Sunday, April 12, 2015

McCutchen's Knee

This isn't good. From Travis Sawchik's Pittsburgh Tribune blog:
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen was held out of Saturday's lineup after leaving Friday night's game in the ninth inning with left-knee discomfort. 
McCutchen said he did not have an MRI. “There's nothing structural,” the Pirates star said. “I'm fine.” 
But it is perhaps troubling that McCutchen admitted before Saturday's game that the sore knee also was bothering him when he missed two weeks of spring training games. 
McCutchen revealed there was something else bothering him beyond his knee. 
“My mind,” he said. “It's been a little different for me this year. Battling a few things, just trying to get myself back to par. That's how it's been for a while. It's frustrating. I want to be out there with nothing hindering me and performing like a I know I can. Right now, I'm not there.”

There's a lot to unpack here.

First, recall that McCutchen missed a number of games over the spring, complaining of a "sore lower body." That covers a lot of ground. Hips, knees, ankles, feet, and all sorts of muscles and tendons and ligaments are in the lower body. It seemed odd that the Pirates didn't disclose more than this general statement, as the team's best player sat out game after game. Still, he answered the bell on opening day, going 2-for-4 with a game-tying two-run homer in the eighth inning of a game the Pirates went on to lose, 5-2. Since then, though, he's 0-for-12 with two strikeouts and two walks. (I'm not reading any significance into the 0-for-12 streak, though it's worth noting that in McCutchen's career, this is only the sixth time he's had a streak of three or more games with 12 or more hitless at bats, and his first since 2013.) He took himself out of Friday night's game after he "felt a little something" while running out a fly ball in the top of the ninth inning. This sounds like a problem that's persisting.

Second, he hasn't had an MRI? Does that make sense? He was bothered by his left knee in spring training, and he pulled himself out of an early season game, but he knows "there's nothing structural?" Wouldn't it be prudent to make sure?

Third, his mind is an issue? I know that one of the differences between baseball and other team sports is the length of the season: 162 games spread over six months, with very few days off. That's a physical and mental strain, and players wear down during the season. (It's cited as a reason amphetamines, or "greenies," were popular long before anybody introduced anabolic steroids to major league clubhouses.) So yeah, keeping your mental edge is a challenge. But during the first week?

McCutchen's health is vital to the Pirates. FanGraphs projects him at 5.8 wins above replacement, Baseball Prospectus 4.8. Not everyone is comfortable with wins above replacement, I know, including the nebulous concept of what a "replacement player" is. Put it this way: The players most likely to see time in the Pirates' lineup if McCutchen can't play, a platoon of left-handed Andrew Lambo and right-handed Corey Hart, come close to defining replacement-level. So a McCutchen-less Pirates team would be at least 5-6 wins worse than one with the 2013 MVP in center. That's probably the difference between a ticket to the postseason and watching it from home.

This could all be premature, of course. Maybe he mildly sprained his knee and he'll be fine in a week or two. But this has struck me as worrisome since he started sitting out spring training games.

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