Cutch's contact rates a cut above

May 22nd, 2024

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

PITTSBURGH -- Even in the 16th year of his career, has let his personality shine through on the field, whether it’s by dancing, doing pushups after a flyout or pretending to pass out on the dugout bench, when he ran first to home on a double.

It’s a level of confidence and effortless cool that has, in tandem with his play and commitment to Pittsburgh, made him an all-time Pirate.

McCutchen can be pretty chill on the field, but if there’s one thing that gets under his skin, it’s being told “way to swing it” after he makes a loud out.

“To me, it’s like a cliché,” he said. “It’s like asking somebody how they’re doing but you really don’t care. So when I hit the ball on the barrel, hit it well and you’re out, the last thing I want to hear is ‘way to swing it.’ It doesn’t really get you anywhere.”

Unfortunately for him, McCutchen has heard “way to swing it” plenty of times this season. He’s had some great swings and is making solid contact, but until recently, he didn’t have a whole lot to show for it.

McCutchen has barrelled 16 balls in 2024, meaning they were hit hard and had an ideal launch angle. Barrels have resulted in a hit 67.6% of the time this season. Nine of McCutchen’s 16 were for outs, which is the sixth most in the Major Leagues.

But that’s been a theme for McCutchen this year. He’s tagging the baseball and his expected stats are great. Based on the quality of his contact, he has an expected slugging percentage of .486, which puts him in the top 18% of MLB hitters. His actual slugging percentage is .374, below MLB average (.388).

Bad luck is spoiling some of the best contact McCutchen has made in years. His .357 expected wOBA is the best it’s been since 2020, the final year of his first stint with the Pirates. While he is whiffing a bit more, his expected wOBA on contact is .437, the best it's been since he was an All-Star (.455) in 2015.

Based on actual vs. expected results, only four players have struck the ball as well as McCutchen but are getting rewarded for it less.

“It’s very hard as a professional to not be rewarded when you do everything right,” McCutchen said. “The numbers say, more times than not, you are rewarded, but for me, it felt like the polar opposite.”

The good news is, some of those hits are finally starting to drop. McCutchen is hitting .361 (13-for-36) with three home runs over his past nine games, raising his season OPS over .700 for the first time since April 24. He has a great foundation of skills to build off of, like a terrific batting eye and a knack to catch the sweet spot of the bat, so there hasn’t been a real change in approach.

Why would McCutchen want to make a drastic change anyway? To try to get hard, elevated contact a different way?

There is one notable difference in the type of quality contact he’s getting this year, though: It’s more to his pull side. In his prime, McCutchen could spray the ball to all fields, but it was the right-center gap shot that was his bread and butter. Now, a lot of power is going to left field.

PNC Park’s cavernous dimensions out there probably aren’t much help for why McCutchen doesn’t have more homers or as many hits. Still, pulled fly balls generally leave the yard at a much-higher rate than fly balls to the opposite field, so it’s another good trend that should result in a higher slugging percentage.

While it’s not the whole reason for why he is pulling the ball more, McCutchen did attribute some of it to him guessing on locations in at-bats more. Like most hitters, he can sit fastball and react if it comes in slower. And if he’s right, the contact can be louder.

“You don’t always have to be right,” McCutchen said. “Your body just has to be in the right position to be able to adjust. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s like, ‘I’m just going to sit fastball away because that worked for me.’ It’s keeping the approach the same and staying consistent.”

McCutchen’s had some of the best swings on the team this year. If he keeps it up, he’s bound to not have to hear “way to swing it” as often.

“I’m doing something right. I’m just not being rewarded for it,” McCutchen said. "That’s how I’m looking at it.”