May 31, 2017
The Wishful Thinking of Andrew McCutchen
Last year was a sad one for Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates. The team finished 78-83, 25 games behind the Cubs in the National League Central, breaking a streak of three straight postseason appearances (yes, as a Wild Card, but still). And one of the reasons for the downturn was the former MVP, who had hit .298/.388/.496 over his seven-year career in Pittsburgh. In 2016, the man whose 2015 BP Annual comment simply said, “Practically the perfect franchise player,” slumped to .256/.336/.430, all career lows.
This year is sadder still. The Pirates are in last place, and McCutchen has slid further, to .213/.286/.383. Among the 177 players qualified for the batting title through Sunday’s games, his .668 OPS ranks 148th. He’s the worst hitter in the Pirates' lineup.
It wasn’t supposed to go like this. His 2016, it was whispered, was affected by an undisclosed injury. His BABIP fell from .339 in 2015 to .297 in 2016, indicating bad luck. Yes, he turned 30 last October, but 30 isn’t that old. A bounceback, maybe not to his prior level, but well above 2016’s nosedive, seemed in order. This is Andrew McCutchen, for crying out loud.
You thought so, I thought so, and PECOTA thought so. And not only that, we wanted it to happen. Is there a more admirable superstar in the contemporary game than McCutchen? Everybody likes him. Google “Andrew McCutchen” and “class act” and you get over 40,000 hits. He really was practically the perfect franchise player.
But were we being realistic? McCutchen’s TAv (BP’s park- and league-adjusted measure of offensive output, scaled to an average of .260) was .326 in 2015. It fell by 51 points, to .275, in 2016. PECOTA projected .299 in 2017. Is it realistic to expect a player, even a superstar like McCutchen, to suffer a TAv drop of 50 points or more points in one year and gain 20 the next?
I decided to check. Tellingly, the sample size is pretty small. I limited my search to players who had at least 350 plate appearances in order to exclude injury-shortened and small-sample fluke seasons. Since 1998 (the beginning of the 30-team era), there were 101 players whose TAv declined by 50 or more points from one season to the next. Of those, 45 met the down-50/up-20 criterion. So for most, the decline represented a new normal.
I’m going to highlight a few here. These are players whose down year occurred between their age-26 and age-30 seasons (McCutchen was 29 last year). That represents players who were around long enough to establish career trends but weren’t old enough for us to expect age-related decline. I’m going to include only those with a TAv in excess of .300 before they fell off a cliff. (McCutchen exceeded .300 in six straight years heading into last season.)
Here they are chronologically, with the three consecutive TAvs, along with their relevance to McCutchen:
Edgardo Alfonzo: .330 (2000) — .259 (2001) — .304 (2002)
Relevant to McCutchen? No, he was a good player before his slump, but not a star.
Rondell White: .301 (2001) — .246 (2002) — .293 (2003)
Relevant to McCutchen? Yes, a bit. He didn’t have anything near McCutchen’s peak but his performance after his down year is encouraging.
Pat Burrell: .313 (2002) — .241 (2003) — .283 (2004)
Relevant to McCutchen? He’s probably the most hopeful example. He never matched his 2002 season, but he was pretty consistently good for several years after his slump.
Mark Ellis: .305 (2005) — .241 (2006) — .280 (2007)
Relevant to McCutchen? Not really; his down year was more in line with his abilities than his good seasons.
Brian Roberts: .310 (2005) — .254 (2006) — .279 (2007)
Relevant to McCutchen? No, his down year wasn’t out of line with his career average, while his strong year before the slump was way above his norm.
Alex Rodriguez: .349 (2005) — .296 (2006) — .351 (2007)
Relevant to McCutchen? I don’t know where to start ...
Geovany Soto: .290 (2008) — .237 (2009) — .321 (2010)
Relevant to McCutchen? No. Not at all.
Adam Lind: .307 (2009) — .237 (2010) — .260 (2011)
Relevant to McCutchen? He was by no means a star prior to his 2009 career-year.
Ben Zobrist: .317 (2009) — .259 (2010) — .299 (2011)
Relevant to McCutchen? Sorry, no. He’s a hopeful example of a player who bounced back, but he wasn’t a star previously; until his 2009 season he’d compiled a career WARP of -0.7.
Melky Cabrera: .330 (2012) — .252 (2013) — .293 (2014)
Relevant to McCutchen? We’ll never know how much of his career-year was due to PEDs, but we do know his slump was due to knee problems, not general ineffectiveness, so no.
Chris Davis: .358 (2013) — .272 (2014) — .316 (2015)
Relevant to McCutchen? Nah. Obviously, they’re different types of players, and Davis wasn’t much of a player—1.7 WARP from 2008-2012—before his 53-homer 2013 season.
Jonathan Lucroy: .305 (2014) — .254 (2015) — .297 (2016)
Relevant to McCutchen? He wasn’t a star of McCutchen’s magnitude, and of course he’s a catcher, but there are some parallels. That’s not a good thing: Lucroy has a .243 TAv so far this year and his fielding metrics have fallen off a table.
There you have it. There have been 12 players in the 30-team era who’ve had a .300-plus TAv one season, experienced a drop-off of at least 50 points the next season (at ages 26-30), and bounced back at last 20 points the next, all while maintaining 350 or more plate appearances. That’s fewer than one per year. Of the 12 comparable players, only three—White, Burrell, and Lucroy—can be viewed as similar to McCutchen, and it’s a reach for all of them. PECOTA still projects a .298 TAv for McCutchen the rest of the season, with 2.4 WARP. With each passing day, his year-to-date .223 TAv and -0.2 WARP become more indicative of what he’s become.
But don’t blame PECOTA. We were all wrong. Reality has this nasty habit of crushing our hopes. And yes, I’m writing this knowing that he recently hit a walk-off homer. Believe me, nothing would make me happier than having this gloom proved wrong. I prefer living in a world where Andrew McCutchen is a star.