Pittsburgh Pirates: Four Bold Predictions for the 2023 Season
By Noah Wright
Andrew McCutchen Has His Best Season Since 2017
The Pirates acquired long-time former MVP, and fan-favorite, outfielder Andrew McCutchen this past off-season. Last year, McCutchen was roughly a league-average batter, slashing .237/.316/.384 with a .309 wOBA and 98 wRC+. Those were pretty poor numbers for the normally lofty standards McCutchen sets, and while he hasn't been an MVP candidate since 2015, I believe he will have his best season since 2017.
In 2017, Cutch batted .279/.363/.486 with a .360 wOBA, and 122 wRC+. That was his best batting average, slugging percentage, wOBA, wRC+, and second-best OBP in each of his last five full seasons. McCutchen also hit 28 home runs (the second most of his entire career), with an 11.8% walk rate and 17.8% strikeout rate.
Now those are some high numbers to even come close to, given that he has just a 103 wRC+ since 2020 (also a 103 wRC+ since 2021). So why do I believe he can become a highly productive hitter again? McCutchen had a higher average exit velocity (89.1 MPH) and hard-hit rate (40%) compared to 2017 (88.4 MPH/38.3%). He also had a much higher barrel rate in '22 (8.6%) compared to 2017 (6.8%). Despite McCutchen's wOBA peaking at just over .309 last season, his expected wOBA (xwOBA) was .325, which was in the 61st percentile of batters last year and not too far behind his 2017 wOBA.
McCutchen was shifted on in 49% of his plate appearances and had a .274 wOBA in those events. When there was no shift, he had a .345 wOBA. A .274 batter was the equivalent of Adam Frazier last season, and a .345 batter was the equivalent of Rhys Hoskins. Not only do the new shift rules help him, but Baseball Savant makes some very promising comparisons based on his batted ball data.
Baseball Savant's top five comparisons include 2022 Francisco Lindor (.270/.339/.449), 2018 Aaron Hicks (.248/.366/.467), 2018 Francisco Cervelli (.259/.378/.431), 2020 Austin Nola (.273/.352/.472), and 2017 Jed Lowrie (.277/.360/.448). The mean slash line between these five batters is .265/.360/.453 (OPS of .813). If McCutchen were to post those numbers in a full season, it would be the first time since 2017 he had an OPS above .800 in a full season.
Plus, some intangibles could help him out. McCutchen could be in a better mindset compared to when he played with the Phillies or Brewers last season. He is returning to Pittsburgh, a city that he loves and the team that raised him. Mindset can be a game-changer for some players.
Cutch has a decent amount of things that point in his favor this season. The new shift rules will likely play a prominent role in many players' offensive games, but McCutchen could be one of the biggest beneficiaries. He still drives the ball with authority and could end up being a well-above-average offensive contributor.