Let me preface this article by saying that I have been and will continue to be a huge supporter of Andrew McCutchen. I loved the pick in 2005, as I thought the Pirates had their leadoff man of the future (expectations were quite different for his career path back then). I drove over to see him in Lake County in 2006 and was dazzled by his speed and skills. I saw him again in 2007 in Altoona after he was skipped over High A completely. And I was tuned in to his debut in Atlanta in 2009.
His transformation into a power/speed combo with perennial MVP potential has been amazing to watch. That’s what has made this season so hard to watch. McCutchen had an awful first four months of the season, but has marginally picked it up after his imposed benching (ironically, in the same stadium where his career began) in Atlanta. His OPS/wRC+ in August was 810/124 and in September so far it has been 927/142. Those are at least within shouting distance of his prime years where the OPS was in the mid-900’s and wRC+’s were in the 160’s.
But it’s pretty obvious that he’s lost a step or two this year, both in the field and at the plate. There is no way that Peak McCutchen allows himself to get thrown out by this many steps on a ball hit this deep in the hole, to take nothing away from the great play made by Orlando Arcia.
His play in center, especially in just the last month, has been fairly atrocious, as can see in this play against the Reds on September 16th and this one against the Marlins on August 20th. To be fair, he has made some more characteristically great plays this year too, but the negative ones are becoming just too glaring.
To that end, the 2017 season has to set a new baseline of expectations for McCutchen, both within the Pirates’ organization and among the fanbase. First things first, the Pirates’ front office and coaching staff need to come to the realization that Andrew McCutchen can no longer man center field. He has been eclipsed, for some time now, by Starling Marte in terms of range (and most certainly, arm). While McCutchen was consistently racking up top-4 MVP finishes and one of the stars of MLB, it would been difficult to convince your franchise’s cornerstone to shift out of the premium CF spot. But now? Now the Pirates have the advantage and must do what’s right for the team in what could be McCutchen’s final year with the Pirates.
It would be easy to say that they should shift McCutchen into RF and put Polanco with more range into LF, but McCutchen’s sub-par arm would have teams running rampant from first to third. It’s better to keep him in left where his arm should be good enough to keep teams honest from sending runners home, although not to the effect that Marte has on opposing teams.
For fans, they may need to come to grips with the fact that Peak McCutchen is now Kind Of Good McCutchen. Gone may be the gaudy triple slash lines and 6 WAR seasons. In their place may be a .285/.360/.490 kind of line that results in a 3.5 to 4 win season. That’s a good to borderline star kind of player, but not a cornerstone and not an MVP candidate.
McCutchen no longer needs to carry the team himself. There’s Marte, Polanco, and Kang to help shoulder the offensive load. Whether it’s a lingering injury or series of injuries or just that Father Time is catching up to him, McCutchen may no longer be able to carry the load by himself. Perhaps he can get hot for a few weeks or a month, but there may not be that 3 month scorching set of games like in years past.
And that’s OK. Just as I’m no longer the same person watching the 19 year-old McCutchen back in 2006, McCutchen is no longer the same player he was, either. Every player declines. I firmly believe that McCutchen will rebound off this fairly awful line of .254/.334/.428, but I don’t expect him to ascend back to MVP-caliber form. He’ll be in the middle somewhere and that’s what I’ll consider the new normal.