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Andrew McCutchen And Barry Bonds

Andrew McCutchen is a toolsy Pittsburgh outfielder with a good eye at the plate that just put it all together and showed career bests in most categories in his age-26 season. He did it with a fraction of the flair of the last version of this Pirates phenomenon — unassuming dreadlocks replacing a the more ego-focused flash of the earring — but the timing and location of his breakout still lead to an easy comparison.

Yes, putting McCutchen up against Barry Bonds may dull his shine. As is usually the case with a player coming off a career season, a little scuffing up may do him some good.

Their fantasy stats:

Age 26 Average HR R RBI SB
Andrew McCutchen 2012 0.327 31 107 96 20
Barry Bonds 1990 0.301 33 104 114 52

Barry probably wins out once you factor in his 32-stolen-base head start, but the newer model doesn’t yet suffer much from the comparison. 1990 was the first time Bonds hit more than 30 home runs, and 2012 was the first time McCutchen had managed the feat. Both players managed strong runs and RBI totals on teams that had been scuffling some before. Both players had three full seasons under their belt at the time (Bonds more like three and a half), and both had shown flashes of brilliance in different categories but had not yet put it all together. It’s not just the black and yellow that ties these two together.

But there are many differences. 1990 was the first time that Barry Bonds walked more than he struck out, which would become a defining characteristic of his career. McCutchen has contact and reach rates that are decent, but those numbers (25.9% reach rate and 77.8% contact rate in 2012) are way closer to average (30.8% and 79.7% respectively) than the one season of (late-career) data we have on Barry in those respects (13.6% reach rate (!) and 87.2% contact rate). Pretty much nobody in baseball has ever been Barry’s equal in both of those respects, though.

Young Bonds left McCutchen in the dust on the basepaths as well. But in the three years leading up to their age-26 seasons, the two were virtually identical when it came to speed stats. Bonds stole 81 bases with a low of 17 and a high of 32, while the newer version stole 78 with a high of 33 and a low of 20. Barry was caught 31 times, McCutchen 25. Their speed scores were comparable, too. But if you look at McCutchen’s career with this last season included, it’s hard to peg him for more steals in the future. He’s now stolen 20-ish stolen bases three times and more than 30 once, and he’s had identically (slightly) above-average speed scores (5.5) two years in a row.

Maybe he won’t get to 500 stolen bases, or be a perennial 30/30 threat. 20 stolen bases — if it comes with real power — will always push a player into the top rounds of any draft. But once again, McCutchen doesn’t meet Barry’s lofty bar.

McCutchen might have only hit two fewer home runs, but his isolated slugging percentage came up well short of Bonds’ (.264 to .226). It was also the first time ‘Cutch had ever shown an ISO over .200, while Barry had already done so twice. It was a nice power explosion for McCutchen, but it didn’t quite measure up to the original.

Unfortunately, we don’t have many power peripherals for the elder buccaneer, but we can look at what McCutchen has done in order to try and decide if he’ll retain his power gains. Below we have his batted ball angle (on the left), and his batted ball distance (on the right), thanks to BaseballHeatMaps.com.

Often, we’ll talk about how a player has begun to pull the ball more, making his jump in batted ball distance more believable. You can see the phenomenon with Josh Willingham, for instance. In McCutchen’s case, however, he has not altered his approach at the plate much — see the slope on the graph on the left, and the line as it hovers just above zero, meaning he has been and continues to be a slight pull hitter — and yet his distance has improved. In fact, his average distance on home runs and fly balls (306.1 feet) was the seventh-best in baseball among players with more than 60 flies plus homers last season, just ahead of Josh Hamilton and behind Matt Holliday. That’s up from 287 in 2011, 296 in 2010, and 294 in 2009. Matt Holliday (308, 295, 301, 297 going backwards over the last four years) seems like a reasonable comp now.

If Andrew McCutchen ends up having a career like Matt Holliday‘s has been, with a little more speed sprinkled in, he might disappoint some hometown fans and fantasy managers banking on more seasons like Barry Bonds had back in the day.

That would be their failure rather than the player’s. No other player in baseball has ever had a career like Barry Bonds‘.