Can Andrew McCutchen Turn His Lackluster Start Into a Bounce-Back Year?
It was hoped that Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen's lackluster 2016 season was either the result of him battling through some kind of injury, or just a down year by a really good player. After all, a person doesn't go from being a perennial MVP candidate to a guy that is only 6.0% better than a league average run producer while just now reaching his early 30s.
Unfortunately, the bounce-back season people were hoping to see from the now 30-year-old center fielder isn't happening. At least, not yet.
Entering their weekend series against the Philadelphia Phillies, McCutchen is hitting .220/.289/.400 with 6 home runs, 19 RBI and 19 runs scored. His weighted on base average (wOBA) of .299 and weighted runs created (wRC+) of 84 are both career lows, and not by a little. He is currently 26% worse than a league-average run producer, a drastic change from when, in his heyday, he generally posted a wRC+ in the 150s or 160s.
Earlier this week, McCutchen was pulled from a ballgame as part of a double-switch for the pitcher in the eighth inning of a two-run ballgame. That's never supposed to happen to a player who is supposed to be one of the team's best run producers. But since the start of last season, McCutchen has not been that type of player.
It's easy to see why the numbers are off, but the deeper explanation behind it is somewhat of a mystery.
This year, he's walking in just 9.0% of his plate appearances, down from 10.2% last year and 14.3% two years ago. He's also not hitting the ball hard as much as he used to, with a hard-hit rate of 32.8% that would be a career low in a single season (it was 39.4% just two years ago). His line-drive rate has also fallen, from 22.5% last year to 15.6% this year, and he's hitting the ball on the ground more (41.0% in '17, compared to 35.8% in '16).
Is there a mechanical flaw in his swing? Is he compensating for some kind of injury? Or is he simply getting old and losing bat speed?
The reason for the struggles is a mystery. But, there's one other possibility.
It may not be quite as bad as it seems.
His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .233 is far below the league average of .294, which shows he's been a bit unlucky. His strikeout rate is down, from 21.2% last year to 17.5% this year. And while his "hard contact" numbers are down (as noted above), his weak contact numbers have also decreased, from 19.7% in 2016 to 16.4% so far in 2017.
And since he was pulled in that double switch two nights ago, he has enjoyed consecutive two-hit games.
Of course, two games is too small a sample size to throw out more than a year's worth of data that suggests the old Andrew McCutchen is gone. The bounce-back season people were hoping was coming hasn't happened yet.
However, the 2017 season isn't anywhere close to being over.