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Understanding Andrew McCutchen’s Season

One-Man Team

As of this writing (August 3rd, 9:00 a.m.), Andrew McCutchen is Major League Baseball’s offensive leader in Wins Over Replacement (WAR).  [Side note: If McCutchen’s fielding was on par with that of the esteemed Carlos Gomez, he would probably be the leader in overall WAR (-0.3 currently, or below “replacement-level” player)]. If this seems weird to think about a Pirates player being at the top of offensive WAR, that’s because it is. Not since Barry Bonds led the lead with an 8.2 oWAR 20 years ago has a Pirate led the majors, let alone placed in the top 10. For the first time in two decades, Pittsburghians (Pittsburghites? Pittsburghers? Pitts?) has something to look forward to in August other than Steeler’s training camp, and McCutchen is the reason why.

Not only is McCutchen leading MLB in oWAR, but he also tops it in batting average and slugging (.373/.632) but also leads in the National League in runs (72) and total bases (237). He’s been a one-man machine when it comes to Pittsburgh’s offense. In fact, McCutchen’s runs account for 17% of this team’s total, with only Neil Walker being within 20 runs score of McCutchen (53). So the question Pittsburgh fans currently have to be asking themselves is, “are we on the road to prominence with The Cutch as our leader, or should we be worried?”

If we look at McCutchen’s splits, you’ll see that his strikeout rate is higher than his career average (20.8% vs. 18.9%) but actually lower than last year’s (22%). His walk rate is down (9.5%  vs 11.7%), but with his much higher batting average this year, that’s almost to be expected, as he’s being more aggressive at the plate while still keeping his strikeout’s at a modest pace. His power numbers are up, currently one shy of his career high in homeruns,  while his doubles are only a tick lower than his career average, so he’s not only taking more outs and making them base hits, but he’s often turning them into extra bases.  All things Pittsburgh fans can take solace in.

There are, however, some things that may worry the Pirates faithful. The big red flag that sticks out his McCutchen’s BABIP (Batting Average On Balls In Play). This metric tells the batting average of every ball that is put into the field of play that isn’t a homerun or strikeout. Going into this season, Cutch has an average BABIP around .310 for his first three seasons,  likely putting him around league average. This season, it’s up an incredible 100+ points, currently sitting at .423. This would explain why McCutchen’s batting average is currently 97 points higher than his career average. Odds are, this will fall back to more moderate numbers, probably around the .350-375 area, which still leaves McCutchen as a .300+ hitter, but probably results in 20 fewer hits over a season, and likely 5-10 runs scored (McCutchen is currently scoring on 51% of his hits). Those 5-10 runs could result in 1-3 losses that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise, a situation the second-place Pirates can little afford while trying to catch the streaking Reds and stay in the Wild Card hunt (although they do have a 4.5 game lead over the Cardinals for the second Wild Card spot).

There is a silver lining for Pirates fans to rejoice in. Although McCutchen is a one-man team on offense (see picture), he’s not the only source of wins for the team. The Pirates pitching staff has allowed the third-least amount of runs in the NL and are fourth in the majors. The A.J. Burnett trade is paying huge dividends, none more so than the one-hitter he recently threw against the Cubs. James McDonald has also been a breath of fresh air for a rotation that faded so poorly down the homestretch in 2011. Meanwhile, they hope that the recent trade for Wandy Rodriguez will be the spark that pushes the team past the Reds and into their first divisional title in two decades.  Either way, they’re almost assured to end their streak of losing seasons this year, needing only 22 more wins in their final 58 games. No team could possibly screw that up, unless of course, they’re from Cleveland.

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