McCutchen has been really good over the past three season but the one knock on his game was that he really faded in the second half of the season both in 2011 and 2012 which was during the time that the Pirates faded from the post season run. After tearing up the first half in both of those seasons he really fell off in the second half. I know this has been talked about to the tipping point but here are the splits between the first half and second half of the season (as determined by the All-Star break)
First Half: .291/.390/.505
Second Half: .216/.330/.392
First Half: .362/.414/.625
Second Half: .289/.385/.475
Now, the second half of the 2012 season was a drop off due to the fact that he was ridiculously good in the first half but his line for August was only .252/.347/.364 line that was partially covered up by a July where he hit /.446/.510/.739. He came back down to Earth starting with August and while the second half numbers look good a lot of people remember that August as McCutchen carried the Pirates offense for the first five months of the season.
This season McCuthen wasn't as good in the first half as he was in his MVP push that was 2012 but he was really good hitting .302/.376/.471 with 10 home runs and 37 extra base hits. The difference between 2013 McCutchen and the one in 2011 and 2012 is that he has bounced back in a huge way in the second half. Going into tonights game he has a .362/.446/.591 line in 41 games since the All-Star break with 17 extra base hits which is damn near and extra base hit every other game. In the past the Pirates have gone as McCutchen has gone in the second half of the season and while the Pirates have been hovering around .500 for the second half they are 22 games over .500 for the season and McCutchen is the biggest reason why. He keeps getting better with an August that shows him hitting .404/.504/.564 line with 16 games where he has two hits or more and only six games where he hasn't recorded a hit.
There are many reasons for the Pirates success this year and as I said I think McCutchen headlines that list. It obviously helps that he has a much better supporting cast this year to take some of the pressure off (despite what some people want you to think about the Pirates offense) but I think the main point is that he just keeps evolving as a player. In both 2011 and 2012 McCutchen saw a huge spike in home runs with 54 between those two seasons with a career-high 31 last year. With that came a higher strikeout rate. Here is how the strikeout rates stack up for McCutchen throughout his career:
That rate was going in the wrong way. This season McCutchen has make a substantial improvement to put the ball in play more which is going to result in him getting on base more. He is right around his career walk rate of 11% (10.8% this year) and has been fairly consistent there but cutting down on the strikeouts has improved his game. His power has suffered a little from last season when he slugged .553 but the on base percentage is identical (around .400) and both is wOBA and wRC+ are right in line with each other from last year (career year) to this year. Last year McCutchen was a 6.8 fWAR and this year he is already at 6.5 fWAR.
But why? I think the first place that really jumped out to me was that he is hitting line drives at a much higher rate than he has in the past. His career average (including this year) is around 21% but heading into the game tonight he was hitting line drives at a nearly 26% rate. Per FanGraphs:
A line drive produces 1.26 runs per out, while fly balls produce 0.13 runs per out and groundballs produce 0.05 runs per out. In other words, batters want to hit lots of line drives and fly balls, while pitchers generally want to cause batters to hit groundballs.
Along with his line drive rate McCutchen has kept his fly ball rate at nearly 34% (34.3% last season) and has lowered his ground ball rate from 43.8% last year to 40.7% this season. As you saw above pitchers want to keep the ball on the ground. McCutchen has taken those ground balls that he hit last year and turned them into line dives. That means more extra base hits and a greater chance of getting on base. While lowering your strikeout rate is always good it makes it even better when you are hitting line drives instead of ground balls with those extra balls in play.
What is also is interesting is that McCutchen is swinging the bat a lot more this year than he has in the past. So far this season he has swung at 48.2% of pitches as opposed to his career average of 42.7%. His previous career high was 46.2% which he set lst season and before that it was only 41.5% in 2011. He is swinging the bat more at all pitches also. On pitches outside of the zone (o-swing%) he is swinging at 28.8% of those pitches which is way up from 25.9% last year but also is swinging at more pitches in the zone (z-swing%) at a 72% clip which is up from his 69.8% rate in 2012 (career high).
While it always isn't good for players to swing at more pitches outside of the zone it seems as if McCutchen is picking well when he does that. His contact rate on pitches his swings at outside of the strike zone is at nearly 65% which is up over 3% from last season and the highest it's been since 2010 when his o-swing% was only 20%. This isn't isn't ideal as league average for o-contact% is 68% but McCutchen has made the improvement. He also improved his z-contact% at 87.5% which puts him right at league average after falling to a career-low 85% last season. Overall in plate discipline statistics McCutchen has improved across the board and got him to league average. While league average is not ideal the spike in his line drive rate makes that negligible since he is giving himself a higher probability of getting on when he does make contact. The fact of the matter is that it seems like McCutchen has learned from the past two seasons and made adjustments, no matter how minor, to make him a more effective hitter throughout the entire season.
I know we talked about the offensive aspect of the game but McCutchen has been better in many more aspects of the game. Defensively I don't think that McCutchen has been very good over his career. Sure, he won a Gold Glove last season but I think a lot of that was smoke and mirrors as that award is given out for more of your offensive performance than your actual defense. This season he is posting his best UZR and UZR/150 of his career and even just from the eye test you can see that he has improved. He has cut down on his throwing mistakes by a wide margin and is throwing to the proper bases. I know some of you might be rolling your eyes but those mistakes cost the Pirates runs last season. It has cost them very few, if any, this year.
Base running has been better too. Last season he stole 20 bases but was caught 12 times. A lot of people look at McCutchen and see the speed when he goes from first to third and just asks the question "why can't this guy steal bases?" That is a valid question. The problem is that straight speed is only a part of stealing bases and base running. Last season McCutchen seemed like he was just taking chances and going despite having some really bad jumps. This season he's turned that around. He has 27 stolen bases and only been caught nine times. While that isn't as good as his 2010 season when he stole 33 bases in 43 chances or his 2009 season when he was successful in 22-of-27 chances it shows that he might have realized he was trying to steal just to steal in 2012 and has got back to picking better spots and getting better jumps when he does go this year. Again, this might seem secondary but in baseball the job is to not get out. Last year McCutchen was running into outs on the bases. He's cut down on that this year and it makes him a much more dangerous baseball player.
I think the thing that is interesting about McCutchen is that he isn't at the top of the league in any one thing. He doesn't have 80 power or contact or plate discipline but he is damn good at all of them. McCutchen is going to have some bad at bats but he doesn't get held down for long. He leads all of baseball with 51 multi hit games and in 37 games he has gone without a hit. He isn't going to wow you with any one thing he does but when you put all his tools together you see why he is the frontrunner for the National League MVP this year. Don't let these fools tell you that he isn't the MVP of the Pirates, he is. By a lot. This is one of the best players in all of baseball and this year he is showing you that he can make some adjustments and learn from the past two years where he has struggled big time. This guy is a Pittsburgh Pirate and he is going to be one for a long time. Go ahead and smile, I am.