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Andrew McCutchen is back

Andrew McCutchen is back, but the truth of the matter is, he never really left.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew McCutchen has put together an excellent career in Pittsburgh. He’s been the face of the Pirates franchise that exorcised demons of old; he’s been at the forefront of making the Pirates relevant again; and he personally has been responsible for generating excitement for a franchise that had lost its way in frustration, futility, and failure. The city of Pittsburgh is a loyal sports city, one that cherishes players who help them win, who help them compete, and who help generate energy around their teams. Cutch had been that player his entire career. Then 2016 happened.

Between 2009 and 2015, McCutchen’s worst season by wRC+ was an impressive 122 (in 2009). At his peak at the plate (in 2014) he had a batting line 68 percent better than league average. McCutchen put on a clinic on the bases, amassing at least 18 steals in six consecutive seasons, and he supplemented the speed and defense by hitting for both power (his lowest slugging percentage during that time was .449) and average.

In 2016, however, everything came to a grinding halt. Cutch finished the season a league average hitter, and a below average defender. Across those 153 games, Cutch still hit his usual mid-20s home runs (he finished with 24), but his average took a dive, down 40 points from his career average, he stopped stealing bases, and his defense took a major step backwards.

Rumors swirled through the offseason — ”Is this the end for Andrew McCutchen?”, “Should the Pirates trade Andrew McCutchen?”, “Pirates need to part ways with Andrew McCutchen” — only to have him remain in the Steel City on what was considered an extraordinarily team-friendly contract before his decline.

Nevertheless, Cutch remained a staple for the Pirates, though the questions were shouted louder after a miserable start to 2017. It seemed that the fears of 2016 were true, that Cutch had lost at least a step, and that he was the victim of a major, irreversible decline. The first month of the season, he hit only three home runs and posted a .244 batting average, compiling a 95 wRC+ and a meager .317 wOBA. May was even worse, and McCutchen’s wRC+ dipped to 77 for the month.

Then it clicked. Something happened, and Cutch reemerged . He went on an absolute tear in June and July. He cut his strikeout rate practically in half, he improved his walk rate by a third, and he more than tripled his base hits. Like a phoenix, Cutch rose from the ashes and flashed greatness once more. His wRC+ on the year has risen to a 134, and he’s on his way to another classic McCutchen season.

The truth of Cutch’s aging bat and defense lies somewhere between his 2016 and his recent performance, but in many respects, the signs were there that he was not completely “done” as so many proclaimed. Over the June/July stretch, McCutchen limited his soft-contact hits, and increased his line drive rate.

McCutchen does not make contact and exhibit an exit velocity like today’s young sluggers. He’ll never compete with the 92+ MPH average exit velo of Aaron Judge (the leader, at 96.6 MPH) or Joey Gallo. His strength lies in his ability to control the strike zone, take walks, and take advantage of pitches left in the zone. He rarely swings at pitches out of the zone (only Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo, and Matt Carpenter are ahead of him) and he’s making contact at pitches in the zone at an 84.8 percent clip, which is right around the league average 85.8 percent.

While the demise of Andrew McCutchen has been greatly exaggerated, he is a 30-year-old player who added value in all aspects of the game earlier in his career. As he ages, so do the tools, but Andrew McCutchen is not done yet.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano