Captain McCutchen’s Regression Stormy waters ahead. Ye be warned matey.
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen is coming off a 2012 campaign that saw him finish 4th overall on ESPN's Player Rater. Captain McCutchen’s line of .327 AVG / 31 HR / 96 RBI / 107 R / 20 SB were only bested by Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, and Miguel Cabrera. That's elite company folks. With that in mind, Cutch is a no doubt first rounder right? A five category stud who can captain and navigate your fantasy vessel to championship waters? Not so fast scallywag! Before ye walk the plank and hand McCutchen the wheel, I'm here to warn you of some potentially rough waters ahead.
A lot of McCutchen's value came from his .327 batting average last season. As batting averages continue to plummet to the depths of the abyss (league average was .261 in 2012), having a player anchor your lineup with a .327 average was very valuable. Unfortunately, McCutchen’s average was fuelled by an unsustainable .375 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). As discussed in previous posts, while the league average BABIP is typically around .300, each player will establish their own BABIP over time depending upon a number of factors including running speed, batted ball profile, etc. Prior to 2012, McCutchen's career BABIP was .308, which was slightly better than league average, but .067 points lower than the BABIP he posted last season.
When I see a significant variance in a player's BABIP, the first thing I do is check their batted ball profile, and see if there was a drastic change in the types of balls the player was hitting. As a quick refresher, remember line drives fall for hits more often than groundballs, and ground balls result in hits more often than flyballs (LD > GB > FB). For the most part, McCutchen's batted ball profile was in line with his career norm, so I would expect that .327 AVG to come down quite a bit as his BABIP regresses towards his career average. This shouldn't come as a surprise to many though, as McCutchen batted .286, .286, and .259 in his previous three seasons, so it's easy to pick out 2012 as the outlier.
Another reason the average is unsustainable stems from McCutchen's plate discipline. After posting an elite 13.1% BB% (walk percentage) in 2011, McCutchen posted a 10.4% rate in 2012, which is still solid, but it shows a batter with less patience. This is supported by McCutchen's career high K% of 19.6% (strikeout percentage), career high SwStr% of 9.8% (percentage of pitches a batter swings at and misses), career high O-Swing% of 25.9% (percentage of pitches outside the strikezone that a batter swings at), and career low contact rate of 77.8%. It's possible that McCutchen was trying to hit for more power last season given the lack of offense surrounding him, and traded in some his patience with a more aggressive approach at the plate. Taking into account both the BABIP regression and declining plate discipline, I would expect McCutchen to hit in the .275-.280 range in 2013, which is good, but far from the elite .327 he posted in 2012.
Another area screaming regression is McCutchen's 33 home runs. The casual fan might note the increasing homerun trend, and buy into the notion that the power improvement is legit. After all, this is a guy who has improved his home run totals each season of his career, having hit 12, 16, 23, and 31 home runs the past four seasons. I'm not so quick to buy into that theory, simply from the standpoint that Cutch posted a HR/FB ratio of 19.4% after having posted a 12.2% ratio in 2011. Now don't get me wrong, the guy's got power, but I think he splits those ratios in 2013, and his HR/FB ratio settles in the 14-15% range, which would most likely drag the homerun total to 23-26 range in 2013.
One last red flag is McCutchen's basestealing ability. Despite McCutchen's speed, he is not a very good basestealer. I think the 33 stolen bases in 2010 will represent his career high, and I think 25 now represents his ceiling, as opposed to 30-35. The reason for drawing such a conclusion deals with the fact that Cutch's success rate has decreased each season, from 81% in 2009, to 77%, 70%, and finally 63% in 2012. It will be difficult for the Pirates to continue to give him the green light if his success rate continues to be so poor. It’s tough to pin point the reason for the declining success rate, perhaps he’s lost a step as his body has filled out and gotten stronger. Regardless, the trend is troubling and I think it fool's gold to assume 25+ SB going forward. With that said, McCutchen should still a lock for 15-20 SB, but 25 stolen bases might now be his ceiling.
So what does that leave us with? The guy is still a five category producer, but I think he's going to be overvalued as a late first round pick in 2013, when in reality, there probably isn't much difference between McCutchen and Carlos Gonzalez or Adam Jones. My advice? Save ye plunder, and let others make the mistake of burning a first round pick on Captain McCutchen. The Kraken will surely drag those teams to the depths of Davy Jones' Locker.