Andrew McCutchen's slow start highlights Pirates' offensive woes

If the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to get back on track and make the playoffs in 2017, they need Andrew McCutchen to play like a star. Through six games, things aren’t looking too promising.

After experiencing a down year in 2016, the 30-year-old McCutchen isn’t off to the blazing start many hoped to see. Over 26 plate appearances, he’s hitting just .167/.231/.167. Among Pirates regulars, he’s been the worst hitter on the team thus far.

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While it’s too early to make any snap judgements about McCutchen’s performance, his struggles present a perfect microcosm of the team’s early failures at the plate. By nearly every measure, the entire team’s offensive performance has been among the worst in the league thus far.

Whether they can get things back on course will be the focus of Tuesday’s MLB Free Game of the Day on Yahoo Sports. McCutchen and the Pirates will look to ignite their offensive spark against Joey Votto and the Cincinnati Reds. The contest, which starts at 7:05 p.m. ET, can be streamed on the Yahoo Sports MLB page or this very post. Local blackouts apply per MLB rules.

Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates haven’t hit at all this year. (AP)
Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates haven’t hit at all this year. (AP)

Now, let’s be clear, six games is nothing. You wouldn’t overreact to a poor six-game stretch in August, so you shouldn’t overreact to a poor six-game stretch right now. It only feels significant because it’s the first six games of the season. We have no other data at our disposal.

Still, the offensive numbers in Pittsburgh have been discouraging thus far. Only four regulars are hitting over .250. One of those players is Starling Marte, who everyone knows. Another is second baseman Adam Frazier, who you may have just heard of right now. And while Gregory Polanco is also over that threshold, he’s yet to talk a walk and has just one extra-base hit. His slash line is an empty .269/.269/.308.

If Pittsburgh is hoping to get back to its winning ways in 2017, the team will need to find a way to post at least a league-average offense. While the Pirates’ recent franchise turnaround has mostly been attributed to Ray Searage and his band of resurrected pitchers, the team’s offense was surprisingly more consistent.

During the team’s three-year run of postseason success, the Pirates relied on a well-rounded approach. Both the team’s offense and pitching peaked at the same time. In 2013, the Pirates had the sixth best pitching staff by fWAR and the 12th best offense by wRC+ (an advanced stat that measures offense) in the majors. While the pitching lagged in 2015, finishing 28th in fWAR, the offense exploded, jumping to fourth in wRC+. In the final year of the Pirates’ run, everything came together. The team had the ninth best staff according to fWAR and the fourth best offense by wRC+.

Aside from 2014, it was mostly a balanced approach. When the pitching was awful that one year, the Pirates were carried by one of the best offenses in the game.

The Pirates need their offense to get back on top in 2017. (AP Photo)
The Pirates need their offense to get back on top in 2017. (AP Photo)

The problems the team faces now are similar. After a tough 2016, in which the Pirates’ staff finished 27th in fWAR, there’s less confidence in Searage’s magic. On top of that, the team’s pitching staff is facing a fair amount of uncertainty. Gerrit Cole is coming off an injury-riddled year, Ivan Nova is looking to prove his second half surge wasn’t a fluke and newcomers Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow have finally arrived. While the youngsters have promise, neither has proven themselves in the majors just yet.

It’s certainly possible Searage’s blip was temporary, and the Pirates rebound to boast one of the game’s best staffs. But it’s tough to predict that after last season’s struggles combined with the new faces in the rotation.

That means the offense is going to have to carry its weight this year. While it hasn’t gotten off to a strong start, the pieces are there. Marte and Polanco are in their prime. First baseman Josh Bell was considered a decent prospect. Catcher Francisco Cervelli looked like an above-average contributor until injuries got in the way.

At the center of it all is McCutchen. Whether the team’s offense can carry a transitioning pitching staff could depend on the 30-year-old recapturing his MVP numbers. The Pirates won’t be able to contend by being merely average this time around.

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Chris Cwik is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at christophercwik@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Chris_Cwik

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