2016 Season: What Went Wrong—Injuries and Cutch’s Worst Year

Yesterday, I wrote about the main culprit of the Pirates 78-83 inconsistent 2016 season, the starting pitching. Today, I’ll break down what went wrong in the other half inning when the Pirates were batting.

Overall, the Pirates offense wasn’t that bad this season. They ranked 6th in the National League in runs scored per game with 4.5, they ranked 5th in BA with a .257 mark and were 3rd in OBP with a .332 clip. Where they struggled was in the power department. They were 10th in slugging with .402 and 12th in home runs with 153. While home runs were up across MLB, the Pirates saw only a slight uptick with 13 more bombs than in 2015. But overall, they were scoring runs which is proven with their 6th ranking. The problem with this offense is it seemed to come all at once and then go dormant for a long stretch of games.

The bats were red-hot in April, slashing their way to a stellar .293/.378/.448 month and scoring 128 runs in that time. Most of us knew that pace was unsustainable, but the drop off they saw reverted too far back. Their OPS dropped from .826 in April to .755 in May and then .671 in the 9-19 month of June. They saw a mediocre July and August before rebounding with a .756 OPS in September/October, but they never came close to their production in April.

So what happened in the middle of the season? Obviously there was regression, but injuries to anyone on the roster under the “catcher” category seemed to go down with something. Francisco Cervelli missed a bulk of time, only making 326 at-bats on the season, a year in which his power disappeared. Chris Stewart spent most of the season on the DL and even prospect Elias Diaz missed most of his season on the minor league DL. It left the Pirates scrambling to acquire some old names in Eric Fryer and Erik Kratz. Even Jacob Stallings, who came into 2016 never playing above Double-A, saw time in Pittsburgh at catcher. When it was all said and done, six different catchers made starts for the Pirates this season which you never want to happen. Relying on Kratz and Fryer for a bulk of starts and having their offense in the lineup is a shot to any lineup. I think the injuries to the catcher position was a very overlooked problem with what went wrong this season.

Individually, we saw some great seasons when the season ended especially with some of the bench players. Ultra-utility man Sean Rodriguez finished with 18 home runs and a .859 OPS, Matt Joyce produced a .403 clip and .866 OPS in limited time and David Freese parlayed his stellar season (.270/.352/.412) and solid glove at third and first base into a 2-year extension with the Bucs. We saw Gregory Polanco take another step forward in his development as his HRs went from 9 to 22 and his OPS to a career high .786 at just 24 years of age. And Starling Marte (.311/.362/.456) produced another 5 WAR season in what was probably the Pirates MVP of 2016. His bid at 50 steals ended three short due to an injury that limited him to just seven games in September. Jung Ho Kang showed elite power with 21 home runs in just 318 at-bats, but injuries and a huge slump midseason hurt what could have been an amazing season.

With all these great performances out of the Bucs lineup, another year of an MVP caliber .900+ OPS season out of Andrew McCutchen could have put this offense over the top. But as we saw this season, that was not to be as McCutchen went from a slow start to a down year to his worst season ever that had many scratching their heads. Even with a strong finish, Cutch’s overall numbers were down across the board from 2015—his average dropped 40 points, his OBP decreased 70 points and his OPS went from .889 last year to .766 this season. His HR total matched last season, but his walks were done, strikeout percentage up to a career high 21%, doubles down, steals down, etc. There’s no sugar-coating it, what we saw from him this season was not the Andrew McCutchen we’re used to seeing.

On top of his struggles at the plate, McCutchen’s defense fell to a new low. According to FanGraphs fielding metrics, McCutchen was worth -28 defensive runs saved, which makes him the worst fielder in the game this season. Yikes. Factoring in his defense, it brings his overall WAR down to 0.7 this season after being worth 5.8 WAR in 2015. His down year even led to reports that the Pirates might be planning to shop McCutchen this offseason. As you can see from the graph below, McCutchen’s 2016 was well below his averages from the past four seasons (’12-15).

When evaluating what went wrong for the Bucs, McCutchen’s down year is second behind only the starting pitching. McCutchen suddenly went from a perennial MVP candidate to barely a player above replacement level and that’s too steep of a fall for any team’s star player to take. Cutch’s struggles along with catching injuries and an underperforming starting rotation played the part in an average 78-83 season.

 

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