Perhaps the Pirates are just doing their thing. You know, the thing from the last couple of years where they start out hot despite no one having them as contenders. The thing were they inspire writers to start writing about them. The thing where they might even make some sort of minor trade near the break to push them over the top. The thing where they collapse in the second half and everyone ends up wonder if the Pirates are ever going to be good again.
But we are not to the collapse point yet. At the moment, the Pirates are 29-15 and tied with the Reds for second in the National League Central, 1.5 games back from the Cardinals. They are managing this despite giving Jonathan Sanchez four starts. A.J. Burnett, of all people, has carried the pitching staff (although Jeff Locke has also been good, ERA-wise). On offense, Starling Marte, Russell Martin, and Gaby Sanchez have been off to surprisingly hot starts, which has helped, too. The Pirates are outplaying their run differential at the moment, but those wins are in the bank, and they are currently projected to finish with 87 wins. That might very well end up looking silly at the end of the year, but for now, I’m sure Pirates fans will take it.
What is striking about the Pirates hanging in there so far this season is that they have done it without Andrew McCutchen repeating his MVP-level performance from last year, when he hit .327/.400/.553 (158 wRC+) with 31 home runs. McCutchen has hardly been bad in 2013 — .291/.353/.477 (128 wRC+) with his usual good base running is plenty from a center fielder. It is a bit surprising, as someone mentioned to me, to see the Pirates in the mix for the division without McCutchen carrying the team.
It would be worth looking at the other players mentioned above to see what is going on with them, and perhaps that is for another post. Today I simply want to see what is going on with McCutchen — what has and has not changed, in terms of his rate stats, from last year, and what it might indicate about his performance going forward.
I have been doing a number of posts along similar lines as this one recently, but I do find it interesting. We are just getting to the point in the season where certain peripherals are starting to be indicative with respect to possible changes in a player’s true talent. While the sample is still far too small to say that McCutchen is a different hitter now that he was last season, he has been (as opposed to necessarily will be) a very different hitter in key categories. But, as we will see, that has not been all bad.
As in most players’ career years, McCutchen had an exceptionally high BABIP last year at .375. This season he is down to .301 — certainly not bad, but not high. It is hard to think of a true-talent .375 BABIP hitter in baseball these days — well, maybe Joey Votto. McCutchen is right-handed, which probably works against him in that regard. On the other hand, he is fast, and his batted-ball profile is that of an above-average BABIP sort of hitter: plenty of line drives (especially this season) and not too many infield flies. His career BABIP is .324, and at 26, he is not at an age where one would expect a decline. If .375 is not a realistic number for McCutchen’s true-talent BABIP, something a higher than his current 2013 number is reasonable to expect.
However, one distinct issue with McCutchen in 2013 as opposed to 2012 is his failure to hit balls out of play with the same frequency. His isolated power is down to .186 from last season’s .226. He is actually hitting doubles and triples on hits in play at a greater rate this season. When he does finish a plate appearance with contact, the ball is not leaving the park with the same frequency. Last season his rate was almost seven percent, and in 2011 it was about five percent. This year it is down to about four percent. Whether or not this is due to a change in his swing or something else is something for others to evaluate.
McCutchen has also been more aggressive this year, swinging at pitches more often, which has led to the lowest single-season walk rate of his career to date at just over eight percent (he was in double digits for all of his previous seasons). The news is not all bad on the plate discipline front. For one thing (aside from sample size), I have seen at least some research that indicates veterans who see a single-season dip in their walk rate tend to return to more strongly the previous walk rates than as Marcel-type weighting would indicate. (I used to have this link to this old research of MGL’s, but cannot find it at the moment.)
Of additional interest with respect to McCutchen’s plate approach, despite his lowered walk rate, is his contact rate, which actually was at a career low last year, and this year is back at its highest level since 2010. Unsurprisingly, his strikeout rate is way down from the last two years, and is currently at its single-season low, at about 11 percent. As I have harped on lately and is hopefully well-known from the research others have done, contact and strikeout rates stabilize very quickly relative to other metrics.
So how does it all balance out for McCutchen? It would be nice to have his power from last season back, but while power does not typically fluctuate like, say, BABIP, it is likely that last season was probably (although not certainly, of course — and at 26, he may have some growth remaining in that areas) on the high end of what one should expect from McCutchen when it comes to hitting home runs. His BABIP was also on the high side in 2012 — multiple things usually come together when a player has a monster season, but this year it might be a bit low given his skills, at least so far.
The lower walk rate is a bit troubling, but the lower strikeout rate McCutchen is a potentially very positive development. He may not be hitting as many home runs per ball in play, but not striking out gives him a chance to hit home runs and everything else since he is putting it into play more often. How does it all balance out? It probably does not mean he is likely to be as good as least year. It would be nice to have the power back. But putting the ball into play more often is a very positive development if it holds. Moreover, even if that performance was over his head, the sort of power McCutchen displayed last year at 25 has not completely disappeared, and may rear its head again to some extent.
The Pirates likely do not have 2012 McCutchen still with them. But the 2013 version, like the pre-2012 version which it resembles, has its own considerable charms. McCutchen is not be “carrying” the team (whatever that really means), but he is certainly doing his part, and is likely to be a big part of whatever success the Pirates have this year.
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