McCutchen primed for bounceback year

Final two months of 2016 season showed potential for much better '17

December 15th, 2016

Entering the Winter Meetings, it looked like a near certainty that the Pirates were going to trade . After blockbuster deals sent to the Red Sox and to the Nationals, the market quickly dried up, though.

Entering his age-30 season and coming off his worst year in the big leagues -- including a worst-in-the-Majors -28 Defensive Runs Saved -- it now appears likely that McCutchen will be on the Pirates' roster in 2017. But is there any hope for a bounceback?

The short answer: Yes. While there is a long history of center fielders fading quickly -- with Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey Jr. just two notable examples -- there is every reason to believe McCutchen has plenty of productive seasons left.

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Though McCutchen never went on the DL in 2016, he struggled with a nagging thumb problem and a lingering heel injury, among other minor ailments. Add those together, and it's not surprising that McCutchen saw his walks dip and strikeouts spike to a career-high 21.2 percent.

But after Clint Hurdle rested the center fielder for an entire series to begin August, McCutchen returned to hit like the player we were all expecting. His season was a tale of two halves.

McCutchen went from a punchless fourth-outfielder type to closely mirroring his All-Star performance in 2015. This was no fluky hot streak with some lucky bleeders getting through the infield, either.

McCutchen cut his strikeout rate by 10 percentage points during the final two months, while maintaining nearly a 1:1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. No longer reaching for pitches out of the zone, the four days of rest had seemingly helped close an exploitable hole.

McCutchen's exit velocity also jumped up. After a three-month downturn through July -- with a few peaks among some frightening valleys -- he topped the league average every week over the final two months. That likely helped McCutchen hit a season-best six home runs and top a .500 slugging percentage in September:

A good explanation for that resurgence? McCutchen could hit offspeed pitches again. After batting just .182 and .237 against sliders and curves during the first half of the year, respectively, those numbers rose to .290 and .357 for the final two months.

Want an example? Look at this swing against from May, when McCutchen's weight was unbalanced and he flailed at the two-strike slider

There is certainly no shame in striking out against Darvish (and one at-bat is hardly any kind of sample), but compare the above at-bat to this one against at the end of September. It was another two-strike slider in a similar location, but instead of pulling off the ball, McCutchen lined it center.

Whether that's health, a return of self-confidence or simply the eyes of fate looking favorably upon the outfielder, it all points to a rejuvenated McCutchen.