Can Andrew McCutchen match his 2012 numbers in 2013?

Being a Pittsburgh Pirate has an unfortunate side-effect: what you've actually accomplished on the field never really matters, because all that's important is what you're going to do on the field whenever it is that the Pirates actually get around to being good. Andrew McCutchen's 2012 season was an amazing thing for Pirate fans to watch unfold: a player that we knew was good and thought was special accelerated beyond all of our expectations to become something else entirely. Franchises don't pull themselves up out of the doldrums without players like Andrew McCutchen doing things like he did in 2012. The problem is that the Pirates didn't pull themselves up out of the doldrums in 2012 and now the only thing that matters is whether or not he can do it again. 

This is a tricky question to answer. As I mentioned in February, there are 200 players that have had at least one season with 7.0 WAR or more in all of baseball history. Of those 200, 115 of them only had one 7+ win season (this includes maybe 10 or 15 active players, Andrew McCutchen included, that could join the list of players with multiple 7+ win seasons). This is a downer to mention, but the point is that past excellence does not ensure future excellence. 

Let's eliminate questions of injury and just focus on comparing what McCutchen did last year with what McCutchen did in the past. You probably know the base stats well enough; in 2011, 'Cutch hit .259/.364/.456 with 23 homers. His isolated power was .198, his BABIP was .291, his line drive rate was 20%, his walk rate was a career high 13.1%, and his strikeout rate was also a career high 18.6%. At this time a year ago, I thought that the next logical step for 'Cutch was for his strikeouts to come down some, which would result in his putting more balls in play, and then logically a higher batting average and OBP. I can't claim any sort of victory on that prediction, though, because while McCutchen did hit .327/.400/.553 last year, his strikeout rate jumped even higher to 19.6%. His walk rate dipped to 10.4%, his ISO jumped up to .226, his LD% rose to 21.9%, and his BABIP went way, way up to .375. 

What all of this means is that while McCutchen did hit for a higher batting average, which in turn drove his OBP up, which coupled with his power surge to make him an MVP candidate, it didn't happen because he put more balls in play. It's true that McCutchen's .291 BABIP in 2011 was on the low end of the spectrum for him, but it's also true that he wasn't as fast in 2012 as he was in prior years. His line drive rate went up, but it didn't go up a ton. In short, Andrew McCutchen is not terribly likely to be a .327 hitter in 2013 and we should probably consider ourselves lucky if he hits .300 in this coming season, particularly if his strikeouts hover around 20% again. 

And what about his power? McCutchen hit eight more homers in 2012 than he did in 2011, but his flyball rate bottomed out at 34.3%. That left him with a home run/flyball rate of 19.4%, 19th in all of baseball. That's not exceptionally high for a power hitter (the guys above him on the list are almost all sluggers), but the question is whether or not McCutchen is really a power hitter. This is tricky to figure out, but from what I can tell, the power surge from last year was real. If we go to the Hit Tracker, just four of McCutchen's 31 homers measured as "just enough." In 2011, that was true of eight of his 23. Basically, McCutchen didn't increase his home run total and HR/FB rate with a bunch of Jack Wilson foul pole shots and bloops into Houston's idiotic Crawford Boxes, he did it by inflicting grievous injuries upon multiple baseballs. I don't know if he'll hit 31 homers again, but I'm more than happy to guess that he'll hit somewhere between 25 and 30 if he doesn't get there, and that's just fine for a player like McCutchen. 

Of course, if the power surge is real it might also indicate that he hit the ball harder than his small increase in LD% might indicate, which in turn means that it's possible that some of those gains in BABIP that I dismissed above might be more legitimate. He almost certainly won't hit .375 on balls in play again, but it might be possible for him to get to where he was in 2009 (.327) again, despite losing a step or two in terms of overall speed (please note that he's still quite fast, but he's not quite blazing fast the way he used to be — you can see this in the way that his awful jumps on base stealing attempts don't get covered up in quite the same way that they used to). 

So what does all this leave us with? Steamer and Oliver both see McCutchen as about a six-win player in 2012. ZiPS sees him as a five-win player. Steamer and Oliver both call for him to hit approximately .290/.375/.500 with 25 homers, which feels right to me, though I might even argue for a smidge more power. In short, there's every reason to believe that McCutchen is going to be a great player in 2013, even if it's probably unreasonable to think he'll be quite as good as he was in 2012. This Pirate team has plenty of things to worry about, but it's hard to think that #22 will be one of them. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.