Andrew McCutchen is slogging through the worst season of his professional career. His drop in production is a case of death by 1000 tiny cuts.
Andrew McCutchen‘s season is officially a cursed one.
What started off as an unsurprising bad start quickly mushroomed into one of the biggest storylines for the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates. Now, something that was previously thought to be unthinkable has occurred. McCutchen has been benched for an entire series.
The search for answers is wide-ranging. Many have offered their own theories as to McCutchen’s struggles. The 29-year old center fielder is himself at a loss for words. He responded with exasperation when asked if he felt he needed to take a breather.
The fact of the matter is that he is working to pull his bat out of its summer doldrums. But, as you will see, there is no easy fix. Rather, many small changes in McCutchen’s approach make up the large picture of a struggling former MVP.
Debunking The Lack Of Hittable Pitches
Andrew McCutchen has offered that he does not get many ‘hittable pitches,’ but the data culled from pitch f/x shows otherwise.
Andrew McCutchen Fastball % vs. Zone %
|Year||Zone %||Fastball %||F-Strike%||SwStr %|
The table above shows the Zone percentages (percentage of pitches in the strike zone) as well as percentages of fastballs seen overall. McCutchen is seeing the most pitches in the zone than he ever has before, and 4.4 percent more than his 2013 MVP campaign.
On their own merits, Zone and fastball percentages can’t tell the full story. They are imperfect metrics. Just because a pitch lands in the zone doesn’t mean the pitch did not have enough deception to freeze the batter, or outright fool him. In this particular instance, fastball percentage lumps in all fastball types. Thus, we can’t fully lean on it to help explain away McCutchen’s inability to drive the ball.
What we can point to is the F-strike (percentages of at bats that start with a strike) and the SwStr (swinging strike) percentages.
Though McCutchen has the same F-Strike percentage as in 2013, his swinging strike percentage is three percentage points higher. While this does not seem like a high increase, it is above the accepted MLB average of 9.5, This increase conspired in tandem with the other increases shown to put a large swath of McCutchen’s at-bats off on the wrong foot.
It is hard not to imagine that these metrics shown have directly led to the worst strikeout percentage – 24.9 percent – of his career. His career mark is 20.8 percent. Again, on the surface, that is not considered to be a large increase, but a four percent increase in strikeouts over a full season’s worth of at bats can lead to some pretty poor production.
McCutchen Has Lost a Step in Two-Strike Counts
Two-strike counts are deadly. It doesn’t take an advanced stat to tell us that. It goes without saying that a hitter is at a sizable disadvantage if a pitcher gets two strikes in the at-bat.
The best hitters can battle back from two-strike counts. It may not always result in a walk or hit, but good batters can work towards a productive out, or at the very least, force the pitcher to offer a good pitch to complete the strikeout.
McCutchen’s peripherals on two-strike counts has varied a bit over the past four years.
McCutchen On Two-Strike Counts
|Year||2-Seam/4-Seam FBs||Ball %||Strike %||Swing %||Whiffs %|
The chart here shows us a comparable number of fastballs (both a two-seam and four-seam varieties) seen by Andrew McCutchen on two-strike counts. It also shows us lower ball percentages, higher swing percentages and higher whiff rates.
Again, these are not monumental shifts – though the ball percentages are sometimes out of whack with swing percentages – yet they work in unison to paint a picture of a hitter that is offering at more pitches and coming up empty handed. In a count that sometimes demands patience, McCutchen is pressing.
We saw a very good example of this in the Milwaukee Brewers series.
The pitch was a good one – up and in, right at the letters – but certainly not meaty enough to deserve such a hack.
(A quick aside – For all of his fault this year, McCutchen’s bat speed has never left him, which is an excellent sign. You can see just how fast his bat still is in that strikeout.)
We don’t need fancy peripherals to tell us that McCutchen’s ability to fight back is diminished. For his career, McCutchen has a .208/.298/.329 triple-slash in 2,466 plate appearances with two-strikes. This is actually remarkable considering that the 2016 NL average slashline is .173/.245/.271. The fact that McCutchen can have a near .300 on-base percentage on two-strike counts shows that he is an elite hitter over the course of his career.
For 2016? Perhaps not so much. His slashline against two strike counts has plummeted to .154/.221/.260 over 222 plate appearances. For comparison, his 2013 MVP campaign saw a .195/.299/.316 batting line.
Again, no one would expect McCutchen to mash on two-strike counts, but an inability to keep pitchers honest affects how they pitch to him. Pitchers are no longer afraid to attack McCutchen. They are taking advantage of his tendencies. It is not a hole in his swing, or anything else mechanical. Andrew McCutchen is simply making bad choices on the plate.
They aren’t overly obvious bad choices, either. But many slight drops in key peripherals has turned McCutchen from an elite hitter into simply an average one.
In that light, an extended mental break is exactly what he needs.
But is one series off enough to snap out of four months of bad habits?
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Featured Image Credit – Daniel Decker Photography