“Due for a bounce-back season,” is a phrase which fantasy owners can use to dig themselves cavernous holes prior to their fantasy teams even producing an inning of stats. It primes the mind for reliance on success without any statistical, or even tangible, evidence. If you were an owner who carried that mindset into the start of the 2017 season, I’m fairly confident shipping away Pirate, Andrew McCutchen, in a deal – pun intended – after a wretched month, was the move made by the majority of disgruntled owners.
McCutchen was slashing .244/.327/.407 with three homers and two stolen bases in April. Six seasons of dominance brought us to a point where the league-average tag seemed like the unescapable norm. Especially after a new month of stats to back up his dreadful 2016.
Now over 300 plate appearances into his ninth season, arbitrarily isolating McCutchen’s last two months of games brings a line that looks eerily like his 2015 self. Let’s see if we can even tell the difference in rate stats between 2015 Cutch and May/June 2017 Cutch.
A: .280/.362/.522, 17% K, 11% BB, .372 wOBA
B: .292/.401/.488, 19% K, 14% BB, .380 wOBA
The only material difference is what happened prior to these lines occurring. 2015 McCutchen (Line “B”) was the continuation of six straight seasons of fantasy gold. Much easier to expect similar, or even slightly regressed production and be happy with the return. 2017 May/June McCutchen (Line “A”) buoys the much less convincing case that his prior 800 plate appearances matter less than assumed. It’s inherently much harder to believe in line “A” after what owners have gone through, and understandably so.
So what changed when the calendar turned to May this year?
For one, McCutchen’s batted-ball profile has changed. Dave Cameron of Fangraph’s details the nuances a bit more than I will, but the most notable improvement is the uptick of his line drive rate, 7% north when comparing April to May/June. Hitting the ball hard is great, but in an era where we swoon over flashy Statcast metrics, squaring up the ball and making productive contact is something we almost have a tendency to undervalue. McCutchen might become the prime example of that sentiment. His exit velocity and hard contact metrics will never stun anybody, but he doesn’t need to in order to find a path to elite productivity.
The important thing to note about McCutchen is that he isn’t the hitter of his MVP-laden past, and I wouldn’t be stunned if he doesn’t get back to the 6+ WAR mark of that era. But to produce what he has so far this season, McCutchen has completely reinvented his approach at the plate. Here is a look at how he has adjusted since 2016 in terms of approach.
Note too, these percentages have all changed for the better, yet the changes are even more pronounced than as they seem. Those metrics encompass McCutchen’s entire season, and as we know, there is a palpable difference between the first 100 plate appearances from the Pirates’ outfielder and what he has done since.
That brings me to the title of this column. According to my favorite resources to periodically look at, Razzball/Steamer rest of season projections, McCutchen is the 10th best outfielder rest of season; a top 25 player. Here is his rest of season line compared to our projection for the much more “upside-y” A.J. Pollock.
McCutchen: .281/.373/.473, 12 HR, 5 SB, 44R/45RBI
Pollock: .283/.344/.483, 8 HR, 15 SB, 41R/31RBI
With Pollock nearing a return to the bigs after heading out for a rehab assignment on Sunday, the remaining projections for games played between the two vary marginally. Pollock possesses a higher risk to return to the DL at some point this season, given his past, yet I have been surprised to see some of the industry with Pollock ahead of McCutchen rest of season by a solid amount (here and here).
The less fantasy relevant speculation is that with this McCutchen revitalization, the Pirates have positioned themselves beautifully for a trade with their franchise player come the late July deadline. Now with value that might scrape the surface of his 2015 campaign, instead of the club selling at what I would argue might be the worst season of his career in 2016 (.7 WAR), the chances for a minor value spike can still exist if McCutchen is traded to an assumed buyer like the Washington Nationals. The Pirates currently sit barely a hair below the Chicago White Sox in terms of team wRC+ (91 versus 93), meaning the platter of teams that would help to boost McCutchen’s already plus counting stats projection, is filled with options.
I’m a buyer in almost all formats and would be happy to roster him even with outfielders as deep as ever.
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