto Frieri hit Paul Goldschmidt in the hand, fracturing a bone and likely ending Goldschmidt’s season. Frieri has been atrocious this season, and with no known bad blood between the teams, almost certainly did so unintentionally. The next night, in one of the more cowardly acts you’ll ever see, the Diamondbacks waited until a four-run deficit in the ninth and a 2-0 count — after an outside slider — to put a 95 mph Randall Delgado pitch into McCutchen’s spine.
On Sunday, McCutchen played into the eighth, hitting a game-tying sacrifice fly. He then immediately grabbed his side, to the point that Pedro Alvarez and a trainer had to help him down the stairs from the dugout:
In the original draft of this post, this portion talked about how it was at least plausible that being hit in the back one night and coming up with a strained oblique (which is what this really looked like) the next night could be unrelated. We could infer, but not say for sure. Pirates fans could be angry at the Diamondbacks, but no one could be certain. Now, it’s come out that McCutchen actually fractured a rib — he has *deep breath* “an avulsion fracture involving the costochondral cartilage of the left 11th rib” — and so what can I say other than: Have at it, Pittsburgh. It certainly seems like your season has been irreparably altered by a gutless act from a terrible team with a bad reputation, even if there’s at least some opinions that say otherwise.
Anyway, regardless of the cause, the Pirates now need to try to win without their best player for some amount of time, but this is where it gets complicated, because we don’t yet know how much time. The Pirates haven’t even placed him on the DL yet, instead activating Starling Marte and placing Pedro Alvarez on the bereavement list. Every rib injury is different, as is each player, so it’s a bit difficult to try to speculate here.
Tulowitzki missed nearly a month with a rib injury last year; Hanley Ramirez fractured his eighth rib on a Joe Kelly fastball in the first game of the NLCS last year, and still managed to play in five of the six games. (He was completely ineffective while doing so, and of course, the NLCS provides a different sort of time frame when your backup is Nick Punto.) David Wright missed three weeks last spring with a rib injury, but that’s the exact opposite of Ramirez, since there’s no reason at all to rush it in March. Jason Giambi missed a month earlier this year with a rib fracture. Ryan Sweeney missed two months last year. Jacoby Ellsbury had his entire 2010 ruined by rib injuries. Earlier this year, Juan Lagares missed three weeks with a strain, not a fracture.
Clearly, we don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Since I started writing this post, the characterization of his injury has changed three times, which isn’t really how you want things to go when you start writing, so let’s play with some pure speculation. The Pirates have 51 games remaining. Let’s say McCutchen misses half of them, which is in the 3-4 week range that sounds appropriate.
Before this, the Pirates were going to have Marte / McCutchen / Gregory Polanco in the outfield, left to right. Now, Marte slides to center, where he played in the minors, and where he probably would be in the majors if not for McCutchen. There’s not likely a defensive downgrade there; there might even be a small upgrade. There’s no change in right field. Left field, now, likely becomes something of a platoon between Josh Harrison and Travis Snider. (That’s what it’s been for the last two weeks with Marte out, but wouldn’t have remained that way if Marte wasn’t needed in center.)
Let’s do this the quick and dirty way, with projections, and the fact that ZiPS and Steamer’s rest-of-seasons projections work differently — Steamer is showing an update for projected playing time, but ZiPS, for the moment, is not — helps us.
ZiPS ROS (i.e., what would have been)
- McCutchen: 2.0 WAR
- Harrison: 0.7 WAR
- Snider: 0.1 WAR
Steamer ROS (i.e., what may be now)
- McCutchen: 1.0 WAR
- Harrison: 0.7 WAR
- Snider: 0.5 WAR
That makes a certain amount of sense. If we assume McCutchen is out for half the rest of the season, then half of his production goes away, cutting his ROS WAR from 2.0 to 1.0. Harrison doesn’t change much, since he was basically playing every day anyway; Snider gains slightly because of a gain in expected playing time, but he’s clearly not McCutchen’s equal or anything like it.
Of course, there’s another aspect to this. If McCutchen were in center, and Marte were in left, then Harrison wouldn’t be on the bench. He’d probably be the starting third baseman, since Alvarez’ defensive issues had escalated to the point that a move to first base was seriously being considered, even before the personal issue that put him on the bereavement list.
The more time that Harrison plays in left, the less time he’s at third. That’s more time for Jayson Nix, who was signed on Sunday after being released by Tampa Bay, and went 0-3 against Miami on Tuesday. We’ll call him replacement-level. It’s more time for Brent Morel, who has made four recent starts at third; he is also, at best, replacement-level.
It’s a domino effect that takes plate appearances away from McCutchen and redistributes them to Snider, Morel and Nix, three guys who are about as close to replacement-level as you can find. If you buy into the projections and if McCutchen misses half of the rest of the season, maybe it only costs the Pirates a win. Of course, given how tight the Pittsburgh playoff situation is — their playoff odds headed into the first game without McCutchen were 51.8%, or essentially a coin-flip — that one single win could have massive repercussions. It could be the difference between the playoffs, and nothing.
Again, we’re speculating, because right now, it’s impossible to say for sure what McCutchen’s health outlook is. He could be back next week; he could miss the rest of the year. He could come back at full strength; he could rush it and be limited, like Ramirez was for the Dodgers, and the Pirates could try to make a waiver deal to compensate. No matter how it turns out, though, it’s hard to think of a more damaging situation for a playoff team. A club with no margin of error just lost the best player in the league. It’s not often that turns out well.