Last season, Andrew McCutchen struggled to perform to the elite level at which he was previously accustomed. He finished the year with an uncharacteristic .256 batting average, a .766 OPS and a strikeout rate that rose above 20%. To make matters even worse, McCutchen’s struggles did not stop here. At 29 years old, McCutchen ranked last among qualified centerfielders in defensive runs saved (DRS) at -28. Trade talks surrounded his name in the offseason and as the deadline approaches this season, there is still uncertainty about whether or not he will be in a Pirates uniform much longer. However, Cutch is coming off of one of the hottest months of his career where he batted .411 with 12 home runs, as well as, a lowered strikeout rate.
During the 2016 season, Cutch was continuously trying to pull the ball. He was swinging at a high amount of inside pitches and he was struggling to get the bat around. As his career has progressed, his bat speed has slowed down a few ticks, which could have been a reason for his struggles. It was clearly an adjustment period for McCutchen, whose physical attributes were on a downward slope. Through the offseason, there was hope that Cutch would bounce back, but his struggles continued through the months of April and May. However, a red-hot June has McCutchen back on track offensively and I want to dive into some of the changes he has made.
The first heatmap that I am going to include is of the swing percentages from McCutchen’s 2014 season and the second heatmap that I have included is from McCutchen’s 2016 season. Notice the amount of inside pitches that he swung during his 2016 season, and then compare it to his swing percentages from 2014. In 2014, he was swinging at fewer pitches near his hands and more pitches that were located near the middle of the plate. Throughout 2016, not only were the pitches he was swinging at nearer to the inside of the plate, but they were also high in the zone. Therefore, it was harder for Cutch to square these pitches up and reap the production that he has in the past.
The next group of heatmaps that I have included is from the early months of the season (April to May) and also from the month of June. Notice a similar struggle to his 2016 season where he was swinging at more pitches on the inside of the plate. However, through the month of June, Cutch was hitting pitches that were located more toward the center of the plate. The heatmap from June is very comparable to his entire 2014 season where he was more than a 6-win player. Even this small adjustment was beneficial for Cutch. He barreled more balls through the month of June, which could be a result of the selection of pitches he was swinging at. It seems as if the changes that Cutch made at the plate were the perfect adjustments to help him get acclimated to his physical regression.
Watch this example of McCutchen being unable to get the bat around on an inside heater from Cole Hamels. Since then, he has fallen away from those tendencies and in this second video you can see him taking advantage of a hanging curveball.
Another contributor to Cutch’s success was the way he cut down on strikeouts. Through the month of June he only struck out 12 times over 109 plate appearances. Whether he was flat out seeing the ball better or being more selective with what pitches to swing at, this is a huge improvement. One thing to note, so far this season, his O-Swing% is 22.8% which ranks 16th in MLB. Meaning that he is swinging at a small amount of pitches that are outside of the strike zone. If McCutchen can continue to cut down on strikeouts, he should continue producing.
Cutch may never put together another streak like he did in June. Additionally, his defense is still below average and being that he is 30 years old, it probably will not get much better. It was great to see McCutchen turn things around last month. As fans, it is easy to root for a guy who is a class act and one of the clubhouse favorites. With all the trade rumors surrounding his name this month, it is important to recognize the resilience that he has shown. McCutchen is more than deserving of a big contract after the 2018 season and the Pirates would be hard pressed to give a declining veteran that much money. It does not look like he is going to be moved at this year’s deadline, and as fans, we should just enjoy watching him while he is still in a Pirates uniform. After all, he is a former MVP and was one of the key pieces to the team’s success from 2013-15.