Monday, April 27, 2015

What's Going On With Andrew McCutchen?

Andrew McCutchen is...well, choose your cliche. The best player on the Pirates, the face of the franchise, the team's name it. He was the National League MVP in 2013 and finished third in 2014, when he arguably had a better season, leading the league in on base percentage and OPS. This year, so far, not so much:

2013  583 97 185 38 5 21 84 27 10 78 101 .317 .404 .508 .911 157
2014  548 89 172 38 6 25 83 18 3 84 115 .314 .410 .542 .952 166
2015 59 10 11 2 0 2 11 0 1 9 12 .186 .315 .322 .637 81
Generated 4/27/2015.

I've fretted in the past about his health. Yesterday, I noted that this is the worst hitting streak of his career. (I was wrong, it wasn't; keep reading.) What's wrong?

Is This Unusual?

No. McCutchen is a slow starter. April is, by far, his worst month of the season. Here are his career totals:
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 4/27/2015.

At this point in his career, McCutchen has played about a full season's worth of games in each month. His April numbers are roughly 25% worse than his overall figures. He's a slow starter.

This year, as you can see, after 18 games, he's got a .186/.315/.322 slash line, giving him a .637 OPS, which is 19% worse than the National League average (OPS+ of 100 is 100% of the league average, so his 81 is 19% below league average). He's never started this slowly before. But during his MVP year of 2013, on the morning of April 30, he'd hit .203/.225/.319 over his prior 18 games, a .544 OPS--worse than his performance so far this season. So a wretched 18-game streak in Apirl isn't unprecedented. 

Looking at all the 18-game periods over his career, his .186 batting average this year is his worst since April 2011, his .315 on base percentage is his worst since September 2014, and his .322 slugging percentage and .637 OPS are his worst since August 2014. It's been a bad start to the season, but certainly not his worst 18-game streak, nor unusually bad for him. 

Still, when something like this falls at the beginning of the year, it's natural to wonder whether anything's different this year. I'll explore that next.

Is He Being Pitched Differently?

There are two rough ways of figuring out how much pitchers fear a hitter: How willing they are to throw their fastball, and how willing they are to pitch in the strike zone. Against weak hitters, pitchers will throw their fastball in the strike zone, daring the hitter to swing at it. Against strong hitters pitchers resort more to trickery: off-speed pitches that they try to get the batter chase outside the strike zone. Per FanGraphs, the five National League players who saw the greatest percentage of fastballs (four-seam and two-seam) last year had a combined .714 OPS. The five who saw the fewest had a combined .851 OPS. The five hitters who saw the largest percentage of pitches in the strike zone had a .662 OPS, the five who saw the fewest had a .779 OPS. So are pitchers going after McCutchen differently?
            % fastballs  % in zone
     2013      50.2%       48.2%
     2014      49.2%       47.4%
     2015      44.8%       46.3%
No evidence of any change. By limiting the fastballs and the number of pitches in the strike zone to McCutchen, pitchers are still treating him as a dangerous hitter.

Is He Swinging Differently?

When hitters lose plate discipline, they start swinging at pitches that they can't hit. That shows up in increased swing percentages and less contact on swings. Here are the percentage of pitches McCutchen's swung at, inside and outside the strike zone, and how often he's made contact:
             % of pitches swung at  % of contact on swings
              in zone    out zone     in zone    out zone
     2013      70.5%       23.7%       87.6%       60.3%
     2014      68.3%       23.7%       85.1%       60.4%
     2015      65.4%       20.9%       87.6%       45.5%
McCutchen's been more selective, not less, this season. He's swinging at fewer pitches. But when he does swing, he's making way less contact on pitches outside the strike zone. This year, out of 87 batting title qualifiers, he's 80th at contact outside the strike zone, near the bottom. Last year, it was middle of the pack: 46th out of 65. So that's an issue, at least so far. 

What Happens When He Makes Contact?

I've already thrown enough numbers your way, so take my word on this: McCutchen's percentage of ground balls, fly balls, and infield flies when he makes contact are in line with his prior performances. 

Three measures involving batted balls stand out, though: his batting average on balls in play (that is, all at bats that don't result in a home run or strikeout), the percentage of his fly balls that are home runs, and the percentage of batted balls that are line drives:
             BA on balls  % of FB     
               in play  that are HR   LD %
     2013       .353       12.4%     24.5%
     2014       .355       13.7%     18.7%
     2015       .191        8.7%      8.2%
Those are all pretty big changes. McCutchen's dropped from tenth in the league in batting average on balls in play (or BABIP) in 2013 and fourth in 2014 to fourth worst so far in 2015. His home run/fly ball percentage was 27th in 2013 and 17th in 2014; it's 48th this year. His line drive percentage has gone from ninth in 2013 to 54th in 2014 to last in 2015.

You know what those measures have in common? Luck. I'm not saying they're entirely luck-driven. McCutchen had a .350+ BABIP in 2013 and 2014 because he's a great hitter, not because he was lucky. Pedro Alvarez has hit over 20% of his fly balls over the fence during his career because he's got a lot of power, not because he's lucky. The Braves' Freddie Freeman leads the NL in line drive percentage over the last three years because he makes solid contact, not because he's lucky. But big variations in these measures, absent anything else, can be a matter of luck. Your swing gets a couple millimeters above the ball, and your line drive becomes a grounder. You hit a fly ball just a few feet short, and it's a fly out instead of a homer. You nail the ball but it's straight at a fielder, and it's an out instead of a hit. That appears to be what's going on with McCutchen so far.

So I'm inclined to attribute McCutchen's slow start to bad luck rather than something wrong with him as a hitter, particularly given his history of slow starts.

Next Up: The Cubs

The Pirates split four games with the Cubs last week and travel to Wrigley for three games starting tonight. Travis Wood, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks will start for the Cubs, which means the Pirates will once again be denied an opportunity to observe the Jon Lester Pickoff Move Experience. The Cubs, after dropping their last two to the Pirates, swept two games against Cincinnati (one game was postponed) over the weekend. 

The Cubs' best offensive performers have been veterans. Shortstop Starlin Castro (.329) and first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.328) are 1-2 in batting average. Rizzo also leads the club in runs (14), walks (12), on base percentage (.481) and OPS (.963), while Castro leads in hits (23) and RBI (11). But the focus is on the youngsters:
  • Right fielder Jorge Soler (23) is hitting .257/.321/.414. He's third on the club in runs scored with nine and second in homers with two. 
  • Third baseman Kris Bryant (23) is hitting .333/.476/.455 since being called up. He's batted cleanup for the Cubs since his April 17 callup.
  • Second baseman Addison Russell (21) hasn't really gotten untracked yet, as he's 3-for-22 with no walks and 12 strikeouts since his callup on April 21.

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