You would think that Andrew McCutchen would like Atlanta. After all, it was the Pirates trade of Nate McLouth to Atlanta that freed up the necessary spot for him to make his debut on June 4th, 2009. But in the past two years, a trip to Atlanta has represented a bottoming out for McCutchen’s season. Last year, Clint Hurdle benched McCutchen for the entire 3 games in Atlanta in August when he was batting .241/.311/.408 (719 OPS). That helped to re-invigorate him a little bit. This year’s sojourn to Atlanta saw Andrew McCutchen at perhaps his lowest point during his Pirates tenure. He lugged a .206/.279/.370 (648 OPS) into that series against the Braves. He came out of it even worse, with a .203/.274/.360 (634 OPS).
But after that series, the only thing hotter to leave Atlanta was General Sherman back in 1864. Starting the next day in New York on May 26th, Andrew McCutchen was dropped to 6th in the batting order. It would be natural to expect that the Pirates’ highest paid player and nominal star would be subject to pouting about it, especially after he had to switch to RF at the start of the year due to his defensive erosions, only to be switched back to CF after Starling Marte got caught taking the needle. However, that has not been the case. Whether it was McCutchen able to mentally relax or something clicked in his swing or it was just the positive regression monster coming to visit, Andrew McCutchen has put together his 2nd greatest month as a Pirate (back in July 2012, McCutchen put up a staggering .446/.510/.739 — 1249 OPS, 240 wRC+).
While quite a few Pirates have been burning brightly at the plate, none are shining brighter than the erstwhile MVP. His line of .380/.462/.671 (196 wRC+, 1133 OPS) has been good for 1.8 WAR in just the past 30 days. He’s launched 8 home runs during this time frame. Even Mike Trout and Bryce Harper look at these last 30 days and are like, “Whoa, that’s a heck of a month, Cutch.” His wRC+ means he has created enough offense in the past 30 days that is equivalent to two players.
So what changed? Surely, McCutchen must be hitting the ball harder, right? Nope. As per Baseball Savant, McCutchen’s June exit velocity is 87.1 mph, compared to 88.2 mph in April and May. He’s actually hitting the ball softer! Rather, he’s just stopped hitting the ball on the ground. His line drive percentage has spiked to 25.0% in June, over 14.5% in April and 19.3% in May. Consequently, his ground ball percentage has dropped to 35.3% in June, down from 42.0% in April and 43.4% in May. As Joe Douglas showed last Monday with Adam Frazier, changes in batted ball types can have amazingly positive effects on one’s batting line.
McCutchen’s overall plate discipline numbers are extremely encouraging to delve into. Naturally, they’re buoyed by this Fukishima-hot run that he’s on, but it shows that he’s making overall contact at a rate of 80.3% that he hasn’t done since his halycon days of 2013. Most heartening to me is that his outside the zone swing rate (O-Swing%) is at its lowest rate of 20.3% since 2011, yet his outside the zone contact rate (O-Contact%) of 62.1% is an all-time career high. In short, he’s laying off pitches outside the zone, but hitting them when he does decide to swing. That leads to good results like this homer last Monday against the Brewers:
Just as it wasn’t realistic to expect McCutchen to log a .211 BABIP, like he was in May, and be so terrible, it’s also not realistic to expect this blistering run to continue. There’s quite a bit of room between May McCutchen (682 OPS, 78 wRC+) and June McCutchen, so it’s hard to say just where he’ll end up. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to say that McCutchen can wind up the 2017 season in the 140-150 wRC+ range, which with average defensive and baserunning numbers should put him in the 4.0 WAR zone. That’s where we were predicting he would land this season prior to his awful start of the year.
But now there are two other questions that are on the minds of Pirate fans:
- Should McCutchen be moved back to his customary 3rd spot in the order? No, I wouldn’t rush into that. The common theory is that it’s better to have him higher in the order for more run-producing opportunities, but he’s doing more than fine in that regard right now. Andrew McCutchen is like a guy in Vegas on an epic craps heater — you don’t touch him or talk to him for fear of ruining it. Just cheer loudly when he breaks the bank.
- Will Neal Huntington take advantage of the revived McCutchen and flip him at the deadline? I don’t believe this will happen. The massively frustrating Pirates hate prosperity this year, but the NL Central is still not on lockdown for any one team yet. I think Huntington will see how the team responds when Marte comes back on July 18th and run his decision right up to the deadline on what to do with McCutchen. I’d rather see them wait until the offseason when McCutchen will have (hopefully) built up a full season of good stats and make him more appealing to a wider variety of teams.
I’ll admit — when McCutchen got off to a blah April and cratered out in May, I thought he was done. I applaud him for sticking with it and credit should go to both McCutchen and the coaching staff for altering his swing path to get him back on a positive track. Whether they’re just improving him for his next team in August remains to be seen, but seeing vintage MVP-caliber McCutchen, even if it’s just this month, is a welcome sight.