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Can Andrew McCutchen still be great?

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The Yankees’ newest outfielder is on the decline, but is there still greatness in the former NL MVP?

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

With the waiver trade deadline in the past, the Yankees now have two former NL MVP’s on their roster. One of them, Giancarlo Stanton, is still in the vicinity of his MVP form. Stanton won’t smash 59 homers this year, but he’s stepped up and carried the Yankees in the wake of a rash of injuries, despite his own ailments.

Andrew McCutchen, on the other hand, is far removed from his peak. The 31-year-old is now a superstar in name only, no longer for his play. Once upon a time, McCutchen was one of the best players on the planet, racking up over 30 WAR from 2011 to 2015 in leading the Pirates to three playoff appearances.

At first glance, McCutchen is now a shell of what he once was. After running a 151 wRC+ during that five-year run, his wRC+ has bounced from 105 to 122 to 115 over the past three seasons. He’s posted just 5.5 WAR over that span, thanks in large part to a poor 2016 campaign. McCutchen is no longer great.

Or is he? Look a little closer, and there’s reason to believe he is adjusting to his physical decline and clinging to some level of greatness. No, he’ll never be the world-beater that he was five years ago, but this version of McCutchen might still be an impact contributor.

On the surface, it looks like McCutchen has settled in as a good but not great player, after his huge drop off in 2016. Yet McCutchen might actually be trending upward, in spite of a seven-point fall in wRC+ this season. Let’s first look at his plate discipline, in the form of his rolling average chase rate since 2016, courtesy of FanGraphs:

With the exception of a big uptick at the end of last season, McCutchen’s plate discipline has improved since his career-worst 2016, helping him to post a strong walk rate and OBP this year. Moreover, it appears he’s striking the ball better as well:

After seeing his hard and soft contact rates intertwine at times back in 2016, in 2018, McCutchen is decidedly hitting the ball hard far more often than he makes weak contact. He also has run a below average groundball rate this year, indicating that he’s just put together a strong overall batted ball profile.

If McCutchen’s indicators have been trending in a positive fashion, then why has his total offensive line fallen? He might simply have run into poor luck. Statcast’s “expected” metrics can help here. Based on the quality of his batted balls, Statcast estimates McCutchen “should” have a batting average of .269 in 2018, rather than the actual .255 figure he owns. He also has an expected slugging of .466, way above his actual .415 slugging percentage.

It all adds up to an expected wOBA figure of .364, compared to his actual wOBA of .338. While a wOBA of .364 is shy of McCutchen’s peak, it is similar to figures he ran early in his career, when he profiled as a quality four-win player or so.

A strong, near All-Star caliber player just might be what McCutchen is right now, especially after considering the possibility that he’s trending in the right direction defensively as well. As McCutchen moved into his 30’s, he no longer looked like a regular in center field, so the Giants shifted him to right this season.

Advanced defensive metrics are imprecise, and it’s hard to draw conclusions from them without a large sample. That being said, we do have a large sample of McCutchen playing center, and the picture isn’t pretty. Defensive Runs Saved says McCutchen was a ghastly 52 runs below average in center for the Pirates from 2015 to 2017. UZR isn’t much kinder, ranking McCutchen as 20 runs below average over that span.

It certainly appears that McCutchen was over-matched in center as he aged. Now, the samples on his play in right field are small, but the early returns are at least promising. DRS puts McCutchen at just above average in right this year, while UZR has him as nearly exactly average.

If McCutchen is a decent corner outfielder with a middle of the order bat, then he’s more than what his WAR total says he is right now. It’s easy to look at the 1.7 wins Baseball Reference says he has added this year and think the Yankees added a name more than they added production. That would be unfair, as the components of McCutchen’s game still add up to a very good player.

Will that be enough to paper over the continued absence of Aaron Judge? That remains to be seen. The bottom line, though, is that the Yankees might still have a fine outfielder on their hands in McCutchen. He looks every bit the kind of player that can be slotted at the top or the middle of the lineup and handle himself in the field. There’s always room for that kind of addition, no matter how deep into the season.