What to expect from Andrew McCutchen

And now we’re really stretch the subject of, ‘Were we wrong about Player X?’ though I will be coming back to it next week as it applies to a particular third baseman. So far, we’ve looked at Nyjer Morgan and the trade, Garrett Jones, and Zach Duke and Paul Maholm.

Andrew McCutchen has completely exceeded expectations this year. In 97 games with the Pirates (excluding this afternoon’s), he’s hitting .281/.358/.472, stolen 16 bases, and played good defense in center field. Because of his age (he’s just 22), his style of play, and his minor league numbers, I expected a much steeper learning curve for McCutchen this year. That’s not to say that I thought he was incapable of the line he’s put up this year; I simply thought it would take a few years for him to develop.

So what are we seeing from McCutchen this year? Is his line with the Pirates an aberration or a leaping off point? We all want McCutchen to be the cornerstone that this franchise is rebuilt on, but will that happen? Or will he end up like so many other disappointing Pirate prospects? You know the drill: analysis coming after the jump.

McCutchen’s minor league career fascinated me the whole time it developed. He showed great patience at some levels and nice power at others, but he never really put it together at once until the early part of this season with Indianapolis. R.J. Anderson did a nice post on McCutchen earlier this month at FanGraphs, mentioning his walk rate and isolated power. Let’s use that as a jumping off point:

  • 2005, GCL (45 games), NY-Penn League (13 games): 1 BB/6.86 PAs, .123 ISO
  • 2006, Sally League (114 games), Eastern League (20 games): 1 BB/11.8 PAs, .156 ISO
  • 2007, Eastern League (118 games), International League (17 games): 1 BB/11.9 PAs, .123 ISO
  • 2008, IL (135 games): 1 BB/8.68 PAs, .115 ISO
  • 2009, IL (49 games): 1 BB/12.88 PAs, .190 ISO
  • 2009, MLB (97 games): 1 BB/9.84 PAs, .191 ISO

His walk rate is all over the place, but I think it’s impressive that he walked as much as he did as an 18-year old in his first season of pro ball in 2005. After that he moved pretty quickly until he hit Triple-A, where he first improved his walk rate, then started to flash some power. I think you can use his minor league stats to come to one of two conclusions; either a slight overperformance or a sign that he’s “putting it all together.”

What really interests me is how his 2009 season compares to the preseason projections. Each of the projection systems said fairly similar things about McCutchen; ZiPS predicted .261/.337/.362, PECOTA predicted .264/.336/.391, Bill James predicted .269/.339/.382, and the Hardball Times predicted .262/.326/.375. You can see from the difference between the predicted batting averages and the predicted on-base percentages that they all about nailed his walk rate. He’s right around 1 BB/10 PAs for the season and ZiPS, PECOTA, and James all had him between 1/10 and 1/11. That’s a good sign; it means that his walk rate should be sustainable.

The biggest difference obviously comes in batting average and power. The projection models all saw a young guy who was mostly slow to acclimate to his level at each ladder after the Sally League. What they can’t see is a skinny 21-year old working out over the winter and growing into a professional athlete’s build, which is what most accounts said about McCutchen when spring training began this year. And while his power surge with the Pirates defies the projection models, it’s not THAT unexpected. He did hit 17 homers in his first full season of professional ball and it’s not any different from what he was doing in Indianapolis before he was called up. When I saw him play in Indianapolis last September, I was suprised with the way the ball jumped off of his bat and when he hit his first homer this year, it just seemed natural that more would be coming. On top of that, his numbers don’t really seem to be that skewed by good luck, either. His BABIP is .321, which is exactly what this BABIP calculator expects given his batted-ball data from this year.

The final thing that’s impressed me about McCutchen this year is how even his level of play has been. I thought Anderson’s comment about McCutchen having a hard time adjusting to breaking pitches was interesting; from his debut on June 4th through the end of August, he hit .288/.355/.497 and had hovered pretty consistently around that level the entire month of August. When September started, though, he tailed off a bit, hitting .154/.290/.192 with just two doubles in the month’s first thirteen games. I thought from watching him that the pitchers were starting to adjust to him a bit and that maybe he was tiring out. In the seven games since, he’s gone .429/.469/.714 with three doubles and a homer. He’s on a ten-game hitting streak, and he’s continued to be the one shining light in all of the Pirates darkness.

I don’t know what kind of player Andrew McCutchen will eventually be. He could be headed for a Carl Crawford-type career as a super-speedster with a bit of pop. He could evolve into more of a power threat. He could take a huge step back next year and ultimately disappoint us, or he could be something else entirely. If I had to bet, though, I wouldn’t be putting money on “disappointment.” He might not immediately be the 15-homer guy that we’re seeing in 2009, but it’s been years since the Pirates have had a player cover the outfield, light the base paths on fire, and hit the way McCutchen has this year. His 23rd birthday won’t come until just after the season ends and he hasn’t looked overwhelmed at any point in his rookie season, nor has he seemed to be playing over his head. I’m reluctant to think, let alone type, this after so many years of disappointing prospects, but I really think we’ve got something with this kid.

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.