A look at the slumping Andrew McCutchen

From Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in a piece posted Wednesday night:

Andrew McCutchen has had two bouts with left knee inflammation since the offseason, but he has told the Pirates the condition is not the reason for his batting slump.

"Andrew is insistent that he is not hurt and that his knee is not impacting his performance," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said Wednesday. ...

Several sources told Trib Total Media that McCutchen is not getting any out-of-the-ordinary treatment on his knee. McCutchen said his slow start at the plate is a mechanical issue, not something that could be cured by going on the disabled list.

"I don't like days off," McCutchen said Tuesday. "I don't need that. I can see what's off (with my swing). There's a little disconnection. I'm doing what I can to correct it."

McCutchen went 1-for-4 on Wednesday as the Pittsburgh Pirates lost 3-0 to the Reds, dropping their record to 12-15 and leaving McCutchen with a season batting line of .188/.279/.292.

McCutchen says he's healthy. The Pirates say he's healthy. The numbers suggest otherwise, so let's at least dig into the numbers to see what's going on. After all, it's pretty unusual for a superstar player to struggle like this, especially one as consistent as McCutchen. Check out McCutchen's month-by-month OPS totals:

2014: .908, .815, 1.096, .910, .919, 1.042

2013: .731, .885, .843, .994, 1.019, .994

2012: .723, 1.134, 1.096, 1.249, .693, .861

If there's good news there, it's that McCutchen started slowly in both 2012 and 2013 -- although not this slowly. He also had a bad month in August 2012, although McCutchen would admit after that season that was a result of getting too homer-happy.

Anyway, let's compare his 2014 hit chart to 2015:

As you can see, he's not pulling anything with authority. The power, the doubles down the line ... nowhere to be seen. So what's going on? There's nothing different in McCutchen's approach -- he's swinging a little less often than in 2014 (44.4 to 41.9 percent), missing a little less often (23.5 to 22.7 percent) and chasing pitchers out of the zone less often (23.1 to 20.0 percent). He's not hitting the ball hard -- his well-hit average (percentage of at-bats ending in a well-hit ball) has gone from .229 to .143. He's hitting more grounders and more fly balls, which means he's hitting a lot fewer line drives: Just 14.8 percent of balls in play, compared to 24.6 percent.

Those are the numbers. That doesn't tell us why the numbers are bad. McCutchen says it's a mechanical issue. The other day, a scout told Jayson Stark that he thinks McCutchen is hurt. "Hitters have to have their legs," the scout said. "He's a great fastball hitter. But when you don't have your legs, the breaking ball is even more difficult to hit. It's hard to trust your hands if you know that when you follow through, your left knee is going to hurt."

Let's see ...

Versus curves/sliders:

2014: .708 OPS

2015: .556 OPS

Versus fastballs:

2014: .894 OPS

2015: .624 OPS

He's actually struggled more against fastballs compared to 2014 than breaking pitches, which doesn't discount the scout's theory, it shows that McCutchen is struggling against all pitches. (By the way, his percentage of fastballs seen is the same as last year, 58 percent, so it's not like opposing teams have picked up on the breaking ball theory and thrown him more curves or sliders.)

As for the health of his knee, it may be worth noting that McCutchen was 18 for 21 stealing bases last season but is 0 for 1 this year. (Of course, it's difficult to steal if you're not on base.) His percentage of taking the extra base as a runner was 55 percent entering Wednesday's game, compared to 41 percent last year, so that speed indicator suggests he's OK, but it's also a very small data sample. His range factor in the outfield is down, from 2.11 per nine innings to 1.68. That could be a result of opportunities, however, and his Defensive Runs Saved before Wednesday was +1 compared to -11 in 2014, so you can argue the knee, if it is an issue, hasn't affected him on defense.

I don't really have an assessment here; there's nothing crazy going on except McCutchen is not hitting. Whether it's the knee or something a mechanical tweak will fix, only McCutchen knows. He isn't the only Pirates position player struggling at the plate. During their current five-game losing streak, they've scored five runs. The Pirates need their star to start delivering but they need others to step up as well. This was supposed to be one of the best offensive teams in the National League; instead, it's been one of the worst and now they have a big gap between themselves and St. Louis in the NL Central.