With the trade deadline looming, Andrew McCutchen’s renaissance puts the Pirates in an interesting, yet tough predicament.
Ever since the Pirates drafted Andrew McCutchen in 2005, expectations were high for the star outfielder, who batted .709 with 16 home runs in his senior year at Fort Meade High School. After establishing himself as the face of the Pirates franchise, some thought he was on a path to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In the first few years of his young career, McCutchen transformed from a talented rookie to the face of the franchise, contributing positively on and off the field. He found himself in the hearts of many Pirates fans and as a representative of the Steel City. From his rookie season through 2014, McCutchen’s batting line stood at .299/.385/.498. He never had a bad statistical year, accumulating three Silver Slugger Awards, one MVP Award, and four All-Star selections. In 2015, McCutchen’s philanthropic efforts and charitable contributions to Pittsburgh culminated in him receiving the Roberto Clemente Award while adding another All-Star appearance and Silver Slugger Award to his resume.
McCutchen was consistently considered one of the best five-tool players in baseball and always made the highlight reel with clutch hits and diving catches:
However, 2016 represented a confusing and staggering decline for McCutchen. Although his defense was always regarded as average-to-below-average, what was perplexing to analysts was his decline in offensive productivity:
McCutchen’s declining statistics suggested one thing — something was off with him. Something that a nagging hand injury could not explain away.
Although an injured hand may explain the 13.4% pop-up rate and the low 89.4 exit velocity on batted balls, it does not explain his lack of plate discipline. His walk rate was the lowest of his career at 10.2%, his strikeout rate was the highest of his career (143 K’s in 153 games), and his swinging percentage was at 46.7%, a personal high. He swung especially often at offspeed pitches:
Unfortunately for him, his batting line against changeups was a pathetic .160, which may partly explain why McCutchen’s batting average sunk significantly lower than his career mark.
However, McCutchen has begun to flip the script yet again. After beginning the 2017 season in right field, surrounded by constant rumblings of trade rumors and whether he was washed up, he has emerged again as the pre-2016 McCutchen. Despite starting 2017 batting a paltry .200 with a .630 OPS, McCutchen rebounded in a big way. Starting from May 24th until the All-Star Break, the Pirates outfielder batted .404 with a 1.223 OPS to go with 11 home runs. It was during this time that he found himself back in center field as he regained his third spot in the Pirates batting order.
So what has McCutchen done differently in 2017? Like most good hitters, McCutchen has begun to rectify his plate discipline issues that plagued him in 2016. His 19.3% O-Swing% (swings on pitches out of the zone) is one of the lowest in baseball, and even more importantly, his 66.7% Z-Swing% (swings on pitches in the zone) is above league average. He is taking a higher percentage of pitches that are balls and swinging at more strikes, which is the optimal combination for a great hitter.
Therefore, it can be concluded that McCutchen is being more selective at the plate and his plate discipline statistics support the notion that he is one of the league’s best this year in regards to being a disciplined hitter:
As the chart shows, the Pirates outfielder is walking more often and swinging at less pitches outside of the strike zone, causing many to believe that McCutchen is showing flashes of his former self.
McCutchen has also solved his changeup dilemma. Unlike in 2016, when he swung at more changeups with less positive results, he is being more careful when attacking that pitch:
This is a huge adjustment from the previous year. McCutchen is swinging at and missing fewer changeups than he did last year, which is a contributing factor to his improved plate discipline.
Due to his renaissance this year, the decision on whether to trade McCutchen becomes more interesting. At age 30, he is still in his prime, which means that any team trading for him will need to give the Pirates a significant package in return. McCutchen is under contract through the rest of 2017 with a team option of $14.5 million for next year if the Pirates choose to exercise it.
So the Pirates have three choices. They can either trade McCutchen, sign him to an extension, or exercise his option for the 2018 season.
Most seem to think trading him is the most likely scenario. Despite his renaissance, the truth is that McCutchen will simply not be able to carry the Pirates to postseason success in the next couple years. Even with the Cubs and Cardinals disappointing, the Pirates still remain in fourth place in the National League Central, posting a 42-47 record with a negative-25 run differential. Many believe, therefore, that the Pirates can sell high on McCutchen now. While their team may lose more games in the short-term, investing in their newly-acquired minor league talent can perhaps lead them to postseason success in the future. Not to mention that the Pirates having an outfield logjam only fuels this possibility.
However, there are those out there who think the Pirates should be buyers at the deadline. The truth is that McCutchen is one of the only Pirates who is hitting. Even though the Milwaukee Brewers lead the Pirates by seven games, few people have faith in them maintaining that lead. Flipping McCutchen for pitching help does not solve the team’s most glaring issue, which is offense: the Pirates are 24th in runs, 26th in batting average, 20th in OBP, and 27th in SLG%. The absence of Marte, due to his PED suspension, and Jung-ho Kang, due to his legal issues in South Korea, may explain part of it. Ultimately, there are some who believe the Pirates should seek offensive upgrades at other positions and hold on to those — Andrew McCutchen — actually producing.
My Verdict: I tend to be sentimental, and the impact McCutchen has not only on the Pirates but in the city of Pittsburgh should make the team think twice about trading him, unless they get a significant package of top-tier prospects and/or MLB-ready players. McCutchen is still the Pirates’ best offensive player and the anchor in their lineup. Due to him being more selective at the plate, I see McCutchen’s current performance as sustainable over the rest of the season and going forward.
Therefore, I think the Pirates should not trade him until they are confident Austin Meadows can regularly play at the Major League level. Manager Clint Hurdle should still consider sending McCutchen back to right field for the sake of defense, although he has said McCutchen will remain in center when Marte returns. My hope is that McCutchen will still be wearing a Pirates uniform in 2018.
What I Think Will Happen: Pittsburgh is itching to trade McCutchen and will do so at some point before 2018 if not before this year’s July 31st trade deadline. I see the Washington Nationals as a strong possibility for him due to Adam Eaton’s season-ending injury. Either way, Pirates fans can take comfort in the fact that they are seeing their star player produce like one once again, and that has to excite the Steel City more than anything else.
*All data is courtesy of ESPN.com, Baseball-Reference.com, and FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.
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