The Fantasy Pacifier Andrew McCutchen

Pittsburgh Pirates LogoGood morning, good afternoon, or good evening– whichever is applicable to you. My daughter still uses a pacifier. Fear not: therapy is not in order, since she’s merely a tweener. She still looks the part, yet anyone who can use curse words properly in a sentence shouldn’t rob the world of such a gift. Over recent months her usage of the pacifier has dwindled, but each night as the eyes begin to get heavy she still requests the pacifier.  Essentially, the paccie provides comfort and peace when my daughter needs it the most.  Now close your eyes and imagine Draft Day. You’ve got an ice-cold beer in one hand, and you’re thumbing through your notes with the other. It’s the first round and you pick in the 6-10 range.  More than likely the big three of Harper, Trout and Goldy are off the board, as is the clear-cut ace in Kershaw. The battle is raging in your head: “Do I want the upside of Correa, or the injury concerns of Stanton? Can Machado and or Arenado repeat? Is Donaldson this good? Rizzo was so valuable, but struggled a little down the stretch. Do I really want a 12 HR Altuve in the first? Etc…” While all of these are valid points, these specific types of scenarios lead individuals to simply find a comfort zone. What better comfort zone than Andrew McCutchen: Fantasy Pacifier?

It’s hard to find fault with drafting McCutchen. He’s been a perennial Top 10 pick for the last five years. While he has produced only one top 5 season (2013), his worst season was 2015, and he still managed to finish among the Top 40.  Over the last four seasons McCutchen’s average stat line is .312 BA/25 HR/96 Runs/90 RBI/19 SB. Perhaps most importantly, he has averaged 154 games during that span. To further add to the durability status: since his rookie season McCutchen has played in at least 154 games in all but one season, and that was a respectable 146, in 2014. So while 2015 didn’t exactly go as scripted, it’s not like fault can’t be found. An early season knee ailment effected McCutchen out of the gate as he hobbled to a .194 BA, 2 HR, 12 Runs, 13 RBI, and 0 SB over the first month of the season. Then McCutchen became the McCutchen we all knew. A lengthy track record of not only top fantasy performances, but the confidence you’ll have that production for 150 plus games. Isn’t it evident that in 2016 we’ll see the return of McCutchen as a headliner? I’m not buying it for a second.

For starters, the narrative that McCutchen was back to his old self after a horrid April is a little misleading. May produced a .330 BA/5 HR/16 Runs/17 RBI/3 SB line that was the McCutchen we’ve all come to expect. June followed, and while he hit .337 the counting stats were pedestrian: 2 HR, 12 Runs, 15 RBI, and just 2 SB. July and August provided McCutchen’s best stretch of the season, as he combined to hit .317 with 11 HR, 35 Runs, 40 RBI, and again just 2 SB. In September/October McCutchen faded, hitting .236 with 3 HR, 16 Runs, 11 RBI, and 4 SB. The Run total will play and the SB total was a nice sight to see overall, though another less than stellar output from a first-rounder.For me McCutchen’s 2016 was more of a 50/50 split than the lost Mar/April that McCutchen supporters would like you to believe.

While the monthly breakdown pokes holes in the Cutch Was Cutch theory, it’s hardly a cause to waive the white flag. My concerns regarding McCutchen go beyond his month-to-month breakdown from 2015. Look through the underlying numbers and several eyebrow raising statistics emerge. McCutchen’s contact percentage was 75.9, 4% below his career mark of 79.8%. More concerning, however, is the 3-year decline in that skill set from 80.4% in 2013 to 78.6% in 2014 to the 75.9% mark of last season. His contact percentage on both pitches inside and outside of the zone has been affected. While last season’s O-Contact% (60.6) fell by nearly 4% below his career mark of 64.2% the most concerning area is his Z-Contact%. Last season’s mark of 82.6% was nearly 4% lower than his career mark of 86.4%. Like his overall Contact percentage, his Z-Contact% has dropped in 3 consecutive seasons now, from 87.6% in 2013, to 84% in 2014, to the 82.6% of last season. Finally, regarding Swinging Strike percentage, once again McCutchen seems to be trending in the wrong direction. Last year’s 10.5% rate was 2% above his career mark of 8.6% and once again it resulted in a three-year trend of increased rates from 2013’s 8.9% to 2014’s 9.5%, to the 10.5% of 2015.

None of these statistics in and of itself would be a major cause for concern. If you look at the leader boards for these particular statistics you’ll see a wide variety when it comes to caliber of players. These statistics often times have as much to do with approach and how pitchers attack the players as it does a specific talent. With that being said, I still find it concerning when an established elite player such as McCutchen begins to perform below an accelerated baseline of his own creation. The concern only becomes more heightened when a three-year trend of decline emerges.

Much like the month-to-month breakdown, a 4% decline in underlying skills over 600 PA shouldn’t define the end of Cutch as a Top 10 fantasy option. My biggest bias against Andrew McCutchen, the Top 10 option, is myself. I just feel the player we’ve become accustomed to will no longer adorn that Pirate uniform. First and foremost, I question the likelihood of McCutchen ever swiping 20+ bags again. While many would suggest that organizationally the Pirates would want McCutchen to refrain to avoid injury, I don’t feel this would be the case. As Ron Vacker pointed out earlier in the week in his Draft This Not That column, the Pirates offense isn’t exactly a juggernaut. It seems to me that a healthy McCutchen would be given the green light as much as possible in order to generate offense for a team who could struggle to score.

I also question the overall health of McCutchen in regards to stolen bases. I don’t doubt that last season’s knee ailment is a thing of the past, so while 29 is still young in baseball terms, keep in mind McCutchen has been the workhorse I mentioned earlier in the post. So you’re looking at knees with 4500 PA and nearly 9000 innings all while manning CF. In 2014 McCutchen was successful on 18 of 21 attempts: that’s a success rate of 86%. So while successful at an 86% clip, he attempted only 21 SB. Last season that rate was just 69%. Is it reasonable to expect that while coming off a 69% season he’ll also exceed 25 attempts when 86% granted him only 21? While speed will certainly affect SB output for many hitters, it also has the potential to alter average as well.

Cutch has hit over .300 three times, and in each case his BABIP exceeded .350. In 2015 his BABIP was .339; his average was .292. While I do feel that decreased speed will likely negatively affect BABIP, his change in GB/FB rate the last two seasons could be more of a factor. McCutchen’s career GB/FB rate is 1.07, but over the last two seasons that number was .96 and 1.00 respectively.  While a lower GB/FB rate typically helps power for players with the HR/FB rates of McCutchen (13.6 in 2015) the gains in power likely don’t make up for the decrease in average.  While I feel McCutchen will settle into a 20-25 HR threat for many years to come, his new approach accompanied by his declining wheels will likely push the average down to the .280-.290 range. For the remaining counting stats, it’s really anyone’s guess. Generally speaking I find it hard to produce 100 RBI without hitting 30 HR. It’s certainly possible, but with the question marks up and down the Pirates lineup I find it hard to identify the high OBP guys hitting in front of him. Marte will likely bat behind McCutchen, followed by more question marks. If I only project McCutchen as a 15 SB player the support behind him likely isn’t enough to suggest 100 runs should be expected.

Steamer projects McCutchen to hit .297 AVG with 23 HR, 88 Runs, 87 RBI and 12 SB. As for myself, I’d consider my projections within that ballpark. To me the counting stats look good, perhaps I’d allow for a couple more steals. I’d take the under in batting average; I see more of a .285 hitter, but that’s a fine point. Either way you look at it, you’re getting good production. The problem isn’t the player or the numbers, but the price associated with the player. Many people take the high-floor approach when it comes to their first and second-round selections. I tend to go for ceilings. Ultimately leagues are decided by the AJ Pollock types – the players grabbed in the teen rounds that go on to have MVP-type seasons. Yes, first round busts hurt, but the aforementioned players more than make up for it. Selecting a sure-fire Top 50 player may provide you with peace and comfort– what it won’t do is provide you with value.

 

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Josh Coleman
Father of four SP1 children. Replacement level husband to a top tier wife. I love my family, value my friendships, and spend as much time as possible (too much according to the aforementioned Mrs. Coleman) dedicated to the pursuit, of another Fantasy Championship. I'm the oddball at the bar who prefers Fantasy Baseball to Fantasy Football.