Part four of my meandering season preview, in which we close out The Four Horseman of The Original Cavalry.
Andrew McCutchen is a very good young baseball player. In his three years with the Pirates, he's been impressively consistent at the plate, with wOBAs of .368, .363, and .360 and wRC+s of 125, 125, and 129. With the Pirates' new coaching staff and the outfield shift eliminated in 2011, he both looked better in center field and scored much higher in advanced fielding metrics than he did in the past. If the next six years of his career just look like the first three, he'll be worth every penny the Pirates will pay him over the course of his new extension. For me, though, a bigger question exists. How high is Andrew McCutchen's ceiling?
The linear weight stats show McCutchen as having three very similar years to open his career, but that doesn't quite tell the whole story, because if you strip the components of his performance out, his first three years haven't been quite identical. Let's look at the progression of McCutchen's walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average).
- 2007 (Double-A): 8.7%, 16.4%, .126 (BB%, K%, ISO, respectively)
- 2008 (Triple-A): 11.5%, 14.7%, .115
- 2009 (Pirates): 11.0%, 13.6%, .185
- 2010 (Pirates): 10.7%, 13.6%, .163
- 2011 (Pirates): 13.1%, 18.6%, .198
Except for 2010, McCutchen's first full year at the big league level, it's easy to see how far his patience and power have come over the last few years. His strikeout rate had been on a clear downward trend, too, before spiking back up last year. It'd be easy to say that McCutchen is trading some strikeouts for more power a few more walks and that's why his batting average dipped badly last year even with a constant OBP and improving power. I'm not so sure that tells the whole story, either, though.
Beyond McCutchen's strikeouts, you can see another factor that contributed to his low batting average last year. His BABIP was .291, which is only the second time in his major or minor league career that the number has dipped below .300 (2007 was the other). His BABIP was .327 in 2009 and .311 in 2010. His line drive rate (20.0%) was a big league career high and his pop-up rate (6.4%) was a big league career low, both things that should adjust his BABIP upwards and not downwards. If you use an xBABIP calculator (which, it should be noted, is for all intents and purposes three years old and thus missing data from each of those seasons not totally reliable, so consider this a pretty back of the envelope estimation), McCutchen's BABIP last year should've been in the .320/.330 ballpark. In short, for all of the things that McCutchen did well in 2011, it'd be fair to say that he got a bit unlucky in terms of fielders turning his balls in play into outs. If McCutchen had the same year he had in 2011 in terms of walks, strikeouts, and power, but hit .280 instead of .259, the result would be a season that looked like a step forward in terms of offense, instead of a season that resulted in some more home runs and walks but could still be interpreted as treading water at the plate.
This leaves us with our questions for 2012. Can McCutchen maintain his power and walk rate and drop his strikeout rate back to 2009/2010 levels? Just how much power can he develop? Is 25 homers his ceiling? 30? He's one of the best centerfielders in the National League right now; can he become one of the best players?
Of course the answers to these questions aren't immediately apparent, but what I will say is this: I see room for McCutchen to get better. That doesn't mean that he will, of course, just that I think that if you look at his career performances, the fact that his wOBA and wRC+ haven't really improved during his career doesn't necessarily mean that he's at a plateau. I think the possibility exists that he's got another level to jump to. I don't know that he'll get there, but I think there's a good chance that we still haven't seen the final product when it comes to Andrew McCutchen.