McCutchen's disappointing 2016 was one of the main reasons the Pirates fell under .500. On the surface, his numbers didn't look terrible -- .256, 24 home runs -- but the underlying metrics tell the story of a player in decline. After he'd posted a .400 OBP four seasons in a row, that stat fell to .336. He created 34 fewer runs than in 2015 and 45 fewer than in 2014, and after adjusting for the increased offense around the majors, the season looks even worse. That doesn't account for the fielding metrics that suggested McCutchen was the worst regular center fielder in the majors, with minus-28 defensive runs saved.
In early August, I wrote that McCutchen's decline at his age was unprecedented for a superstar hitter. No player who was so good from ages 25 to 28 had fallen off so abruptly at age 29. A decline in exit velocity from earlier in the season seemed to indicate that McCutchen was probably playing through an injury, and he did hit much better after that, including .287 in September with six home runs.
That led to hope that a healthy McCutchen for 2017, now playing right field, could return to the old McCutchen at the plate. As the Pirates face the Cardinals on Monday night (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), it's too early to draw any conclusions from his numbers, which aren't impressive -- .250/.294/.438, two home runs in 48 at-bats –- but there is something that jumps out at me: Pitchers don't fear him. Sometimes that says more than any crunching of the numbers.
Here's what I mean. Check out the percentage of pitches in the strike zone since his breakout in 2012:
2012: 50.7 percent
2013: 49.4 percent
2014: 48.4 percent
2015: 47.2 percent
2016: 50.0 percent
2017: 55.7 percent
You see the pattern, right? As McCutchen grew into an MVP winner, he saw fewer pitches in the strike zone. That makes sense. Pitchers preferred to let somebody else on the Pirates beat them. That's one reason McCutchen drew a lot of walks, aside from his good eye at the plate. That rate of strikes increased last year, however, and has jumped way up so far this year. Again, it's too early to draw any surefire conclusion here, as maybe the Pirates have faced a collection of strike-throwers so far, but it seems like an indication that scouting reports are simply telling pitchers to challenge McCutchen.
McCutchen's strikeout rate rose last year while his walk rate dropped. The strikeout rate has stabilized in 2017, but the walk rate has plummeted even more. Well, no surprise here, as we just pointed out that McCutchen is seeing more strikes. That should lead to fewer walks and fewer strikeouts. In fact, his chase rate is at a career low, so he's walking less even though he's not chasing pitches out of the strike zone. On the other hand, despite seeing more hittable pitches, he's not doing more damage. His average exit velocity last year was 90.3 mph; it was 89.3 entering Sunday.
Here's my take: My fear is that McCutchen has simply lost some of his athleticism. While he was never a blazer, he stole as many as 33 bases and was over 20 each year from 2011 to 2013. Last year, he was just 6-for-13 on the bases. He hasn't attempted a steal this year. His declining metrics in center field point to a decline in speed as well, and if you don't believe the metrics, well, the Pirates moved him to right field for a reason. If you still aren't buying this premise, his percentage of extra bases taken on the basepaths declined from 64 percent in 2013 to 27 percent in 2016 (well below the league average of 40 percent). Once an aggressive runner, he's now either slow or extremely cautious or some combination of both.
You might be thinking that loss of speed doesn't have anything to do with hitting. Just look at guys like Miguel Cabrera and David Ortiz. That's true, but that doesn't mean that for some players they aren't related. McCutchen isn't a big, physical guy; he's a player who has relied on a precision of performance. He doesn't have the bat-to-ball skills of Cabrera, let alone the brute strength of an Ortiz. It's feasible that a small loss in that precision -- bat speed, foot speed, etc. -- has forged this new McCutchen who isn't quite as good.
Again ... it's early, small sample sizes and all that. The Pirates are coming off a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley, so they enter this series against the Cardinals with the opportunity to build a nice streak and bury their struggling rivals early in the season. Keep an eye on their outfield defense. In 2016, the Pirates were second worst in the majors in percentage of fly balls turned into outs. In 2017, they've been the worst. I hope I'm wrong. I'd love for McCutchen to go on a tear, hit a bunch of home runs and prove that he's not getting old at 30.