Moving Andrew McCutchen to the six hole has been the best thing to happen to the Pirates’ offense this season.
In a way, he was due. I wrote for Fangraphs on May 15th that his batted ball in play average (BABIP) was far too low (.221 at the time). Fangraphs’ editor Dave Cameron wrote about his hot streak this past week, again citing a much higher BABIP average (.356). The league average is usually around .300. Entering play Friday, McCutchen was at .284, so he has almost caught up to even ground.
But it’s more than just being due or getting a chance to breathe easier in a lesser role. McCutchen is whiffing less this year than he did even in his MVP-caliber campaigns. He is offering outside the zone less too. Being more selective is suiting him well, even if the walks are holding steady.
The Pirates’ offense has a pulse because of him, so the debate has shifted to whether he should be moved back to the three hole. While it’s tempting, there are still a couple red flags that should be addressed before he does.
He is not hitting the ball harder in June. He is not swinging the bat faster, either. If anything, both his average exit velocity and swing speed is down from earlier in the year, which was down from 2016, which was down from 2015.
As Cameron points out, he’s putting better swings on the ball, creating better launch angles. Do you know the old saying “work smarter, not harder?” Well, this is “swing smarter, not harder.”
But the real dirty little secret about McCutchen’s success is he still isn’t hitting like he was in his prime. From 2012-2014, his home run spray chart was fairly symmetrical.
The hits start to deviate a tad in 2015 and 2016, but his home runs are still fairly evenly distributed.
That has not been the case in 2017. With the exception of a couple of wall-scrapers down the right field line, he has basically been a dead pull hitter.
It is a smaller sample size this season so far, but there is very little up the middle. Almost all of his damage is being done down the lines (mostly the left). He only has one hit that went to medium deep right-center or further. For the first time in his career, less than one fifth of his batted balls are going to right field. That also means he has the second highest pull rate of his career, and teams are taking notice.
According to Fangraphs, McCutchen has already recorded 50 at-bats against shifts this year. In 2015, he had 55 at-bats against some sort of shift. In his MVP 2013 campaign, he saw 61 shifts. The league is moving infielders around more, especially against him.
We have seen McCutchen either feast or famine for two years now. That is not a good trait in a number three hitter. Becoming more predictable may have something to do with his extreme swings in BABIP, but his swing speed and average exit velocity have probably seen better days.
If he can maintain this hot streak for another couple of weeks, the Pirates may want to entertain shuffling his spot in the lineup. Starling Marte’s return may be change that forces him to move up in the order.
Until then, leave well enough alone and don’t get in the way of his mashing.