Karpin: Andrew McCutchen In Decline?….Not Yet

Off of one bad season, Pirates centerfielder Andrew McCutchen is being labeled as a player in decline.

I think “Cutch” still has a lot left in the tank.

Pittsburgh put the former National League Most Valuable Player on the trade market and nearly had a deal with the Washington Nationals at the Winter Meetings. The Mets reportedly spoke to the Pirates about McCutchen but as my colleague Joe McDonald wrote in his post of 12/20, “there seems to be too many moving parts here for this plan to come together”.

Trading McCutchen, who is only 30 years old and has a pretty reasonable contract for the next two seasons ($13 and $14 million respectively with a team option for 2018 that features a $1 million dollar buyout) based on numbers that may or may not accurately measure the player’s value, is a risky proposition.

Some say McCutchen has begun the downside of his career and point to his stats from last season. McCutchen hit a career low .256 in 2016 with 24 home runs and 79 runs batted in.

Additionally, the “numbers crunchers” point to his strikeouts which have risen and the stolen base numbers which have steadily dropped.

Wait, there’s more.

His defense has fallen off according to the defensive metrics.

My reaction to all of this, I don’t buy it.

One thing to remember is that McCutchen played hurt for most of last season. The Pirates’ “engine” was dealing with, not only, a knee injury that surfaced in April, but a wrist injury as well.

Despite those factors the 30-year old gamer played in 153 games last season.

You like numbers, let me give you some.

Across the board, McCutchen’s stats were better in the second half of last season, particularly in August and September. (two of those were October games) His overall average improved from .247 at the end of July to .256, which is even more difficult to do later in the season because of the accumulated number of at-bats. In the final two months of the season, McCutchen hit .284 with a .381 OBP and a .471 slugging percentage while hitting 9 homers and 36 runs batted in. He also stole three of his six bases during that two month period. That tells me that McCutchen started to get healthier and began to resemble his old self.

As bad as his year looked, he still hit .290 with RISP and according to baseball-reference.com, he was a .289 hitter in “high leverage” situations. (A stat to measure a hitter’s success in situations where “dramatic swings in win probability are possible”, credit baseball-reference.com)

His 143 strikeouts last season were only ten more than the previous season and he has been a habitually high strikeout compiler during his entire career, even during his MVP season of 2013 when he struck out 101 times. Some of those strikeouts may have been a result of swinging with a bum wrist.

Defensively, you can argue that McCutchen may have lost a step or two but don’t totally judge his glove work by the “defensive metrics”. McCutchen plays shallow and that doesn’t play well with “metric measurements”, as opposed to a centerfielder that plays deep and has a higher defensive rating. Many pitchers would rather have their centerfielder play in rather than play deeper.

Even Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, who is a metric devotee, has an issue with defensive metrics after Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius was issued a lower rating in 2016.

“Defensive metrics are still a work in progress”, Cashman told the Daily News’ John Harper in late November. “I wouldn’t say we’re big on defensive metrics“.

Mets centerfielder Juan Lagares’ defensive metrics dropped after his “Gold Glove” season of 2014 because he wasn’t compiling as many assists. The reason for that is opposing teams stopped challenging his arm. The “Ultimate Zone Rating” (UZR) is partially based on outfield assists so they don’t account for the intimidation factor.

Another factor that is immeasurable in many ways is leadership. McCutchen is well respected in the clubhouse and someone you would want to lead your ballclub.

This situation reminds me of December 1965, when the Reds traded “an old 30” outfielder named Frank Robinson to the Orioles in exchange for pitchers Milt Pappas, Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson. In the 1966 season, Robinson led Baltimore to their first World Series title, won a “triple crown” and was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. The other three were never elected to Cooperstown.

Winston Churchill’s famous quote may apply here. “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

Will the Pirates go down that road?

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