BRADENTON, Fla.—Regarding the worst, most mystifying season of his career, Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen made a startling admission to me: He lost his nerve to run.
Slumps are the viral illnesses of a hitter. They strike without warning or known cause and run their course, be they days, weeks or, in McCutchen’s case last year, five months. They happen. But perhaps most alarming about McCutchen’s 2016 season was the poor body language from one of baseball’s best and most exciting base runners.
McCutchen didn’t try to steal bases very often, and when he did, he was thrown out more times (seven) than he was successful (six). Just three years earlier, in his MVP-winning season of 2013, McCutchen had advanced from first base to third base on nearly half the singles his teammates hit. He did so only 17% of the time last year—just five times all season. He went first-to-third less than slow-footed Albert Pujols and 173 other players.
How could McCutchen, with short leads and poor jumps, show such bad body language on the bases? As he revealed to me recently, it was because his slump at the plate so wore on him mentally.
“The mental side of that was big,” McCutchen said. “That came with it, with not hitting. Not being on base as much as I am. The times I was on base, I didn’t want to ruin it. Like I said, that’s the mental side of it. I got on? Awesome. Okay, let’s steal this base. Ah … I haven’t been over here for a while. It’s been a couple of games. Last thing I need is to get a bad jump and get thrown out.
“So I was thinking about all the negatives as opposed to thinking about being able to use my speed to get to the next bag. A lot of times I would just say, ‘Ah, I’ll just take it easy because I just want to give [Gregory] Polanco that hole, or I want him to take a swing, I want him to hit, and there’s two outs, I don’t want to be thrown out for the third out. So I’ll just hang out.’ I would say stuff like that. I’m a guy who has a .400 on base percentage. I’m a guy who gets on base. So when I get that opportunity I’ll take that next bag. I was barely at .300 last year, so that takes a toll on myself. It takes a toll on the mental side. A lot of times it becomes a little harder. I’m just not getting on base enough to run.”
The curious case of Andrew McCutchen is one of the great mysteries of this 2017 season. This is a story of when good players go bad.
Will McCutchen bounce back? How could one of the most dynamic, reliable and best players in baseball, in his age-29 season, suddenly look so woeful last year? What kind of a future does he have in Pittsburgh, after the Pirates shopped him on the trade market all winter, unceremoniously demoted him from centerfield to rightfield for this season and will take calls on him every day until the July 31 trade deadline to end what once looked like one of the best franchise/player marriages in the game?
“It doesn’t bother me. It’s a business,” McCutchen said about his uncertain future in Pittsburgh. “I’m still here. I’m in the big leagues. A lot of times we have expectations of something, and a lot times those expectations don’t end the way we want them to, and you take a detour route sometimes. That’s all I did. But I know I have a destination, and [that route] is still going to lead me to my destination. This year I’m just kind of sitting in the driver’s seat, following the signs, knowing I’m going to get there eventually.”
It hardly sounded like an eager renewal of marriage vows. McCutchen is signed for this season at $14 million. The Pirates have a club option on him for next season at $14.5 million. His stay with Pittsburgh, the team that drafted him with the No. 11 pick in the 2005 draft, may come to an end before the season does if he's traded.
The idea of a contract extension is outlandish. Why? Start with this: The Pirates are the only franchise in baseball that never has a signed a player for more than $60 million in guaranteed salary. The biggest investment the franchise has ever made in a player went to catcher Jason Kendall 17 years ago, when they signed him to a $60 million extension. You also don’t move your franchise player out of his natural position and dangle him on the trade market if you’re looking to keep him long term.
So the Pirates hope for their sake and for his trade value that McCutchen bounces back in the first half of this season. We’ll get an early indication of his skills starting this week, when he plays for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
“I’m getting myself in game shape: stealing bases, running the bases, going from first to third,” McCutchen said. “I need to be doing all those now. I can’t be waiting to do that. I jumped at the opportunity to play [in the WBC]. I’m looking forward to going. I’m ready to go—ready to get after it.”
What happened to McCutchen last season? Did he lose his explosiveness? Was he secretly hurt? Did he get stale playing in Pittsburgh as the team continues to churn through young players and second-tier free agents?
Let’s dismiss something first: He wasn’t hurt last year. McCutchen did play through a thumb injury briefly in midseason, but by then he was deep into his funk. When I asked him about reports I heard that he played through a hip injury—he happened to be receiving pre-game heat treatment on his back as I spoke with him—McCutchen said they were not true.
“No,” he said. “Hey, my 60% is better than anything. Playing hurt and playing injured are two different things. We’re going to have those things that don’t feel too good, but if you can do it, you do it. The last thing I want is to lay my head on the pillow and say, ‘I could have played, I could have done more.’ If I’m not physically able to get out there, then I won’t be out there. But if I’m capable, I will be.”
So what happened? McCutchen posted career-worst rates for strikeouts (21.2%) and walks (10.2). His slash-line numbers also hit bottom (.256/.336/.430). He didn’t hit the ball nearly as hard in 2016 (90.3 mph average exit velocity, ranking 61st) as he did in '15 (91.3, good for 23rd). He hit the lowest ground-ball rate of his career, and his batting average on those grounders dropped from .315 in his career entering the season to .254.
“It started in spring training,” said one teammate. “He hit some bombs, like nine of them. It looked like he was trying to be the man, to supply the power for the team. But that’s not really his game. His game is slashing line drives.”
A heavy rotational hitter, McCutchen was late to the baseball, sapping his power and leading to more swings-and-misses. His defense deteriorated in centerfield, even though manager Clint Hurdle boasted in midseason that McCutchen was playing “the best centerfield of his career, without a doubt.” It was a lie, and the team knew it. The team had used analytics to convince McCutchen to play a deeper centerfield last year, but the move backfired. According to Fangraphs' Defensive Runs Saved statistic, McCutchen was far worse in 2016 (-28 runs) than he had been the year before (-8).
By the end of July, with McCutchen looking lost with a .241 batting average and a .719 OPS, Hurdle benched him for a series against the Braves to give him a break. From that point on he hit .284 and posted an .852 OPS, not far from his .298 and .844 career marks entering the season. Yet there were other signs that this was not simply a case of somebody hitting the ball hard but having bad luck. McCutchen had 22 infield hits in 2014 but only 11 last year. He popped up to the infield 24 times—more than the double the 10 he hit in the previous year.
“A lot of times when you talk about the swing, in order to have the swing that you want, or when you’re putting out a swing that you don’t want, a lot of times it doesn’t have to do with the swing itself,” McCutchen said. “A lot of times it has to do with the mental side of it. And it has a lot to do with the physical side, as far as your preparation, your setup, all those things.
“If I’m going to shoot a free throw and my legs are stiff and I’m missing, it has nothing to do with my shot. It has more to do with because I’m stiff. I need to be a little more flexible in my legs to be able to get myself in position to make a better shot. In baseball, maybe it has nothing to do with my swing. Maybe it’s my setup that’s making me take that swing, and if I want to get deeper than that, what am I thinking about? So these are just small things I had to adjust, and I had to make those adjustments throughout the season. I definitely had more time to meditate on it in the off-season. It’s all for better, though.”
McCutchen did look more like his old self after his benching, especially in September and October (.287/.373/.513). Here’s what I noticed: He changed his setup. Early in the season, he set up with the bat resting on his shoulder and raised it as soon as the pitcher began his delivery. In September, he waited with the bat off his shoulder and rocked his hands slightly to create some rhythm as he waited.
“There were some adjustments I made throughout the season,” he said. "I was able to have a decent September, and I was able to take that into the off-season.”
McCutchen did take a two-week break in the off-season to travel to Europe, visiting Rome, Florence, Siena, Venice and Paris. But his first order of business was to get his explosiveness back, training at IMG in Bradenton.
“I got with some trainers and said, ‘This is what I need to do: I need to get stronger, I need to get quicker,’” he said. “A lot of stuff that I needed this off-season was a lot of explosive workouts to get myself back to where I know I can be on the base paths and my breaks in the outfield—just working on my first two steps, because that’s the difference between safe or out, the difference between making a play in the outfield or missing one.”
So does McCutchen look any better this spring? In five games, he has hit .308/.286/.462 with one stolen base and no homers, but that's too small of a sample to be meaningful. In his own mind, however, McCutchen knows he’s better than last year, and better even from his strong September finish.
“I’ve learned from September," he said. "I learned from the season. I was better before spring training even started, before I even swung a bat, before I even met all my teammates. I was already in a better place.
“Even, say, if I didn’t have a great September, I would walk away from that situation a lot better because you’re going to grow through that. You’re going to take it one of two ways: Either you take it as a bad thing, or you take some good out of that bad to make yourself a better hitter, and that’s what I did. When things are going great, great. When they’re not so good, I know how to handle it and make that adjustment as soon as possible.
“I knew coming out here I was going to be all right, that I was going to be good. I’m going to be better than I have been. So I’m just looking forward to going out there and keep pushing, keep learning and adjusting, and having a lot of fun doing it.”