COMMENTARY | Last season, Andrew McCutchen put himself into the MVP discussion by hitting .327/.400/.553 with 31 HRs along with the greatest dreadlocks in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise.
It was the culmination of four consecutive years of growing home run totals, hitting 12, 16, and 23 long balls before the magical 2012 campaign. This year, though, McCutchen, still dreadlocked, has had his numbers fall back a little, watching his slugging percentage tumble by more than 100 points. He's hit only one home run in the month of June and is currently on pace for 17, the lowest since his sophomore season.
Is this merely a regression to the mean, some hidden flaw in his swing, the result of a misguided bet with a carnival psychic? As Paula Cole once asked, where have all the dingers gone?
One possibility is that pitchers, gun shy after giving up 31 home runs last year, are pitching more carefully this season, terrified to throw one down the heart of the plate. But, no, McCutchen is actually seeing slightly more pitches in the zone than last year, though he's chasing more offerings out of the strike zone than ever before. However, while you would expect a mortal player to make more weak contact when chasing pitches, McCutchen is no mere mortal. Instead, McCutchen has actually cut down on his ground balls and upped his line drives, the type of batted balls that most often land for hits. Weak contact isn't the issue.
And if we compare McCutchen's spray charts from this season to last, you won't find many changes, either. He's still spraying balls to all fields, the only difference being, well, last year his hits went over the fence and this year they're not. Of course, batted ball data and spray charts are prone to human error, requiring user input on what is a line drive compared to a fly ball, so perhaps our data is slightly skewed.
What we have seen is McCutchen getting an uptick in doubles, on pace for 48, topping his career high of 35 in 2010. It's often been said of prospects that their doubles will turn into home runs, and perhaps McCutchen has watched his line drives go to gaps instead of over the fences or that his deep flies have been caught in fierce winds that hung them in the air. In other words, random luck. According to Hit Tracker Online, McCutchen's average home run is actually coming off the bat faster and the ball is flying farther than last season. His strength isn't the issue.
In the end, there isn't a satisfying answer. It's not that McCutchen has been solved by pitchers, or that he's retooled his swing, or that he's decided that he'd rather bunt for singles every at-bat. Instead, it's the frustrating notion that while Andrew McCutchen is very, very good at baseball, he still remains at the mercy of luck and the forces of nature like everyone else. Which means there's nothing to do but sit back and wait, hoping for another three-month period like last year's May to July that saw McCutchen crack 22 balls over the fence.
Fortunately, for the Pirates, even without the home runs, McCutchen's combination of speed, defense, and solid contact is enough to make him the lynchpin of the Pirates' offense. Still, with the team in the bottom half of the league in scoring, I'm sure no one would complain if luck's favor smiled down and a few of McCutchen's flyballs started carrying over the fence.
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