Pittsburgh Pirates: Diagnosing Andrew McCutchen’s Season-Long Slump

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports /

Andrew McCutchen is having the worst season of his career in nearly every facet of his game, which begs the question: what has happened to the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder?

Coming off three straight seasons in which they captured a Wild Card spot, the Pittsburgh Pirates entered 2016 well-equipped to give the World Series favorite Chicago Cubs a run for their money at finishing atop the National League Central.

A rash of injuries and uncharacteristically poor performances have ultimately derailed the Pirates’ aspirations of clinching the division as well as the likelihood of even advancing to the playoffs. Among those players who have failed to live up to what is expected of them is former MVP and five-time All-Star Andrew McCutchen, who’s been baseball’s second-best player by WAR over the previous seven seasons stretching back to his MLB debut in 2009.

This year, however, McCutchen has been a shell of himself, slashing a career-worst .252/.334/.426 with a 1.2 WAR that ranks in the hundreds among all qualified position players in the league and dead last on his own team. Compared to the last three seasons, his OPS has decreased from .916 to .764 while his 104 wRC+ is down 53 points in 2016. It’s exceedingly rare for a player of McCutchen’s caliber to suddenly drop off a cliff smack dab in the middle of what should be his prime at age 29.

A contributing factor in McCutchen’s struggles is the fact that he was playing through a nagging injury to the muscle between his index finger and his thumb earlier this season. With the impairment occurring on his right hand, players will tell you that any time you don’t make contact directly on the barrel of the bat you run the risk of reaggravating it. For all we know, this injury has had a lingering effect on his performance throughout the course of the year by making it difficult to grip the lumber and drive the ball, which would explain some of the eyebrow-raising numbers.

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McCutchen has a whopping 13.4 percent pop-up rate and a below average exit velocity of 89.4 mph, suggesting that the injury perhaps changed his bat path and lessened the bat speed. As a result, pitchers are using that to their advantage by throwing him more fastballs than in years past and having success doing so given McCutchen’s career-low .434 slugging percentage against the pitch this year.

While McCutchen’s injury is a valid excuse for the shoddy production, there’s simply no vindication for his uncanny lack of plate discipline in 2016. McCutchen is swinging more (46.7 percent) and walking less (10.2 percent) than he ever has in his career. Granted, some of those swings have been of high quality considering he’s pulled the trigger on a career-high 71.5 percent of pitches in the strike zone. But on the flip side, McCutchen is chasing 25.3 percent of pitches out of the zone while striking out at a 21.7 percent clip, both of which are career-highs as well.

As it turns out, most of McCutchen’s aggressiveness this year has come against change ups, which is less than ideal given his paltry .160 batting average against it. When you look at his swing tendencies chart provided by Brooks Baseball against different pitch categories, you’ll notice that McCutchen’s swing rate versus change ups has increased by seven percent from his career mark – an odd occurrence considering he’s been thrown a lesser amount of off-speed deliverings than he has in previous years. Perhaps his struggles against the fastball has something to do with that, as he’s attempting to overcompensate by swinging at a pitch that mimics a heater and is having trouble distinguishing the two.

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With the Pirates’ ship slowly sinking down the stretch, the club can only hope that their fortunes turn around next season as well as the play of one Andrew McCutchen.