Pittsburgh Pirates: Three Players Who Have Made Dramatic Improvements
By Noah Wright
Who says old dogs can't learn new tricks? The Pirates bought long-time fan favorite and former all-star MVP outfielder Andrew McCutchen as a veteran anchor to the line-up. Nobody expected McCutchen to produce as he did in his prime. In the three years prior to 2023, Cutch had only been about a league-average batter, slashing .234/.325/.417 with a .323 wOBA and 103 wRC+. He still had an above-average 11.5% walk rate, 21.8% strikeout rate, and .183 isolated slugging percentage, but a far cry from the 140-170 wRC+ seasons Cutch had back in 2012-2015.
But so far this season, McCutchen has returned with a vengeance. It's only been 89 plate appearances, but he's batting .270/.371/.527 with a .384 wOBA and 141 wRC+. Cutch has walked at a 13.5% rate but is striking out just 16.9% of the time, which would be the best strikeout rate he has posted since his 2013 MVP season. Now some might attribute this to a small sample size fluke, but Cutch does have a .389 expected wOBA, meaning that so far, he really hasn't outperformed himself. Heck, you might even be able to make the argument he could get better. Cutch has a .268 batting average on balls in play compared to his career .315 mark and an expected BA of .297.
So where has McCutchen improved? Well, for one, this is an unprecedented start for the season for Cutch. The only season in which he posted a better wRC+ in April is 2014, arguably the best offensive season of his long-storied career. Even then, Cutch's OPS is just ten points shy of his 2014 OPS.
McCutchen is also being more selective at the plate, with an out-of-zone swing rate of just 22.7%. That would be the best O-zone swing rate he's had since 2019. During his first handful of seasons in Pittsburgh, Cutch had an O-zone swing rate of 24.1%, for comparison. He's also hitting the ball hard more often than almost ever before. His 44.3% hard-hit rate is the second best of his Statcast-era statistics (post-2015). The only year he was hitting the ball hard more frequently was in 2015, at just 44.6%. According to Baseball Savant, the only statistic McCutchen is below average in is max exit velocity, which you should take with a grain of salt since it focuses on just one singular batted ball event.