In the recent past, Andrew McCutchen was a top of the draft, no doubt first round bat. He was lauded by the fantasy community for his safe, predictable production. In recent years, that star has dimmed some as a new crop of stars have emerged and McCutchen’s steady production has become more volatile. Now, in his age 30 season, McCutchen is at a career crossroads and fantasy owners are unsure what to make of him off two seasons evincing a player in decline.
Heading into draft season last year, most owners still believed that McCutchen would rebound to near-normal levels after a productive, but somewhat disappointing 2015. Riddled with injuries, McCutchen was able to overcome them to post a 23 home run, 11 steal season buoyed by a .292/.401/.488 triple-slash. Other than a 3 year high in K-Rate (19.4%), which was supported by slight changes in his SwStr% and Contact%, there was nothing troubling in McCutchen’s profile. Of course, even at 19.4%, the K-Rate was not a major red flag. Although McCutchen stole just 11 bases, being caught 5 times, there was still the general belief that McCutchen would run enough to be valuable once he had an opportunity to recover from a knee injury that hounded him all year. Even if it did slow him, he was never remarkably efficient with a career rate of 65% through 2014 – lack of efficiency never stopped him before.
However, in 2016, some of those minor issues continued to infect McCutchen’s game. He was hurt for most the of year. He struck out more with his K-rate reached a career high of 21.2% and his walk rate sunk to a career low 10.2%. The average was just .256, also the lowest of career, on the second lowest BABIP of his career .297. McCutchen stole just 6 bases and was actually caught more than he was successful – 6 of 13.
What happened? And more importantly, is this a buy low opportunity or a sunk cost investment for 2017?
Let’s first examine the cost, the fantasy community is skeptical, but not completely out on McCutchen as a fantasy asset. He is going as the 18th OF, just behind teammate Gregory Polanco, at an ADP of 68.02, which is in the middle of the 6th round. Before we go further, let’s talk about upside. In 2017, I think a fair, consensus view of McCutchen’s upside is somewhat similar to Ryan Braun’s 2016 season – approximately 30 home runs, 15 stolen bases, 170 Rs+RBI and a .300 batting average. For that output, Braun was the 36th overall player according to Yahoo!. If we tick a little further down that list, Jackie Bradley Jr. was 66th overall player with 26 homers, 9 stolen bases, 180 Rs+RBI nd a .267/.349/.486 triple-slash. Bradley’s season represents a mid-range projection on McCutchen and is in line with his actual draft cost.
These are both certainly within the range of outcomes for McCutchen so it is possible for him to return the pick’s value and even profit, at that price. Now, the issue turns to whether it is likely that McCutchen will be able to return value at that cost..
The pro-McCutchen owner will blame the first half struggles on a bevy of injuries including to his thumb, wrist and an aggravation of his knee problems from 2015. This is a simple argument to make because the splits show a difference between first half (hurt) McCutchen and second half (healthy) McCutchen:
|2016 1st Half||24.7%||8.8%||14||.247||.745||33.5%|
|2016 2nd Half||16.9%||11.9%||10||.267||.793||38.5%|
There is a very noticeable difference in the process – better plate discipline and batted ball authority – but the result changes while good are not sufficient to comfort all the doubts. A .267, sub-.800 OPS with slightly above league average power and a handful of steals, sounds more like Kole Calhoun then the Andrew McCutchen that we have expected and would expect at his current draft cost.
Between 2012 and 2015, McCutchen was a plus BABIP player. Last year, he was only league average (.297) and that was consistent across the season’s two halves (.299 in the 1st half, .297 in the second half). Aside from a five year low in hard contact rate, which corrected itself in the second half, McCutchen also had a career high in IFFB% 12.6% and a career low in infield hit percentage – 6.7%. These sort of indicators belie a decline in BABIP for McCutchen and the new xBABIP formula introduced by FanGraphs placed McCutchen at a slightly higher, but not world-changing .307 xBABIP. He deserved better, but not much better.
The plate discipline and batted ball improvements during the second half are promising, but McCutchen’s decline is not just about his approach, its about declining skills. He’s not as fast or athletic as he once was, nor is he as healthy as he was during his prime. Could an offseason of rest cure what ails him on the injury front? Sure. Could he undergo some change in diet or workout that enhances his speed and quickness? Possibly. However, we have not heard anything to that effect and even if we did, those reports come with no guarantees.
I would certainly ticket McCutchen for some improvement over last year, however, I think he’s much more like a break-even or slight loss for owners at his current price than a player that will turn a profit. Put another way, I think his most likely outcome is a lot closer to Jackie Bradley Jr.’s 2016 than Ryan Braun’s. I am also not sold that Braun’s 2016 is McCutchen’s ceiling, but something out of reach barring some change that we have not yet identified.
My projection for McCutchen: GP 145, R 82, 23 HR, RBI 73, SB 9, .274/.361/.441.