Friday, November 15, 2013

Cutch - Is the Best To Come?

It was no surprise that Cutch won the NL-MVP last night; only the margin of victory (28-of-30 first place votes) was a stunner. He joins a select Bucco band that consists of Roberto Clemente, Dick Groat, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker and Barry Bonds (twice) to achieve that honor.

There's no question the 27 year old earned it. He hit .317/.404/.508 with a .911 OPS, 21 homers, 97 runs, 84 RBI, 27 stolen sacks, an 8.4 UZR/150 as a defender and a NL-leading 8.2 WAR in 2013. Cutch finished in the NL's top seven for BA, OBP, slugging and OPS. And being on a team that finally made a post season appearance didn't hurt the cause. Last year, he put up a better offensive line (.327/.400/.553, .953 OPS) but received just one first-place vote for MVP while finishing third.

The Bucs took him as the 11th overall pick in 2005, passing on guys like Jay Bruce (whom the brass were also considering), Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley. Though most folks think he was stuck in the minors too long (remember when learning to bunt was still on his check list?), the truth is that the Pirates fast tracked the high schooler. He went through the rookie leagues at 18, Class A at 19, and spent the next two seasons and some change in the upper levels. Cutch never disappointed, and was a Baseball America Top Fifty Prospect from the day he was drafted.

Forty-nine games into his 2009 season, Pittsburgh gave him the center field job, trading the popular All-Star Nate McLouth when his value was at its peak to Atlanta for Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernadez, who was later flipped for Gaby Sanchez.

He's had 5+ WAR for the past three seasons for a total of 20.4 WAR over that span, per Fangraphs (20.8 per Baseball Reference). Consider that 4 WAR during a season puts you in All-Star territory and 6 WAR merits MVP consideration. And that's where Cutch has been lately, with three AS berths, a third place MVP finish in 2012 and the whole enchilada this year.

And the cherry on top is that Cutch is a Buc for a long time. Just before the 2012 season opened, Cutch inked a deal that should max out at seven years, $66M (with bonuses, of which he's fairly certain to cash in), with the Bucs holding a 2018 team option. Will his value still be holding up into his age 31?

Sure should. beside being tied up for his prime production years, most indicators are that Cutch has become a more mature and productive player, beginning in 2012. For contract conspiracists, his pre-deal line was .276/.365/.458, while in the past two years it's been .322/.402/.531. Maybe there is something to be said about a nice warm security blanket.

But there's a lot more to base the future on. His line drive rate has increased from 20% to 24.5% over that span. He puts plenty of balls in play, too - his K rate was just 15% last year, and he's approached the MLB average of 20% only once in his career. It also shows in his walk rate; it's never been under 10.4% and his lifetime average is 11.4%. Cutch has the patience to go deep into counts and come out ahead.

McCutchen is a well reputed lefty masher, but in the past couple of seasons he's solved righties pretty well, too. In his first three campaigns he never reached a .280+ BA and had just one .800+ OPS against same-siders, but in the past two years he's hit .309 BA/.900 OPS and .302 BA/.864 OPS against RHP.

His power has pretty much settled in. In the past three years, Cutch has lost 75 baseballs with a .190 ISO or better and about a 12% FB/HR ratio, so a ballpark figure of 25 homers looks to be sustainable. And his slugging percentage (.489 lifetime) will remain strong as long as his wheels do, giving him those extra power-padding leg doubles. It also helps pad his BABIP. Cutch has had one season when his balls-in-play % was under .311, and it sits at .322 lifetime.

His baserunning does more than send caps flying;  Bill James estimates that he's created 13 runs on the bases in the past two years.

That elite speed will help him in the outfield, too. Despite low defensive ratings in 2012, McCutchen bounced back with his best season in the field. His range improved: he went from costing the team five runs in 2012 to saving seven last year (per Bill James), and he has a quicker, more accurate release now on his throws, a necessity due to his quite average arm. And a saving grace is that he's not locked into center into his 30s; with Starling Marte on his flank, the loss of a step just requires a switch of spots.

So speed, patience, defense and passable power are all there. Cutch is also said to be the hardest worker on the team; every season there's an aspect of his game that you can see he's dedicated the off season to improving.

There are a couple of cracks in Cutch's armor. While generally patient at the dish, he has to guard against his tendency to pull the ball the way he did in 2011, when he hit .259. He's a more dangerous hitter going gap-to-gap. McCutchen can't exactly be considered a streak hitter, but he seems to settle into a fairly deep funk during some point in the season; fortunately, in 2013 it was at the start of the year rather than the finish.

Defensively, he has to play with a mental edge. He'll get to balls other guys wave at, but his arm will always require forethought to be effective. He averages nine assists a year, and that's more a testament to opponents running on him than his lasers.He could be a more vocal leader, but his on-and-off field example and the times he does take the dugout floor are more than enough. But enough with the quibbling.

Cutch is set up to have a long run as da man in Pittsburgh. His speed and peripherals support his counting numbers, and they should only go higher as Cutch gets deeper into his career and hopefully surrounded by more talent.

It's hard to post WAR numbers like Cutch's, and we doubt that even he could keep running up 6+ WAR every year. But it's easy to see him as the club's automatic All-Star, and there's no reason to believe that won't last through his contract.

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