From the time Andrew McCutchen made his Major League debut in 2009 at the age of 22 to 2015, he was one of the best hitters in baseball. He was Cutch, he was a five-time All-Star, he was the winner of an NL MVP award and probably could have won two or three. He was the man who brought back Zoltan and was the player the Pirates rode to their first postseason appearances in two decades. In seven seasons from ’09-15, Cutch produced the 7th highest wRC+ in MLB with 144 (min. 2500 PAs) and second highest fWAR at 40.2. Simply put, he was the man and the face of the Pirates organization.
It’s no secret around baseball or in any sport that players began to decline once they get to the wrong side of 30. But Cutch’s decline seemingly came out of nowhere last year at the age of 29 and has continued nearly a quarter into this season. Following his MVP season in 2013 when he produced a 156 wRC+, he actually had a better 2014 offensively with a 168 wRC+ that included a .410 on-base percentage. In 2015, he regressed slightly but still was one of the better hitters in the league at a 146 wRC+. Then last season, the drop off came. A slow start that lingered into August before a late reemergence in the final two months put him at 106 wRC+ or just above average. The slide has continued this year where we’ve seen his slash line sit at .212/.288/.401 for a 78 wRC+ (22% below average). I couldn’t began to tell you the last time I remember Cutch’s OBP being under .300. His total 101 wRC+ since the beginning of 2016 is a drop off of 43 points from his 144 mark between the ages of 22-28. The drop off is easy to see in the FanGraphs chart below…
I wondered how unprecedented was this type of decline beginning of at age 29? How many great hitters just lose it that early on? A recent player that comes to mind is Albert Pujols, but even his decline didn’t occur until age 32 or 33, and even then coming into this season at age 37, he’s still an above average hitter. But how many players in the history of baseball have fallen to an average or below average hitter at age 29?
I decided to look at every player who had a 140 wRC+ or higher from the start of their careers to age 28 (min. of 2,500 PAs) and there are 91 players in MLB history since 1871 (according to FanGraphs). Cutch is on that list at 144 wRC+. Out of those 91 players, the biggest decreases in their 29 and 30 seasons are listed below in the graphic (min. 500 PAs). As you can see, Cutch’s decline isn’t completely unprecedented, but it is very rare as he’s second on a list behind only Yankees great Don Mattingly.
Mattingly proved to be a great hitter throughout his 20’s, hitting .327 with a .917 OPS from ’84-89. His problems began in 1990 at age 29 when his wRC+ dropped to 72 and then 99 in the following season. That’s a difference of 51 points on his wRC+ and the biggest drop in history at those ages. Of course, Mattingly suffered through back issues in ’90 and spent a portion of the season on the DL and only playing in 102 games that season. Mattingly did end up having a few more productive seasons, but nothing comparable to his seasons in his 20’s and then he was out of baseball at age 34. But at least with Mattingly, you can point to the back issue and surgery after the ’90 season as a reason for the decline. Cutch, for the most part, has been healthy for his career (averaging 155 games since 2010). There was a thumb injury last season that could be used to explain his 2016, but everything reported since is he’s 100 percent healthy this season.
As for the rest of the list, some of the players on it are there because of their high standard they set for themselves. Babe Ruth shows up on the list because of 26 wRC+ difference, but he still was nowhere near an average hitter. Ruth went from a ridiculous 207 mark to 181, still MVP level. Same can be said for Frank Thomas‘ drop of 175 to 151—he was still a great hitter. McCutchen, on the other hand, has been an average hitter over the past two seasons and only Mattingly, Cutch and Eric Davis can make that claim that they went from 140-144 wRC+ to suddenly average to below average. Mattingly was never the same hitter, Davis did rebound for two seasons with a 143 wRC+ and 151 in his 30’s after taking a year off from baseball altogether (another rarity). Whether Cutch will see any rebound seasons, all I know is that it’s a sad state of affairs to watch Cutch become what he has this season.
The Pirates actively shopped McCutchen’s name in the offseason, but a deal never came to fruition for whatever reason. Whether the interest really wasn’t there or the Pirates ultimately couldn’t part with the face of the franchise is speculation at this point, but that was even coming off of two months of good Cutch at the end of 2016. As of today, it’s hard to argue against the fact that Cutch’s stock may be the lowest of his career. And dropping with each game, each at-bat.
So what’s wrong with Cutch? Well hopefully someone getting paid a lot more than me figures this out, but there’s a significant possibility that his bat speed has declined so quickly in just two years that he’ll never be the same hitter again. Cutch is still walking at an above average rate (9.6%), but that’s definitely the lowest of his career. He’s also striking out nearly 21% since 2016 which is higher than his career average. The elite plate discipline that he displayed early in his career seems to be gone. That’s concern number one. The second concern is his groundball rate has increased to 41.6% this season and his line drive percentage is down. One metric that folks will point to as a reason for optimism is his low BABIP of .215. Yes, that will come up, but how much will it and how much will it change his overall season? The reason for concern even with his low BABIP is he’s simply not hitting the ball very hard this season. His exit velocity has decreased from 90.7 in ’15 to 89.7 last season to a full two MPH slower this season at 87.8. That has to be the most concerning stat for any hopes of turning it around. Even with his BABIP due for some positive regression at some point, expecting an OPS .800 and higher is a pipe dream.
His splits are heavily one-sided this season as he’s back to raking lefties at a .333/.429/.738 slash line, which is nice to see but you can imagine his line against righties considering his overall line. He’s recording just a .474 OPS against right-handing pitcher. That is plain awful as the graph shows below.
The Pirates were probably always going to trade McCutchen either at the deadline this season or definitely in the offseason with Austin Meadows waiting in Triple-A as his eventual replacement , but now with the declined production they should try to get whatever value he has left. The drop off in his game is difficult to watch on so many levels, one because you want to see him succeed, two because Cutch producing is the Pirates main chance of competing and three, now his decline will cost them on the return.
It doesn’t mean this is the end of McCutchen’s career by any means, but we do know that his disappointing rapid drop off to mediocrity at age 29-30 is on the list with very few players, and it’s bringing his time in Pittsburgh to a sad conclusion.