The Pirates organization was one of the first to embrace the use of defensive shifts and parlayed it into their first playoff appearance in more than 20 years back in 2013. Since then, they’ve been on the forefront in the sabermetrics world—pitch framing, on-base percentage, shifting and basically looking for an added advantage in every facet of the game. One of these new age theories is that your best hitter should be hitting second in the order.
It makes sense. By batting higher in the lineup, that player is going to see more at-bats over the course of the season. Who wouldn’t want their best player making 30-40 more at-bats throughout the season? The Pirates thought the same thing and went all in with the decision to move Andrew McCutchen from the third spot to the two hole. A move that started all the way back in spring training. And a move that most other teams are not making right now All McCutchen had done in the past four seasons is slash .313/.404/.523 for an OPS of .926. He was without a doubt, their best hitter. I say was because he’s not their best hitter at all right now. Actually, he’s not even their third or fourth best hitter through 38% of the season.
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McCutchen’s yearly slow start has gone beyond just a slow April. We’re now in mid June and he’s still struggling at the dish. Cutch is slashing .241/.321/.408 on the season and for the month of June, it’s a miserable .163/.234/.186 with 16 strikeouts to just four walks. He hasn’t homered in 15 games, his strikeout percentage is up to a career high 24.8% and his walk rate has dropped five points to 9.9%. He’s hitting more fly balls than ground balls, but is not doing any damage with them. The million dollar question is what’s wrong with Cutch? McCutchen came out yesterday saying that he believes he’s been gripping the bat differently and needs to loosen up the grip a bit. Is that all it is? Maybe, but it seems unlikely considering he’s not walking and taking pitches like he normally would and has been swinging at a lot of junk outside of the zone.
Whatever is wrong with Cutch, that’s not the point of this post. It’s time to move Cutch from the two hole. Hurdle needs to cut the cord and bat someone like Gregory Polanco (who is their best hitter right now) second. If the Pirates are so cutting edge to make the decision to try Cutch in the two hole then they should be just as flexible to adjust and move him when he’s struggling. I’m not even saying that Hurdle and the Pirates were wrong about batting your best hitter second. I think there’s a lot of merit behind that and it probably would be working great if Cutch wasn’t having the worst season of his career. I’d bat Jaso, Polanco, Marte, Cutch, Kang or even feature JHay in the two hole from time to time. At this point, it’s better than Cutch in the two hole. It’s crazy to think about, but the reality is McCutchen is a below average MLB hitter right now.
Hurdle was quoted yesterday in a Trib article that he’s not planning on moving Cutch from the two hole because he feels “the entire offense is functioning pretty well.” That’s true, the offense has been productive, though streaky at times, this season, but just think where they’d be if Cutch was the .400 OBP and .900+ OPS player we know him to be? Instead, he’s been about the fifth best hitter and you wouldn’t bat your fifth best hitter in the two hole. Does Hurdle think if he moves him now, he would be admitting that the two hole best hitter theory didn’t work? I’m not sure, but I don’t think it proves that the experiment failed, just that it’s time to put the Pirates best 2016 hitter in that spot.
The Bucs need to quit stalling, be ahead of the game again and move McCutchen down in the order now to shake things up before the wheels really come off on this season.