It’s widely expected Andrew McCutchen is a safe bet to be the team leader in homeruns heading into the 2016 season, but could he be a candidate to challenge for homerun title in the National League?
A vacuum is created by a removal of air or dramatic reduction in pressure so that the internal pressure is significantly lower than the pressure of the external forces weighing on the object or space. This simple scientific principle may be the best explanation for the situation surrounding Andrew McCutchen and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Virtually no one has the Pirates finally breaking through the NL Central log jam and capturing the elusive division title for the first time since 1992. The St. Louis Cardinals are still highly regarded as the defending division champions for the last three years, and the Chicago Cubs are practically being handed the World Series title before the first pitch of the season has yet to be thrown.
The Pirates have experienced a dramatic power loss with the departures of Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker. The team has employed an on-base percentage approach to the roster and lineup development, and McCutchen is expected to be a key component in the success or failure of that philosophy, as he is expected to bat second in the lineup most days. Everyone that follows the Pirates knows the storylines at this point, but what may not be expected is what could turn out to be one of the biggest storylines in all of baseball this season, the emerge of Andrew McCutchen, homerun hitter extraordinaire.
In 2012, arguably McCutchen’s best statistical season, he hit .327, led the league in hits, won his only gold glove award to date, his first silver slugger award, and set a career high for homeruns. It was the team’s heartbreaking second half collapse that robbed him of a certain MVP award, which had to wait for another year.
Now, as rumors swirl that the Pirates may seek to gain maximum value by moving McCutchen before his current contract expires following the 2018 season. His value would only increase if he could find a way to maximize his power potential, a potential that could put him in competition to lead the National League in homeruns in 2016. Yes, Andrew McCutchen may have the potential to hit 40 homeruns this season.
Last offseason, McCutchen’s time was consumed wedding preparations and the adjustment that followed. When the season hit, he was slowed continuously by nagging knee problems, the nature of which was never truly revealed. It showed too. McCutchen favored his right leg many times on his swings. He took conservative routes to the ball when normally he would have chased it down. He walked more in 2012, but he also struck out almost exactly the same number of times in less plate appearances.
So how does all of this add up to Andrew McCutchen being more of a power threat than ever?
Following the game against the Yankees nearly two weeks ago, McCutchen said, “Got my power back. Got my legs back…I feel pretty strong, as you can see.” Clearly, as the majority of McCutchen’s homeruns have left the stadium, not just the field of play this spring. He’s showing the same light tower flare that caused his homeruns in 2012 to be accompanied by the ‘ooh’s’ and ‘aah’s’ of fans. Let’s contrast that with his homeruns from 2015.
Aside from how McCutchen gingerly places that right leg causing slow hip and bat speed and consequently less power, one of the most notable differences is the difference between the two years in the ratio of line drive to flyball homeruns. Due to the concept of parallax, line drives and fly balls is a rather subjective determination. What is clear is that a fly ball may clear the fence by an inch, and a line drive may clear the same fence by fifty feet. A line drive homerun is neither better nor worse than a flyball homerun.
In 2012, 22 of McCutchen’s 31 homeruns were flyballs, good for 71%. He also hit roughly an equal number of homeruns at home and away, 15 and 16, respectively. In 2015, that all changed. Ten of his 23 homeruns were line drives, which was still in the minority at 43.5%, but it was a dramatic increase from the 29% he had in 2012.
Another reason is the natural gradual muscle growth McCutchen has shown each year of his professional career. Here he is in 2012:
Notice the increase in bicep and forearm muscles. It’s something I’ve noticed the last few years, and it seems to be taking effect this spring.
Finally, McCutchen has the on-base machine in John Jaso batting ahead of him most days. Batting second behind a player that can get on base at such a high rate should force pitchers to throw more pitches, specifically fastballs, in the zone to avoid having two on and none out situations.
It is unlikely pitchers will be able to finally unlock the secret to keeping Jaso off base, and it would be virtually impossible to contain one of the league’s best hitters behind him. If the Pirates can find solid solutions for the third and fourth spots in the order, the threat of McCutchen becomes all the more prevalent. His chances will also be more prevalent, as the player consistently batting second in the lineup is all but guaranteed to get more plate appearances and, thus, opportunities to hit homeruns.
Even if pitchers throw out of the zone hoping the hit or miss on plate discipline center fielder will swing, McCutchen has shown the ability to hit pitches anywhere in – or out, of the zone. In 2012, he hit .349 on pitches in the strike zone. In 2015, that number dipped slightly to .336. In 2012, McCutchen managed to hit .274 on pitches out of the zone. In 2015, he posted a .229 average on such pitches.
In simplest terms, a healthy Andrew McCutchen is poised to pack a punch at the top of the lineup, which bodes very well for the Pirates chances.