The State of the Pirates: Andrew McCutchen

I am starting this series off with Andrew McCutchen because he has the most plate appearances on the 2012 Pirates.  I will then work my way through the rest of the position players in order of plate appearances with the major league club.

General Offensive Stats:

2012: Plate Appearances: 182; Slash Line: .342/.401/.553; wOBA: .410; wRC+: 162; Steals/Caught Stealing: 10/3; Home Runs: 8; Runs: 28; RBIs: 25; Wins Above Replacement: 2.2

2011: PAs: 678; Slash: .259/.364/.456; wOBA: .360; wRC+: 129; S/CS: 23/10; HR: 23; R: 87; RBI: 89; WAR: 5.7

Career: PAs: 2006; Slash: .282/.368/.467; wOBA: .367; wRC+: 130; S/CS: 88/28; HR: 59; R: 283; RBI: 224; WAR: 15.2

These statistics essentially tell us one thing: that Andrew McCutchen is a monster.  They also tells us that either Andrew McCutchen has become an even better player than he was to this point or that his performance so far in 2012 is unsustainable.  Every one of his offensive statistics is on pace to be a career high.  Broadly, if he keeps up his current pace and matches his plate appearance total from last year, he will accumulate 8.2 WAR, which is roughly what Jose Bautista and Dustin Pedroia managed in MVP candidate seasons last year.  Only Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Kemp managed higher totals last year.  I will do an analysis of some underlying numbers to determine how much of McCutchen’s improvement is due to luck and how much of it is due to changes in his game that can be sustained going forward.

Plate Discipline/Approach

2012: Walk Rate: 8.8%; Strikeout Rate: 18.7%; Walk to Strikeout Ratio: 0.47; O-Swing %: 31.3%; Z-Swing %: 72.8%; Swing %: 51.8%; O-Contact %: 70.7%; Z-Contact%: 84.9%; Contact %: 80.6%; Zone %: 49.4%

2011: BB%: 13.1%; K%: 18.6%; BB/K: 0.71; O-Swing%: 22.4%; Z-Swing%: 62.8%; Swing%: 41.5%; O-Contact%: 63.8%; Z-Contact: 86.8%; Contact%: 80.3%; Zone%: 47.3%

Career: BB%: 11.4%; K%: 16.6%; BB/K: 0.69; O-Swing%: 21.9%; Z-Swing%: 61.5%; Swing %: 41.0%; O-Contact%: 64.9%; Z-Contact%: 88.5%; Contact%: 82.1%; Zone%: 49.4%

These numbers are more than a little distressing.  For starters, McCutchen is walking less often than his past performance while keeping roughly the same strikeout percentage.  That is troubling in its own right, as walk rate and strikeout rate are true outcomes (they aren’t affected by defense, weather, or the ballpark in the same way as a batted ball) that stabilize quickly.  These numbers would be less worrisome if McCutchen’s approach had not changed, but the numbers show that he is swinging at more pitches, both outside and inside of the zone.  Swinging at more pitches in the zone is fine, but swinging at more pitches outside of the zone is troubling.  These pitches are more likely to be swung and missed at and more likely to be hit weakly.  I am worried that this is a sign that McCutchen is pushing the issue at the plate because the anemic Pirates offense makes him think that he has to do everything himself.

The statistic that really puzzles me, though, is that McCutchen is making contact more than usual on pitches outside the strike zone and less than usual on pitches inside the strike zone.  This could indicate that he is sitting on an area for a pitch before he swings.  Even if the pitch is out of the zone, it could be closer to where he wants it than if it were at the opposite extreme of the strike zone.  If this is the case, then it makes his approach statistics far easier to stomach.  His decline in walk rate, however, still concerns me.  If his BABIP regresses, then walking less will adversely affect his results.

Batted Ball Profile

2012: Batting Average on Balls In Play: .378; Isolated Power: .234; Line Drive %: 20.3%; Ground Ball %: 43.8%; Fly Ball %: 35.9%; Infield Fly Ball %: 5.5%; Home Run per Fly Ball: 18.2%; Infield Hit %: 3%

2011: BABIP: .291; ISO: .198; LD%: 20.0%; GB%: 38.4%; FB%: 41.7%; IFFB%: 6.4%; HR/FB: 12.2%; IFH%: 12.1%

Career: BABIP: .316; ISO: .187; LD%: 19.3%; GB%: 41.6%; FB%: 39.2%; IFFB%: 8.0%; HR/FB: 10.8%; IFH%: 10.2%

In order to really understand this section, it is necessary to know the difference in production between balls hit in different ways.  Per fangraphs.com, a line drive produces 1.26 runs for every out produced, while fly balls produce 0.13 runs per out and ground balls produce .05 runs per out.  Also, major leaguers bat around .720 on line drives, .231 on ground balls, .171 on fly balls, and .019 on infield fly balls.

As such, McCutchen’s batted ball profile is encouraging, but also suggests that he cannot sustain his current performance (which is unsurprisng, he’s not Albert Pujols…).  His BABIP is way above his career average and the league average. In fact, .378 is unsustainably high for just about any hitter in baseball.  Fortunately, McCutchen’s year at the plate is not simply a luck-driven mirage.  His line drive percentage is good, and he’s actually been hitting more ground balls, which would lead to a higher batting average.  The most encouraging sign is that he is hitting very few infield fly balls, which are useless and indicate almost completely missing the ball.  Of course, it also means that he will probably hit fewer fly balls, as does the fact that his home run per fly ball rate is extremely high.  That number will probably decrease.

That being said, the most promising numbers from McCutchen’s batted ball profile are those related to his power production.  His home run per fly ball rate and his isolated power (which is slugging percentage without singles, i.e. it essentially measures extra base hits, or power production) have increased each of the last two years.  His home run per fly ball rate will come down a bit this year, which will bring his isolated power down as well, but much of the increase, it seems clear, comes from real improvement.  He is still a young player, and his power seems to be developing.

Baserunning

2012: Stolen Bases: 10; Caught Stealing: 4; Ultimate Base Running: 2.3

2011: SB: 23; CS: 10; UBR: 0.7

Career: SB: 88; CS: 29; UBR: 7.7

(If you’re curious about the inner workings of Ultimate Base Running, go here.  Essentially it is a blanket measure of the value that a player adds on the basepaths. It does not include steals or caught stealings.  League average is zero.  The league leaders, generally Elvis Andrus, normally score around 7-8.)

Andrew McCutchen is fast.  Anyone who has seen him play knows this, and UBR backs it up.  Since UBR is cumulative, his score of 2.3 already this year is particularly impressive, and shows that, outside of stealing bases, he has been incredible on the basepaths.

The one thing that troubles me here is that McCutchen’s stolen base success rate has been markedly lower than his career average the last two seasons.  Since a player needs to steal runs at around a 70% clip to add value through steals, this is a real problem for McCutchen.  If he doesn’t raise his success rate, then he won’t add value through stolen bases. Even without stealing bases, however, his speed is still an incredible asset on the basepaths.

Fielding

2012: Ultimate Zone Rating: -4.2; Defensive Runs Saved: -3; Fans Scouting Report: 5

2011: UZR: 3.5; DRS: 5; FSR: 5

Career: UZR: -15.6; DRS: -16; FSR: 12

This is where things get really dicey.  Fielding metrics are incredibly controversial.  I happen to believe that with DRS and UZR we’ve come a long way in terms of accurately measuring and recording defensive performance.  However, even I think that they need to be qualified with observation and caution.  Even the most outspoken supporters of these statistics say that they don’t have value in terms of accurately portraying true talent until three years of data have been accumulated.  I generally dismiss FSR.

Additionally, McCutchen’s defense is a very contentious subject among Pirates fans and the baseball community.  There is a real debate to be had here, and there are no easy conclusions.

I don’t place full trust in these statistics.  And it’s a good thing for McCutchen, who gets graded poorly by both UZR and DRS.  According to both statistics, he was awful in 2010, which was also the year that people were complaining about poor outfield shifts on the part of the Pirates.  Interestingly, one of the chief criticisms of defensive statistics is that UZR and DRS ignore defensive positioning (which is often the decision of the manager and the coaches, not the player) such as outfield shifts and the “no doubles defense” (shudder).  This compromises the ability of UZR and DRS to accurately judge McCutchen’s defense and complicates the picture.

In the end, with a team that I watch as often as I can, I feel like what I can trust most in judging defense is my own eyes, and qualify that with defensive statistics.  From what my untrained eye can tell, McCutchen is an average or slightly below average centerfielder.  He has solid range and an average arm, but sometimes takes poor routes to the ball and makes poor decisions.  In the end, I think that he probably is a slightly below average centerfielder, but that he is getting better and that he is better than the defensive statistics say that he is.

Conclusion

In the end, this served as a very long exercise in confirming what we already knew.  Andrew McCutchen is, and is going to be for the foreseeable future, an all-star caliber centerfielder.  His best years may even push him into MVP conversations.  He is someone who can be the centerpiece of a franchise.  He is not good enough to sustain his crazy .333/.394/.568 line, but no one expected that to continue.  There is no need to worry about Andrew McCutchen.  Barring a catastrophic incident, he will provide elite production for years to come.

Note: Some of these statistics are very slightly dated, because I started writing this a few days ago. Also, all statistics found at www.fangraphs.com.

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