Andrew McCutchen, Eric Thames, and the Life of a Slump

Slumps and downturns are inevitable. They’re a part of baseball, a part of markets, a part of life. If you create a 15-day rolling wOBA chart of any player at FanGraphs, you’ll probably find a trend line that ticks up and down like the display on a heart-rate monitor. Such charts probably have a look similar to the performance of your investment portfolio. If we could create rolling, 15-day charts documenting the fortunes of our day-to-day existences, they’d have similar fluctuations, too.

While slumps are inevitable, that doesn’t mean they’re welcome. Ideally, it would be possible to minimize the troughs while extending periods of peak performance. Naturally, this of some interest to major-league clubs. Organizations have become curious about how they can reduce the length of slumps, exploring areas like rest and nutrition.

But there’s also a personal, psychological element. What leads players into slumps? Do they sense the arrival of one like an oncoming cold? And how do they dig out of it?

To investigate, I recently spoke with Eric Thames and Andrew McCutchen, who are examples at the extremes.

Thames was so good earlier this season he compelled the FanGraphs staff to write a series of articles about the scary, scarier, and scariest feats of Thames. Thames was so good, he compelled me to consider the power of boredom.

But Thames hasn’t been that good in some time.

The Brewers slugger was Barry Bonds in April. He posted a 217 wRC+ in the opening month. He looked like the steal of the offseason. But he posted a 106 wRC+ in May, a 68 mark in June, bounced back to 123 in July, but down to 74 in August. He’s now hit below .200 in two months, posting a .163 average in June and a .173 mark in August.

In a matter of weeks, Thames went from a sensation to very much resembling the player he’d been before reinventing himself in South Korea.

Then there’s McCutchen. The Pirates outfielder entered the season following one of the most mysterious and outlying declines in the sport’s history. In fact, according ESPN’s Dave Schoenfield, no star-level player had ever endured an age-29 season like the one through which the 2013 NL MVP struggled.

After posting a 105 wRC+ and playing the worst center-field defense in the majors last year (-28 DRS was the worst mark among all position players in the majors), McCutchen began the current season with a 93 wRC+ mark in April and a 75 number in May. His 2016 season was looking less and less like an outlier. The Pirates, viewing him as a defensive liability, opened the season with McCutchen in right field before Starling Marte’s PED suspension forced McCutchen back in center. He’s posted a -14 DRS in 900 innings this season.

It was starting to look like the McCutchen we’d once known had left us prematurely. But then he came roaring back with a 210 wRC+ mark in June and a 178 mark in July.

What did Thames lose? What did McCutchen find? (Before slumping again in August and early this month.)

In the same clubhouse where I’d inquired about his greatness in early May, I recently asked Eric Thames about his struggles, struggles that have persisted. The slump, he felt, was both mental and physical in nature.

Thames said the issue began with a few calls going against him. Then he felt himself compelled to expand his zone. Then his production dipped. Then anxiety crept in. “If [pitchers] get that call, they will go a little further out,” Thames said of borderline outside pitches. He tried to do more. And he failed more. A vicious cycle began from which he’s been unable to escape.

“I started to expand my zone more and more. If you swing at bad pitches, you’re going to be out,” Thames told FanGraphs. “It’s a matter of me having trust in the strike zone. I feel like it’s not the league making an adjustment, it’s me swinging at bad pitches and missing balls I should be hitting.”

Thames got away from the approach at which he’d arrived and honed in his apartment in Changwon, South Korea, where he watched video of Bonds, marveled at his selective, zeroed-in approach, and took dry swing after dry swing late into the night. Out of boredom, he used the time to dramatically change his approach.

But he’s gotten away from it. Observe how, after being one of the league’s most selective hitters earlier this season, Thames’ out-of-zone and overall swing rates continue to rise.

The good news that is Thames has identified the issue, he knows what he has to improve. Now it’s about getting results. It’s about creating better habits.

“If a pitcher throws three perfect pitches and strikes me out, the hell with it. That’s the way it goes,” Thames said. “I have to get away from trying to hit everything that he throws, you know?

“I’ve been trying to tone it down… It’s all between my ears.”

Consider Thames’ swings up until May 10:

And since May 10:

The middle part of the zone has gotten less red; the area off the plate outside, less blue.

There has also been a physical element to his decline. “[The game] always changes. You have to adapt. I got hurt. I tried to compensate for that,” Thames.

Thames was bothered by hamstring tightness at the end of April and into early May. Before his locker in the road clubhouse at PNC Park, Thames got in his stance, holding an imaginary bat in a load position, and demonstrated how he could not quite fire as quickly from his stance. The kinetic chain of the swing begins with the legs.

“You can’t react,” Thames said. “You don’t really feel good. It’s part of the game. It’s a long year… It’s about getting back to ground level.”

Through May 10, Thames’ average exit velocity was 88.7 mph; since, it’s been 87.5 mph.

***

For McCuthcen, the problem was a mechanical flaw, one that took him more than a calendar year to identify and fix.

On May 25th, Adam Berry, the Pirates beat writer for MLB.com, reported that McCutchen might have found the root of his issues.

It might be imperceptible on video, but McCutchen can feel it in the batter’s box, and see it in the number of balls he’s hooked. He is turning his torso more than usual, so his quick hands aren’t synced up with the rest of his body.

Eno Sarris talked to McCutchen about his mechanical adjustment earlier this summer.

McCutchen maintained throughout the slump that he wasn’t injured. His plate discipline had diminished but not to an alarming degree. The slump was a great mystery with all the video, data tools, and veteran coaches available to him. Why did it take so long to find answers and make corrections?

“Because it’s baseball and baseball is a game of small adjustments, [sometimes] so small you can’t look and notice,” McCutchen told FanGraphs. “You can’t look and say ‘I see what you’re doing.’ … You fall into habits you have to work out of it. So, you know, any habits you develop and want to get out of, you know how hard it is. And that’s not speaking in baseball terms, that’s just speaking about life. You have a habit you develop and want to get out of it. It was a habit I developed and got out of it, but it took time.”

McCuthcen said it was a game against Dan Straily and the Marlins on June 10 when he doubled twice and walked once that he felt he was turning a corner.

“I was asked if I wanted a day off the day before. I said, ‘No,’” McCutchen told me. “I went out and hit two doubles. I knew then [it was over]. It didn’t matter what my previous numbers were. It didn’t matter who was on the mound. It was going to work. I was going to be victorious.”

What was the toughest part about digging out? In a way, it was looking at the scoreboard and seeing the year-to-date numbers. They were haunting and difficult to avoid.

“Knowing the journey I had to partake in, knowing it wasn’t going to click overnight, knowing I was still hitting .200, that it was going to take six, seven weeks for me to get back to where I wanted to be,” McCutchen said. “That was the tough part. I had to take it day by day, pitch by pitch, try not to [think] a month from now, try to look at it right then and right there. That was the tough part.”

There was the psychological aspect, but also the physical elements with adjustments — and, perhaps, fatigue.

As I reported last summer, the Pirates have taken a greater interest in player rest in the hopes both of improving performance and preventing injury. And it was after a three-day break last August that McCutchen returned with his best stretch of performance of the season, though he was resistant to the idea that rest helped him.

After a scalding June and July, he has slumped again in August. Is this the look of a tired player who has played in all but four games this season?

McCutchen posted a season-high 20.9% strikeout rate in August.

Though Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told reporters last Sunday that the club won’t make a decision until the deadline, it seems like a lock that McCutchen’s $14.5 million club option will be exercised for next season. For a three-win player and Face of the Franchise, that makes sense. Whether he’ll be part of the 2018 Pirates or not remains to be seen, however.

McCutchen has had star-level stretches in 2017, erasing some of the concern over 2016, but he still must show that he can better manage downturns. We’ll have to see if Thames can dig out from his lengthy down period.

While slumps will never be eliminated, the challenge is shortening the downturns and reducing their depth. Maybe that’s possible and maybe it begins with better understanding.

We hoped you liked reading Andrew McCutchen, Eric Thames, and the Life of a Slump by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Brian Cartwright
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Cutch discovered the flaw in his swing, but then left a game in Toronto when he had knee discomfort. He returned to the lineup two days later, but since has failed to drive the ball with any authority. I hope he hasn’t adjusted his swing to compensate.

You can see many players do in a single plate appearance what Thames described. Pedro Alvarez was a good example. A pitcher would through a change-up and it would be called a strike despite being several inches outside to the left-handed hitter. Although displaying proper judgement on that pitch, he then seemed convinced that any subsequent pitch in the same location was 100% certain of being called a strike, and would wave at strikes two and three out of the zone away.