What's Wrong with Perennial MVP Candidate Andrew McCutchen?

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterMay 12, 2015

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Few players in baseball have been more consistently MVP-worthy over the past handful of seasons than Andrew McCutchen. Yet more than a month into 2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder, who has three straight top-three NL MVP finishes—including the 2013 trophy—has looked nothing like his usual MVP-caliber self.

In fact, entering play Tuesday, the 28-year-old is hitting just .219/.308/.342 with but two home runs and one stolen base through 31 games.

This, from a stud who has averaged—that's averaged—a slash line of .320/.405/.534 with more than 25 homers, nearly 90 RBI and almost 22 steals per from 2012 to 2014.

Short of copping out by calling this something of a Samson situation after Cutch cut his dreads for charity this past offseason, let's delve into what's been going wrong here—and whether the Pirates superstar can turn things around.

A knee injury has hampered Andrew McCutchen since spring training and could be at the root of his early-season struggles.
A knee injury has hampered Andrew McCutchen since spring training and could be at the root of his early-season struggles.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

To McCutchen's credit—and perhaps a little to the concern of folks in Pittsburgh—he understandably is fed up with his mediocre performance so far.

"I'm sick and tired of going 0-for-freaking-4," he told Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in early May. "I know I'm better than that. ... It's under mediocre right now. It's bad."

That's refreshing to hear from a player, let alone one of McCutchen's ilk. But it also sounds like a man searching for answers rather than one who knows how to find them, which is more discouraging than refreshing.

It's not as if he is lacking for confidence, though. "I feel good. I feel strong when I'm up there. I feel fine when I'm hitting," McCutchen said to Sawchik. "I can't sit here and say my knee is the reason. I don't believe so. I just believe I'm a little off. … Once it's going, it ain't gonna stop. While I'm down, get me while I'm down."

In reading that second quote, you no doubt came across McCutchen's passing reference to his knee. This, one figures, is related to the somewhat vague "lower body soreness" he was battling through during spring training, as Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported back in mid-March.

The injury kept McCutchen out of a number of games during the exhibition season and had to have impacted his preparation for the real games, which likely is part of why he hasn't been his consistently uber-productive self.

The problem also hasn't completely gone away, as McCutchen took himself out of a game during the opening week and questions about the knee have lingered into May, much like the apparent ailment itself.

In diagnosing McCutchen's performance, a good place to start is with his plate discipline. His 9.8 percent walk percentage and 15.8 percent strikeout percentage both are within range of not only his career marks, but also those of the past few seasons.

As far as his contact rates, all of those seem to be more or less right in line with years past. His overall contact percentage of 78.8 percent isn't far off his career rate (80.4 percent); and the same goes for his 9.3 percent swinging strike rate (8.2 percent career).

McCutchen's batting average on balls in play, however, sticks out like crazy. Entering play Tuesday, he owns a .245 BABIP, which is remarkably lower than his .332 career number—and more than 100 points south of his lowest BABIP in any of the past three seasons (.353 in 2013).

The quick takeaway from that, of course, is that McCutchen has been superbly unlucky and merely needs to exorcise the demons, like so:

But let's go a little deeper than that, shall we? This is, after all, one of the very elite players in baseball, and this slump has gone on for more than a month now.

The next portion of data to look into is McCutchen's batted ball breakdown. He's exchanged a few percentage points of line drives for ground balls, but it's nothing that looks out of whack. Then again, grounders tend to find holes, which is why McCutchen's drastic downturn in BABIP is even more puzzling.

The league-wide BABIP on grounders in 2015 is .237, and it normally settles in around the .230-.250 range. By comparison, McCutchen's BABIP on grounders in his career is .311, but in 2015 it's just .268.

In other words, it's strange that McCutchen has been hitting the ball on the ground more often, yet it's still producing a lower than usual BABIP for him. To an extent, that should start to even out.

The one counterpoint, however, is that McCutchen is hitting a much higher percentage of soft worm-burners (26.8 percent) compared to hard grounders (17.1) than he has in the past. To wit, the percentage of hard ground balls he has hit the past three years going backward were 28.0, 31.8 and 22.6.

At the same time, he's pulling fewer balls (38.9 percent versus 43.2 percent career) while also trading hard contact (32.6 percent versus 36.9 percent career) for more soft contact (15.8 percent versus 13.5 percent career), enough that it's noticeable, at least to this point in 2015. And if the focus is on the past few seasons only, the difference is even more stark.

Lastly, McCutchen's 5.3 home run-to-fly-ball ratio is well below his 12.3 career figure, which speaks to both his misfortune as well as his inability to drive the ball with full force early on.

The bottom line? McCutchen's approach remains the same, which is good. The contact rates do, too. Also good. But the type of contact, namely the amount of authority behind it, is different—and not in a good way.

As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs concludes after examining the data and the footage for Fox Sports' Just a Bit Outside:

The matter with Andrew McCutchen is his swing. Maybe he's still in pain, and maybe he's not still in enough pain for it to matter. But regardless, he has a swing that's seemingly compensating for an uncomfortable left leg. And that's not the swing of a successful Andrew McCutchen.

The bad news is McCutchen doesn't appear to be quite as healthy as he's letting on, which is typical of a world-class athlete with top-of-the-scale confidence in his abilities. The good news? Once McCutchen gets back to normal—assuming his knee can recover and get right in short order—then so, too, should his performance.

Even MVP-caliber players have slumps and slow starts. Now we have some idea why McCutchen is fighting through one for the first time since, well, he's become an MVP.

 

Statistics are accurate through Monday, May 11, and courtesy of MLB.com, MiLB.com, Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11.

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