Before we even start, let’s remind ourselves that Andrew McCutchen is still a really good player.
It’s important that you know this, because he fits the schema of a player who isn’t very good at all. He’s certainly not what he used to be. He can’t really play center field anymore. He’s on the wrong side of 30. Speed and defense were once a major part of his all-around value, and they kind of aren’t anymore. This doesn’t sound like a player you should want on your team, but I assure you, he most definitely is.
Not long ago McCutchen was praised as one of the best five-tool players in baseball. That’s how he won an MVP award when he was 26. Now that he’s 32 and a free agent, let’s see what remains of those tools.
Hit: Prime McCutchen slashed line drives all over the place, leading to high BABIPs and correspondingly high batting averages. From 2009-2015, his BABIP was a robust .336. The past three years, it dropped to .302, which is much closer to league average. He still drives the ball harder than the average bear. His 90.1 miles per hour exit velocity sat well above the MLB average of 87.3, as did his 8.4 percent barrel rate.
McCutchen still has at least a league average hit tool, even though it’s not what it was five years ago. However, he supplements the bat with one of the most patient approaches in the game. His 13.9 percent walk rate was 12th best in baseball, and his .368 on base percentage finished 20th. Even if we ignore the other four tools, his ability to reach base is valuable enough to make him a starter somewhere all by itself.
Power: McCutchen topped out at 31 home runs in 2012, but power was never really his calling card. Nevertheless, he still knows what to do with a mistake pitch. Only three players have hit at least 20 home runs every year since 2011: Nelson Cruz, Giancarlo Stanton, and McCutchen. Last year, he needed five in September to maintain his streak. Getting traded from spacious San Francisco to cozy New York helped him reach the mark. Maybe he continues his streak and maybe he does not, but the power is still just as respectable as ever.
Speed: Herein lies the rub. Peak McCutchen stole 143 bases from 2009-2014. In the four years since, he pilfered only 42 bags. That comes with the territory of aging; hardly anyone maintains stolen base production into their late 20s and 30s. This is jus the nature of aging curves.
However, he’s actually still pretty fast! His sprint speed may have decreased from 29.1 ft/s in 2016 to 28.7 this year, but that’s still 74th best in MLB out of 549 players. He was the eighth fastest right fielder in 2018 by this metric. For reference, Mookie Betts’ sprint speed was “just” 28.1. Again, he’s not as fast as he used to be, but he’s still faster than most players.
Defense: This is the tool that has dulled the most for McCutchen. He was a fairly average center fielder from 2009-2013, accumulating -5 DRS over that time frame. Then he became an awful center fielder quite rapidly, dropping to -65 DRS from 20014-2017. Now he’s back to average again, but as a corner outfielder with 4 DRS mostly in right field since 2017.
Obviously, center field is more difficult to play than left or right. A quality center fielder is more valuable than a corner man. This has been a drag on McCutchen’s overall value, and will remain so for the rest of his career. Still, he’s not going to hurt you in either left or right, so he’s certainly no one’s DH.
Arm: Look, his arm is probably fine. Do you really care? Has any free agent ever been paid significantly more or less because of his arm strength or accuracy? Probably not. This is surplus compared to the other tools.
There’s another value that McCutchen brings to the table, and he’s one of the best in the league at this skill. Call it a sixth tool if you like...
Durability: Whichever team signs McCutchen can rely on him to take the field every day. Since he was first called up in June of 2009, he’s hardly ever missed a game. The fewest games he ever played in a season was 146 in 2014. Every other year, he suited up at least 153 times, include 155 in 2018. Injuries can happen to anyone at any time, but rarely has a player reached free agency with such a clean medical history.
This is McCutchen’s first trip through free agency, thanks to an ultra team-friendly extension he signed with the Pirates. Given that he’s a former MVP who hasn’t made more than $14.75 million in a season in his career, he, as much as anyone, has earned the right to seek to earn as much money as possible.
He should get at least three years guaranteed, and if any team is comfortable with a fourth year, they might wind up signing him. I’m betting someone gives him that extra year.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983