In a loss to the Atlanta Braves on May 23, Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen went 0-for-5, grounding into a pair of double plays. In the process, the Pirates outfielder saw his average and OPS drop to a season low of .200 and .630, respectively.
It was just two days later that manager Clint Hurdle dropped the 30-year-old former MVP down the batting order from third to seventh. He would eventually settle into the sixth spot and, with less pressure, started to turn his season around.
Now, he’s one of the hottest players in Major League Baseball.
McCutchen has the best average in the game over the last 30 days at .417. He’s also slammed seven homers, nine doubles and driven in 20 runs. Jose Ramirez has shown more power in that time, but thanks to a remarkable .509 on-base percentage, McCutchen tops the charts with his 1.259 OPS.
The Pirates’ centerfielder has always been a slow starter. So maybe he was due. But the drop in the order seemingly played a role, too. As a result, there was concern a return to the third spot would lead to a regression. But the Pirates needed his bat in the heart of the order.
And in nine games since in the No. 3 spot, he is 15-for-32 with seven walks, a pair of homers and four doubles.
The Pirates sit at 40-46 heading into the weekend. Since May 23 when McCutchen hit his lowest point, though, the club is 20-20. The Pirates are still not a powerhouse team, but with a surging McCutchen and Starling Marte due to return July 18, the Pirates could be a sneaky pick in our MLB Pick ‘Em Contests.
McCutchen has been so hot for the last month and a half that he more than made up for his rough start. Overall, he’s hitting .289 with a .375 OPB and an .895 OPS. His 1.3 rWAR is still only sixth on the Pirates, but of the five teammates ahead of him, four are pitchers.
Cutch gets knocked a bit on WAR given his defense in center. That part of his play has improved since last year according to the metrics, though. Positioning is a big part of that, but defensively he’d be better served sliding back over to right field upon Marte’s return as long as his offense doesn’t suffer.
Purely on offense, McCutchen has had the best first half of anyone on the Pirates with a 132 OPS+. Josh Bell, John Jaso and Harrison are the only other Pirates with above-average first halves according to OPS+. Harrison is second to McCutchen at 106.
Coming into the season, there were concerns about McCutchen’s ability to bounce back after a down year. He seemed too young to be regressing, but as a 29-year-old, he hit .256 with 24 homers and a .766 OPS. With a .256/.336/.430 slash line, he was well off his career averages of .292/.381/.489.
His down year in 2016 represented his second straight season in decline. After three straight years hitting at least .314 with a .400 OBP and .500 slugging, he dropped to a .292/.401/.488 slash in 2015. Of course, that was still good enough to finish fifth in the MVP voting.
The drop in 2016 was huge, and it looked like was regressing further. But over the last month and a half, he’s been back to his MVP form. Too bad it’s not quite enough to elevate the Pirates into a true contender. Still, it’s nice to see one of baseball’s most charismatic and team-centric players return to form.
Now the question is whether he can continue the improved play throughout the second half.
McCutchen is already on pace to eclipse his 24 home run per year average with 16 bombs. That, of course, shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Homers are flying all over the league this year. What’s been most impressive has been his uptick in OBP.
Looking at the sustainability, it’s important to note that while McCutchen has been a slow starter the last few years, he’s historically been at his best in the months of June and July. While April is his worst month statistically, September is the next worst. His career first-half OPS is .883 and his second-half OPS is .852.
While the overall numbers suggest a bit of second half regression, his 2016 numbers spiked as the season went along. He ended very strong with an .886 OPS in September and .810 OPS in August. Those represented his best two months of the year. He hit nine of his 24 homers and drove in 36 of his 79 runs in those final two months as well.
One thing is certain: the McCutchen we saw in the first two months was not the real McCutchen. Even in a down year in 2016, McCutchen finished strong, ending as an above average player with a 103 OPS+. The outfielder may not be the same player that led the league in OPS in 2014, but he’s still a star.
Extra support with Marte’s return should only help. Expect some regression for Cutch’s otherworldly numbers over the last month, but maintaining his overall season numbers shouldn’t be out of the question.