In both 2011 and 2012, Andrew McCutchen got off to a bit of a slow start. In his first 25 games of 2011, he only hit .202/.318/.348. In 2012, he got off to a more rounded start, but he didn't hit a home run until his 28th game of the season. In both seasons, I pointed out encouraging signs from McCutchen's start and wrote a post that amounted to, "If he gets hot, he's going to be having an incredible season." In 2011, it was that his walk rate took a big jump forward. In 2012, I noted that his batting average was much higher than it had been in the past. One of the great things about a player like Andrew McCutchen is that you can predict he's about to get hot at just about any point and he'll make you look like a genius. This is the 2013 edition of that post.
The Pirates are 26-17 and if you asked a fan to point to the players that have contributed the most offensively to the club's scorching quarter-season, I think that most people would point to Starling Marte and Russell Martin. This is not the wrong answer! Martin is hitting .269/.360/.504 including his awful start, and since April 15th (the day after Mike McKenry hit two home runs against the Reds and we all collectively decided that Russell Martin sucked) he's hitting .341/.426/.648. He's drawing walks and driving the ball into the gaps and hitting home runs and he's thus far generally looked like 24-year old Russell Martin again. It'd be foolish to count on this happening for a full season, but it'd also be flatly wrong to deny his huge contribution to this point in the season. Marte has cooled off a bit lately, but he's more or less been every Pirate fan's best case scenario for him to this point, blasting extra base hits all over the park and running the bases like an incredibly fast maniac and flashing home run power when it's needed.
Most fans wouldn't give Andrew McCutchen as an answer right now. He went through one of the worst slumps of his career from April 21- April 29, hitting just .100 over those eight games with a measly three singles in 30 at-bats. He came out of that streak with a four-hit night against the Brewers on the 30th and since then he's had another four-hit game and a three-hit game and that huge walkoff homer against the Brewers, but he's been kind of spotty, too, despite his .347 average since breaking out of his slump. He's got a few 0-for-4s and an 0-for-5 all mixed in with those great performances and he doesn't quite seem to own left-handed pitching the way he did last year.
With all of this said, it's might surprise you to know that McCutchen's now hitting .274/.341/.457 on the season, which is an OPS+ of 125, which is more or less in line with the first three years of his career. He hasn't really excelled at any point in this season and he's often looked a bit lost, and he's still hitting well above-average at the plate and on pace for a something like a 5-6 WAR season, which would put him in the upper-echelon of NL players for the third year in a row.
Here's the thing though: suddenly, he's not striking out so much this year. If I had to pick out one thing about McCutchen's career to this point that hasn't gone perfectly (and please: this is me picking nits here and not me complaining about Andrew McCutchen), it's that his strikeout rate has slowly climbed upwards in each full season of his career. It's never gone over 20%, but 19.6% is starting to get up there. This matters because while 'Cutch has enough power and patience to be a good hitter even when he hits .259, he doesn't quite have enough of either to be able to disregard batting average entirely. This will obviously change throughout his career as he evolves as a hitter, but the way I see Andrew McCutchen right now is that he's an All-Star when he hits .270 and he's an MVP candidate when he hits .300 or better. It's not quite this simple, but fewer strikeouts means more balls in play, and that can help boost a batting average.
This year, McCutchen's only struck out 19 times in 182 plate appearances. FanGraphs noticed at the beginning of May that he was making more contact, and that's mostly still true 2 1/2 weeks later. And so here it is: McCutchen is going to heat up as the summer starts. I don't know if he's going to go all Right-Handed Ted Williams Nuclear like he did last summer, but he's going to get on a hot streak again. I think it's probably going to happen soon. And once that happens, we're going to look at his season numbers and we're all going to do the same collective double-take that we did around July 1 of last year. Every year, the Andrew McCutchen that plays around the Red Hot Summer Andrew McCutchen is getting a little bit better.