Andrew McCutchen: A Prime Example of Sample Size

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates center fielder is gradually overcoming a slow start that may or may not have been caused by a nagging ankle injury. Can he live up to his high expectations, or will he continue to have trouble in the power department?

Sample size.

It's a phrase that gets tossed around quite a bit during the first few weeks each season, and rightfully so. If a player is batting .100 or .500, he won't finish the season with that same mark–fair enough.

In some cases, however, early slumps and breakouts are indicative of how that player is likely to perform throughout the rest of the season. For instance, B.J. Upton's slow start (.185/.241/.296 slash line) is probably not too far off from what we can expect for the rest of the season, especially given his struggles last season. Similarly, as I wrote on Tuesday, Charlie Blackmon might not continue to hit in the .400s, but I expect him to put up fantasy starter-worthy numbers this season.

That brings us to Andrew McCutchen, who's been somewhere in between those two extreme cases. The Pirates center fielder is following up his 2013 MVP campaign with a .262 batting average and a lone home run, a far cry from what fantasy owners who drafted him third or fourth overall expected.

Part of what's causing McCutchen's early-season problems is his red-hot spring. He batted .417 with a 1.263 OPS and five home runs during spring training this year, which, coupled with his award-winning 2013 season, has unsurprisingly led to opposing pitchers not giving the Pirates center fielder a whole lot to hit. So much so, in fact, that he led the league in walks as late as April 11 (with 11 through his first 13 games) and still ranks among the league leaders.

The other usual elements are still there. McCutchen has already stolen three bases in three attempts after averaging just under 26 swipes a year during his four full seasons in the majors. He's also registered a respectable five non-homer extra base hits (four doubles, one triple), which is right in line with his previous career totals.

McCutchen is also typically a slow starter. For example, you might recall that he hit .247 with a .731 OPS in April last season before going on to win the MVP award. He posted similarly poor numbers in April 2011, when he hit .219 with a .747 OPS before going on to hit 23 homers with 89 RBI and 87 runs that season.

Even so, it's worth advising caution against taking too much stock in that previous point. Simply having a history of slow starts doesn't necessarily mean McCutchen is due to break out and return to MVP-caliber levels of performance. But it's a good benchmark from which we can infer that McCutchen will pick it up, albeit without any guarantees.

There's also the issue of McCutchen's previously injured ankle, which is now healed but nevertheless could have been causing him some difficulties earlier in the year. According to MLB.com's Tom Singer, McCutchen exited the Pirates' 4-2 loss on April 11 complaining of ankle discomfort. TribLIVE.com's Rob Bieftempfel reported that McCutchen described the injury as "something that nags you" and that he'd been bothered by it before. Here's what McCutchen had to say, per Bieftempfel's article:

It's like when you wake up one day and it's like, 'Aw, my back is hurting,' and then you wake up the next and your back's not hurting. It's just one of those things. It's not going to hinder me at all. I'm going to do everything I normally do.

Since that Friday game, McCutchen is 9-for-25 (.360) with five RBI. Whether that's a legitimate correlation or simply coincidence, it's very possible that the Pirates center fielder's recent hot streak is a product of his healed ankle and is more in line with how he'll perform for the rest of the season.

Will McCutchen prove his worth as an early first-round pick? Will he be able to live up to the expectations created by his MVP-winning season? Historical precedent and promising recent numbers say he will.

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