Pittsburgh’s beloved McCutchen has fallen onto hard times.
When fans think of the resurgence of the Pittsburgh Pirates, they should think of their star center fielder, Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen has become one of the game’s elite players and has the trophy case to prove it. The five-time All Star has added four Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove, and the 2013 NL MVP award to his mantle all the while displaying one of baseball’s most iconic smiles.
This season, however, that smile hasn’t been out quite as much. McCutchen has seen his wRC+ drop to a career low of 107, 15 points lower than his previous lowest season. While it is still early in the season and he’s known as a slow starter in April (his lowest month of wRC+ by 26! points), the underlying numbers support the dramatic drop in results.
One of the first things that catches the eye is McCutchen’s alarmingly high strikeout rate. Throughout his career, McCutchen has been known for his keen eye at the plate that allowed him to post above average walk rates while limiting his strikeout rate. This season has seen that change drastically with his strikeout rate currently at 24.3%, the highest of his career by 4.7%, while his walk rate is at a new career low of 10%.
These careers worsts are explained by looking into McCutchen’s plate discipline. So far, McCutchen has set a career high in swing percentage at 48.1% all the while posting his lowest contact rate of 72.7%. This equates to a scary combination that has led to a 13% swinging strike rate, tied for 28th-worst in league among qualified batters.
The changes for McCutchen don’t just stop there, though. When McCutchen does make contact with the ball, the results have been much different than any previous season.
McCutchen has posted the highest soft contact percentage of his career. So even when he is making contact with the ball, it isn’t with the same oomph that we’ve come to know and love.
In addition, so far in 2016, McCutchen has posted a ground ball rate of just 30.7%, eighth-lowest in the majors and his lowest percentage by 7.5%. Even with more batted balls being put into the air, McCutchen has actually seen his line drive rate fall from last year’s number. This results in a career high 46.6% fly ball rate.
Going along with this, another thing that pops out about his season is, well, popouts. McCutchen is currently posting an infield fly ball percentage of 11.8%, double his number from last year, and a new career high. These essentially have the same result as strikeouts, as Dave Cameron points out, which shows that McCutchen is giving away more plate appearances than what first meets the eye.
Nevertheless, McCutchen and his opponents are aware of his performance. He recently stated to Travis Sawchik that “I’m getting pitched to. I’m getting pitches to hit. I’m just missing those pitches.” The numbers confirm his statement, as he’s seeing his highest percentage of pitches in the zone since 2011 but sporting the lowest contact rate of his career in the zone.
When putting all this information together, paired with a pull happy approach, it appears that McCutchen has taken a conscious approach to become more of a power hitter than he has in previous years. McCutchen may be trying to compensate for a step or two that he’s lost as he’s going to turn 30 in October. While not quite as drastic a change, Mike Trout successfully transitioned into more of a power hitter between the 2013 and 2014 season after losing a step, so there is precedent for a successful shift. Regardless, McCutchen has started this year off on a bad foot and will need to make quite a few adjustments to get it back on track.
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