Andrew McCutchen’s Controlled Aggression

Patience has been a big part of Andrew McCutchen‘s game since his arrival in Pittsburgh in 2009. The two-time All-Star walked in at least 10 percent of his plate appearances in all four of his MLB seasons.

For McCutchen, consistency has come with patience. His first three seasons saw wOBAs of .363, .359 and .360 respectively. The jump from All-Star to MVP candidate came in 2012, as McCutchen hit .327/.400/.553 and set career highs in all three slash-line stats as well as ISO (.226), home runs (31) and RBI. And it also came with an added bit of aggression at the plate — controlled agression, but aggression nonetheless.

McCutchen set another career high in 2012: he swung at 45.2 percent of pitches, an increase from 40.9 percent in 2011 and 40.8 percent career. But it was controlled aggression: his zone swing rate went up six percent against just a two percent rise in out-of-zone rate, and according to Baseball Prospectus, most of the extra swings were on pitches over the middle third of the plate (see career and 2012 swing rates). More swings in this zone can only be a good thing; more swings means more contact, and McCutchen has a .640 slugging percentage on contact over the middle third of the plate.

It sounds like a simple thing — a hitter with McCutchen’s power should expect to see big gains by letting loose at more pitches around the fat part of the plate. But letting loose goes against so much of what allowed McCutchen to become a successful major leaguer in the first place.

Joe Lemire of Sports Illustrated profiled McCutchen last June. McCutchen was hitting .325/.382/.541 at the time of publication. It was hard to believe McCutchen had ever struggled at the plate, but Lemire’s piece centers around McCutchen’s one career rough stretch, in the minors in 2007:

McCutchen ended up returning to Altoona after camp. He began the 2007 season 0 for 15. By the end of April he was hitting .189, and, having no experience in handling a prolonged slump, he took to expanding his strike zone and pressing at the plate. Says McCutchen, “I had never in my life struggled.”

The Pirates immediately began refining the then-raw McCutchen. Much of the fix was mechanical: McCutchen learned to keep his hands in and shorten his swing, the main reason he’s able to squeeze so much power out of a 5-foot-10, 185 pound body.

But to make use of the improved mechanics, McCutchen had to stop chasing and restrict the strike zone again. McCutchen couldn’t be Vladimir Guerrero, able to lift balls from anywhere in the strike zone out of the park. But by waiting for the pitches his short stroke is designed for — over the plate or on the inner third and waist or thigh high — McCutchen could harness it. First, his discipline improved. McCutchen struck out 64 times with 18 walks in his first three months at Double-A. In his final two months, he walked 22 times against just 32 strikeouts.

McCutchen continued his disciplined ways at Triple-A in 2008, as he walked 11.5 percent of the time against 14.7 percent strikeouts as a 21-year-old. His power was still developing — McCutchen hit just nine home runs in 135 games for Indianapolis (IL), but he mashed 26 doubles, and it was easy to see him turning some of those doubles into home runs as his body and bat speed developed.

Develop it did, and the result was the ultra-patient McCutchen who starred in Pittsburgh from 2009-2011. That McCutchen was an excellent player and a potential perennial All-Star, but he needed to take one more step to become an MVP candidate and one of the league’s best players. He needed to take even more advantage of his ability to crush pitches over the plate and on the inner half.

Thus enters the controlled aggression. McCutchen combined improved pitch recognition with a willingness to go after more pitches early in the count in 2012, with brilliant results. He swung at 1.4 times as many first pitches in 2012 as he did in 2011, with a .417 wOBA on contact. He swung at 1.2 times as many 1-0 or 2-0 pitches in 2012, with a .424 wOBA. Pitchers have attacked McCutchen in these counts throughout his career, going in the strike zone at a nearly 60 percent rate. McCutchen finally made them pay.

The next round of adjustments is coming. McCutchen will need to retain the patience that has propelled him to the major leagues, as pitchers are unlikely to keep attacking him so hard on first pitches and other hitters’ counts now that he has shown a willingness to strike back. But if he can continue his excellent pitch recognition and limit his aggressiveness to within the strike zone, McCutchen should be able to put up another fantastic, perhaps MVP-caliber season in 2013.

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Jack Moore’s work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you’re willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

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Good stuff, Jack. Much appreciated.