Offseason adjustments paying off for McCutchen

June 3rd, 2023

This story was excerpted from Justice delos Santos’ Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

By the time last October rolled around, had been fed up for quite some time.

“I was sick and tired of what I was doing,” McCutchen said. “I was sick and tired of my numbers.”

McCutchen understood his production dipped in recent years. He also knew he had more to offer. So, he adapted. With a new offseason regimen and an emphasis on his foundation. McCutchen is putting up some of his best numbers in more than half a decade. He might just be getting started, too.

“We broke it down to a science,” McCutchen said. “It’s paying off and it’s helping me feel better. I feel like I’m feeling things I haven’t felt in a long time, physically. It’s a continuation of what I’ve done in the offseason and my preparation. I feel like it’s starting to all come together, starting to all kind of click for me. I feel like it’s just going to be a tidal wave of success for me.”

Coming into this offseason, McCutchen made the determination to experiment with a new routine in an attempt to reverse recent trends.

In his lone season with the Brewers, McCutchen posted career lows in on-base percentage (.316), slugging percentage (.384) and weighted on-base average (.309). In Milwaukee, he had an OPS+ (99) and wRC+ (98), the first time he was a below-average hitter in his career.

Before joining the Brewers, McCutchen’s production was trending downward. After tearing his right ACL in 2019, McCutchen hit .234/.325/.417 with a 104 OPS+ from ‘20 to ‘22. 

“I felt like my batting average and on-base percentage were the two things that made me who I was,” McCutchen said. “[With me], you’re getting a guy who got on base and a guy who could hit for a good average. Over the course of the last five, six years, I felt like I wasn’t doing what I should be doing, of what I felt like I was capable of doing on the field.”

This season, by contrast, McCutchen is in the midst of a renaissance.  Across 208 plate appearances, McCutchen owns a .278 batting average, .375 on-base percentage, .455 slugging percentage and _a _128 OPS+. They would be his best numbers in a full season since 2017 -- the final year of his first stint with the Pirates.

McCutchen felt he had exhausted most of his options in previous offseasons. He tried tweaking his mechanics. He tried picking the brains of different hitting minds. He tried working out right after the season. Those regimens didn’t yield the results he desired. This past season, McCutchen tried something new: hitting from Day 1. 

McCutchen began previous offseasons by emphasizing his physical shape more than his hitting, especially after tearing his ACL. This past offseason, McCutchen set out to hit right from the jump.

Toward the end of September, McCutchen reached out toChase Rowe, a former Tigers hitting coach who owns Battleground Baseball Group, a facility located just outside of Pittsburgh. The two had known each other for several years dating back to Rowe’s tenure as La Roche University’s head coach, but never extensively worked together. Together, the two set out to make the necessary tweaks and find what worked.  

“He was ready to go,” Rowe said. “He was religiously in there three, four, five days a week. … He got after it.”

In addition to altering his schedule, McCutchen emphasized the use of his legs. McCutchen described his swing from earlier in his career as “violent but under control” and “straight to the point,” creating that force with his legs. Over the last several years, McCutchen had his moments where he fully utilized his legs, but could not consistently do so.

“That’s the difference these last six years is I didn’t have my legs like did in the past,” McCutchen said. “A lot of people who’ve played for 15-plus years will tell you that the first thing to go was their legs. I felt like my legs weren’t there. I just had to learn how to use them properly.”

Rowe is plenty familiar with McCutchen’s swing. For years, Rowe used McCutchen’s swing as an example of what good mechanics look like when working with other hitters. Rowe studied the ins and outs of McCutchen’s swing for years. When McCutchen tore his ACL, Rowe noticed how McCutchen’s body compensated for the injury, as well as how McCutchen continued those same altered swing patterns once the injury healed. 

Last season, McCutchen felt his legs were finally again in a good place, physically. What McCutchen and Rowe focused their attention on, then, was consistency. Now, McCutchen believes his swing is more akin to the earlier versions of himself because of his ability to use the ground and generate force.

“From my perspective … I see him as someone who stayed back and, because of this elite hand speed and elite hand-eye coordination, he was able to stay on his backside longer and not make a very aggressive move into the ball or an earlier move into the ball,” Rowe said. “With the increase in velocity, as well as the spin that they’re throwing at high velocities, that doesn’t work as you get a little bit older. 

“So, we really tried to help him understand the move of his timing mechanism, like when he was getting into his backside and the timing around how he was getting himself to what we could consider the balanced position.”

Before McCutchen signed a one-year deal to return to Pittsburgh, Rowe reached out to Pirates bench coach Don Kelly, his good friend. Rowe’s message was simple: get McCutchen back in the black and gold. 

“I told Don, ‘You need to get this guy back,’” Rowe said. “He’s so far away from being done. He literally was getting himself out. He’s fighting himself so much in his set-up and his load-and-gather phase and his move. He was fighting himself so much. I kept telling Don, ‘There’s so much left in this guy.’ I think there’s definitely good years ahead.’”

To Rowe, a byproduct of McCutchen’s offseason work is the ability to hit pitches in locations that he struggled with last year. Rowe specifically pointed to the home run that McCutchen hit in Seattle on an up-and-in 96.5 fastball by George Kirby. This season, McCutchen has a .602 wOBA on pitches up and in. Last season, by contrast, McCutchen had a .234 wOBA on pitches up and in. 

“The inner hitting coach in me will tell you that the foundation of your swing is built on your feet being grounded,” said manager Derek Shelton. “It’s like when you build a house; you build the foundation first and move upward. When you’re stable, however it is, in your lower half and you’re pushing yourself into the ground, you’re going to be in a good spot and he’s been in a good spot since he came into camp.”

Through two months, McCutchen has arguably been Pittsburgh’s best hitter. He and Rowe believe this is just the warm-up.

“He’s making adjustments constantly and tweaking and trying to figure things still as he’s going,” Rowe said. “Once it all clicks, I think it’s going to pop off.”