Andrew McCutchen benched again, but Pirates—and baseball—should root for a rebound
- The former NL MVP is a fixture in Pittsburgh, and his play and his personality have lifted a city and a sport. Can he turn things around?
The hope following Andrew McCutchen's bad, confusing and depressing 2016 season—one in which he hit a paltry .256/.336/.430, posted the lowest OPS+ of his career, was caught on seven of his 13 steal attempts, was a below-replacement-level player for the first time ever and was such a mess defensively that the Pirates moved him out of centerfield during the off-season—was that last year was just a fluke. After all, McCutchen is a former MVP, a five-time All-Star and the man almost single-handedly responsible for dragging Pittsburgh out of a two-decade-long malaise and back into contention. At just 30 years old, this couldn't be the beginning of his end. Could it?
As it turns out, yes, it could. In fact, in 2017 McCutchen has been even worse than he was last year. Over his first 46 games and 190 plate appearances, McCutchen has plummeted to a miserable .203/.274/.360 line with just six homers. Among qualified hitters, he has the 10th-lowest on-base percentage in the game, and he has a worse slugging percentage than the light-hitting likes of Eduardo Nuñez and Andrelton Simmons. The advanced stats aren't any kinder: McCutchen's 66 OPS+ is better than only 14 regulars across baseball, and his -0.7 WAR is just as close to the league's basement (and a dead-on match for last year's awful number). After spending several years as one of baseball's best hitters, McCutchen has somehow morphed into Jeff Mathis at the plate.
McCutchen's struggles have gotten so bad—his line in May is a hard-to-believe .163/.217/.314 with 17 strikeouts in 92 plate appearances—that the Pirates have been forced to send their franchise player to the bench. After a Tuesday game against the Braves in which he went hitless in five at-bats and grounded into two double plays, McCutchen was out of the lineup both for Wednesday night's game and Thursday's matinee series finale in Atlanta. Said manager Clint Hurdle on Wednesday: "It's hard for Andrew right now, so we have to find a way to help him."
Hurdle's comments would seem to harken back to a strategy Pittsburgh tried last summer, when McCutchen was benched for a three-game series against (coincidentally) the Braves at the start of August. Hitting just .241/.311/.408 at the time, he seemed to perk up after his sitdown, batting a far more McCutchen-like .284/.381/.471 with nine homers over his final 56 games. This year's hole is far deeper, though, and there's a lot that McCutchen has to figure out. For starters, there's the cratering of his walk rate, which has gone from a career-best 14.3% in 2015 to a career-worst 8.9% this year. His ground-ball rate has shot up to 44.2%, the highest of his career, as his line-drive rate has fallen to a middling 15.2% and his average exit velocity has dropped close to three miles per hour over the last three seasons. And offspeed and breaking pitches have him flummoxed: He's hitting .071 on changeups, .167 on sliders and .133 on curveballs on the season.
Before the season, McCutchen expressed his belief that he could fix what ailed him, telling SI's Tom Verducci that he felt most of his struggles were mental. He's remained similarly positive as his difficulties have mounted this year, telling reporters on Wednesday, "Even though I’m .200 right now, at least I know what it is. I know what I’m doing [wrong]. Last year, I had no clue." His solution amounts to some tinkering with his swing and approach so as to stop rolling over on balls and grounding them weakly to the left side, but as he surely knows, the hard part is going to be turning that tweak into real production.
And while McCutchen scuffles, the Pirates suffer along with him. Despite winning their last two games against the Braves they are still stuck in last place in the NL Central at 22–26, four games back of the first-place Brewers. That's not an insurmountable hill by any means, but the Bucs are already working shorthanded thanks to Starling Marte's PED suspension, Jameson Taillon's cancer diagnosis and slow starts from Gregory Polanco, Francisco Cervelli and Jordy Mercer. Any real challenge for the division will have to include a productive McCutchen.
There's another problem here for Pittsburgh. McCutchen was the subject of intense trade talks over the off-season, with the Pirates openly dangling him for interested teams, only to see all of them shy away because of the club's reportedly high asking price (including the Nationals, who were pegged as the most likely suitor but acquired Adam Eaton from the White Sox instead). McCutchen still has another year left on his contract—a $14.75 million team option with a $1 million buyout—and, should the Bucs find themselves still out of the race by the end of July, he could once again be put on the market. But it's hard to imagine a team willing to shell out much of value for a player on the wrong side of 30 who seems to have had his powers stolen by the Monstars. And should McCutchen make it to free agency with Pittsburgh, the small-market franchise is more likely than not to let him walk—and, thanks to the changes to free-agent compensation in the new CBA, won't get much in return if he does.
Leaving aside the dwindling fortunes of the Pirates, it's unfortunate to see a talented and charismatic player like McCutchen fall apart. There are few players more fun to watch than him, he helped resuscitate a franchise that had endured two decades of failure, and he's shown time and again what an incredible ambassador for the sport he is. (This is to say nothing of the fact that he's a black superstar in a league that has been increasingly devoid of African-American players and saw one of its best in Orioles outfielder Adam Jones get racially abused by a fan earlier this month). Baseball is better when guys like McCutchen are front and center, not stuck on the bench with a batting average at the Mendoza Line. The Pirates, the league and fans everywhere should hope he can figure out what's wrong, and soon.