The Pirates’ New McCutchen

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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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


49 Responses to “The Pirates’ New McCutchen”

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  1. Adam Perry says:

    I wish the Bucs were really 29-15. But I’m happy with 29-18 for now.

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  2. Mike B. says:

    I’m not sure if the Buccos want to give Sanchez any more starts. Maybe long relief or LOOGY at most.

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  3. mike says:

    McCutchen only had 8 HRs through the end of May last year. One hot week and he’s ahead of that pace….

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  4. Justin H says:

    His April numbers were somewhat similar to last year while his May numbers (OPS is actually almost the same) come pretty close to matching his overall averages for 2012. I wouldn’t count out a return to 2012 quite yet as he is on a similar path as last year to date.

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  5. Richie says:

    If strikeouts really aren’t all that bad a thing for hitters, then ‘putting the ball into play’ can’t really be all that great a thing for them, either. No more than a minor positive.

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    • Ian R. says:

      It depends on the hitter. For a guy like Andrew McCutchen who can record hits at a higher-than-average rate on balls in play, putting the ball in play is a very positive thing.

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      Putting the ball in play is nearly always better than striking out. A ball in play has roughly a 30% of being a hit. A strikeout has about a 99.5% chance of being an out. Sure, putting the ball into play may lead to a double play, but it’s hard to imagine, all things else being equal, wanting a player to strike out more. Of course, the all things else being equal is carrying a lot of weight in that sentence.

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  6. Shlum says:

    Typos galore brah

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    • scraps says:

      Says the commenter who leaves the period out of his sentence; and what “brah” means I can’t say.

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    • scraps says:

      Hm, I thought Shlum was complaining about the typos in the post, so I was pointing out the typos in his comment. Now I see my comment was disapproved, while Shlum’s goes without comment; maybe I missed a joke?

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      • David says:

        Maybe its because you don’t know what brah means… if you’d like to find out, we’re all getting together at the house later, gonna play some video games and listen to the new John Mayer album, maybe break out a bag of big black dildos and some axe body spray.

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        • scraps says:

          Ah.

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        • scraps says:

          I looked up brah in a dictionary before I commented, and got nothing; then after, I looked up brah in the Urban Dictionary — which I should have done before — and got an education. So, thanks.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        I didn’t down vote you, but you are misusing the semicolon; indeed, you shouldn’t you semicolons with coordinating conjunctions–unless, that is, the second independent clause contains other commas. Also your syntax in the second clause is whack.

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        • DavidCEisen says:

          Obviously, meant to write should use semicolons.

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        • Scraps says:

          I “misuse” semicolons all the time. Comments and such are (to me) conversational; I hope when you read my comments, you “hear” them. When I write formally, I write differently.

          –signed, Scraps, professional copyeditor.

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        • matt w says:

          I would spell that last word “wack,” as it comes from “wacky,” although a cursory search suggests that comes from “whacky” and ultimately from “out of whack.”

          Anyway, I upvoted Shlum because, whatever we may think of his own capitalization, punctuation, and vocabulary, he is correct that this post has a lot of typos. (Sometimes making it a little harder to read.)

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  7. Sam says:

    Big Buccos fan, and this is probably influencing this point of view, but Cutch has had many deep warning tract outs this season. Very many deep, deep fly balls to deep, deep part of ball parks. I agree that he is likely to be a 15-25 HR guy but I think with a very small bit of luck he’d have 4-5 more HR’s and power wouldn’t be an issue. My optimistic thinking is that once the weather truly warms up in Pittsburgh and elsewhere and a change of luck he’ll see his HR/FB rate creep up.

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  8. David says:

    Um … This is the first year the Pirates have actually started out hot in a while. In 2011 on May 24th they were 22-25, in 2012 on May 24th they were 20-24. Heck in 2010 the year they lost 105 games they were 19-26 on May 24th not far off the ’11 and ’12 pace. Today, May 24th 2013 they are 29-18.

    I’m not exactly sure where this notion comes from that the Pirates have started the past two seasons off hot has come from but its simply not true.

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    • Jimbo says:

      Maybe “started hot” isn’t the best way of putting it, but they’ve been in position to contend for the playoffs around the ASB before second half collapses.

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    • B N says:

      Yah, I think the author may be confounding “collapsing late” with “starting hot.” While similar, they are not quite the same thing.

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      • JRoth says:

        Indeed, those collapsing ’11 and ’12 teams basically were hot/good for 1/3 of the season – the middle third. The first third they were mediocre, and the last third they were awful. We’ll see how this season progresses, but it’s certainly following a new pattern.

        Couple other things: while they’ve been Pythag lucky, it’s to a modest extent – 2 or 3 wins. In the collapse years, it tended to be more than that, even this early. Furthermore, B-P’s 3rd order adjusted standings never “believed” in the Pirates at all: the algorithm said that the Pirates should be worse than their Pythag record, let alone their actual record. But this season 3rd order has been in rough agreement with their actual record (again, 2-3 wins ahead, but so are the Cardinals).

        Since the Pirates are currently on a 99 win pace, I think that even Pirates fans will accept a little regression.

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  9. McCutchen Booster says:

    If I was a Major League GM, McCutchen is the only player I would let write in the amount of his own check.

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  10. Jonathan says:

    When McDonald, Morton, and Cole come back, just think about how amazing this team will be.

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  11. CabreraDeath says:

    Something that was (in my eyes) glossed over is the increase in LD rate (25% vs. 21.9% last year) and the drop in BABIP. That doesn’t correlate.

    I think, due to his speed as mentioned and his propensity to hit line drives and seemingly everything hard, that his BABIP is probably closer to last year than this year, meaning, I could see him being a .340-3.50 BABIP-guy going forward.

    That increase would make his avg/iso number similar to last year, while his ability to stop striking out getting better. In other words, I think he’s better than last year going forward.

    Mr. Smizik

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  12. KCDaveInLA says:

    If I were a Bucs fan, I would hope that there won’t be an overreaction to falling BABIP with the team trying to adjust his swing and plate approach, rendering his natural skills inert (see Hosmer, Eric).

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    • gorillakilla34 says:

      Yeah you’re talking about a guy who has been consistently great in MLB since 2009 and received MVP votes last year (McCutchen). I’m pretty sure he’s safe from anyone tinkering with anything of his. If you’d like to put a current Pirates player in the same sentence as Hosmer, it’d probably be Pedro Alvarez.

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  13. Thufir says:

    I thought this was going to be an article about marte

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  14. maguro says:

    McCutchen’s pre-season ZiPS projection was .283/.369/.480. Pretty good so far.

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  15. Cus says:

    There must be a point where increased contact rate isn’t a boon if it isn’t related to an increase in LD% etc. as there are many situations early in the count where missing a pitch for a strike is infinitely better than popping out, fouling out, hitting a weak grounder etc. Not sure how you could measure this, but it’s an interesting thought.

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  16. ElToroStrikesAgain says:

    Cutch had a similar start last season. He’s a true winner, gets the runner in from third with less than 2 outs, steals a bag pretty quite often when the game is close. Star player. He’ll be fine.

    Regarding the pitching, AJ has indeed been a leader on the staff. The unsung guy for me is Wandy, he’s a battler and gives the teama chance to win every single time out, even without his best stuff. Locke has been better than expected, and Liriano has looked damn good so far (fingers crossed). Jeanmar is doing an admirable job holding down the fort as a fill-in 5th starter, but with Karstens, Morton and Cole on the way, the rotation is looking very, very solid.

    My hopes are high right now. Talented young everyday players. Check. Solid veteran bench. Check. Rock-solid starting pitching. Check. Above-average ‘pen. Check. Ever improving minor league system. Check. Exciting time to be a Pirate fan.

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  17. Operation Shutdown says:

    I’ve watched most games this year and I’d say that bad luck is the largest reason for his lowered BABIP. He’s hit a lot of pitches hard that have gone right at people. That and his lowered strikeout rate are to me the most perceptible (to the eye) differences between the 2013 version and the 2012 version.

    (Lest anyone think I’m being swayed by black-and-gold tinted glasses, I’d say that on the flip side Marte has been very fortunate. While his speed has gotten him on base a number of times, it always seems like he’s hitting not-so-sharp grounders that are find holes and bloop singles to the shallow part of the outfield).

    I don’t think he’ll match his 2012 numbers, but I think he’ll be closer to them than to his current numbers.

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