Back in Pittsburgh, Andrew McCutchen is proving there’s no place like home. Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo
A year after Albert Pujols found the fountain of youth and spent his final season setting major league pitching on fire, the old-guy star of the 2023 season hasn’t been a positional contemporary like Joey Votto or Miguel Cabrera. Instead, April’s ultimate veteran revival has belonged to Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Much like Pujols, McCutchen returned to the club that drafted him after experiencing some ups and downs elsewhere. Now that he’s back in Pittsburgh, both McCutchen and his team are turning back the clock and playing their best baseball in years.
McCutchen was a big star for the Pirates in the early-to-mid-2010s — winning the National League MVP in 2013 — but he spent five years traveling across MLB after Pittsburgh traded him following the 2017 season. McCutchen was a fine player in those years: Bouncing between the San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers, he posted a 110 OPS+ from 2018 through 2022, 10 percent better than league average. He also was worth 6.7 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference, making him a solid contributor if no longer any kind of star. (The previous seven years, in Pittsburgh, McCutchen had been worth 34.2 WAR, the eighth-most among all hitters.)
McCutchen, 36, signed a one-year, $5 million free agent deal to return home in January. And when he slipped on a Pirates jersey again, he regained superpowers. McCutchen is hitting for a .270/.371/.527 triple-slash line in his first 89 plate appearances. He has homered five times, while mostly serving as designated hitter and occasionally playing right field — a short jog from the center field he used to patrol with Gold Glove skill at PNC Park. The only 35-or-older hitter with more early-season WAR than McCutchen’s 0.6 is reigning MVP Paul Goldschmidt by a matter of decimal points. The Pirates have played only 24 games, but McCutchen has more or less already paid off in pure WAR-per-dollar terms, producing $5.1 million of value, per FanGraphs.
Of course, McCutchen’s value to the Pirates is more aptly measured in decibel levels when he comes up to bat at PNC Park. He has rapidly reclaimed his old status as the beating heart of baseball in Pittsburgh, a city where he once led the Pirates to their first playoff berth (and winning season) in 21 years:
The Pirates are 16-8 and have gone from an 8 percent preseason chance to make the playoffs to 24 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast. Times are good for a franchise that’s lost 100 games (or at a 100-loss pace) three years running, and McCutchen’s throwback start has been a huge part of the fun. No, traditional aging curves say he will not keep this up all year. But whether small sample sizes prove misleading or not, McCutchen’s start has not been fluky. He is doing some things as well as at any point in his illustrious career, and he’s already banked a good foundation toward his best season since at least 2017, his last year in Pittsburgh.
Besides, getting McCutchen back at all was an emotional lift for a team and fan base that needed one. Getting him back with good baseball left in the tank? That has been something else entirely.
Three standout qualities of McCutchen’s brilliance in his prime were his plate discipline, hands and speed. From 2011 through 2017, 129 hitters had at least 3,000 plate appearances, and McCutchen was tied for 24th among them in walk-to-strikeout ratio (0.65). He brought the bat through the zone with extraordinary quickness, something that Statcast (whose data started in 2015 and just recently started tracking swing speed) couldn’t quite capture. But to go through a highlight reel of McCutchen’s MVP season in 2013 is to see him flick his wrists with shocking ease and send baseballs flying all over the park. And he was, of course, really fast. In every year except one since data began in 2015, McCutchen was in the majors’ 87th percentile or higher in sprint speed.
In some ways, time took its toll. McCutchen gradually stopped cracking the ball the way he once did, dropping from MLB’s 84th percentile in average exit velocity in 2015 to somewhere between the 38th and 65th in each of the past three seasons. He put the barrel on the ball less often, and his strikeout numbers in some years were worse than the league average. But McCutchen retained some important assets. Perhaps surprisingly for a player in his 30s, his speed held up well. He never lost control of the strike zone and stayed in the bottom 20 percent of the league in chase rate, or swinging at balls out of the zone, in each of the past four seasons. With the exception of 2020, when he drew bases on balls at almost exactly the league median rate, McCutchen has remained one of the league’s most prolific walkers. He has also held up as one of the sport’s tougher outs against left-handed pitching. He posted an .870 OPS against southpaws in his non-Pirate years, a top-50 mark.
So McCutchen’s great start to 2023 is partly a continuation of the things he never stopped doing well. He has been one of the league’s 50 fastest players by average sprint speed, according to Statcast. On the basepaths, he’s taken an extra base on 57 percent of his opportunities, which would be the third-highest rate of his career. He has posted a .950 OPS against lefties, compared to .863 against righties. He has walked 14.3 percent and struck out 15.5 percent of the time — and that’s not even a continuation of anything. By walk-to-strikeout ratio, that’s better than McCutchen has ever done, despite a long career of posting strong contact and walk numbers.
Indeed, McCutchen is seeing the ball very well. He’s made contact on 79.3 percent of his swings, his best rate since 2020 and better than in many of his prime seasons. In particular, McCutchen has been a difficult man to throw a fastball past. He has seen them about 60 percent of the time, in line with his career average. But he’s only whiffed on 12.4 percent of them, compared with his usual rate of somewhere between 16 and 20 percent. And he’s making good use of that contact, with a somewhat comical .857 slugging percentage on at-bats ending in four-seam heaters. He’s in the league’s 70th percentile of hard-hit rate, which isn’t prime McCutchen-like (he was in the 90th percentile in 2015) but far exceeds his showing the past three years.
There’s lots of season left to go, and McCutchen is old. He could be sitting on fastballs to an extreme degree and find himself struggling once pitchers notice that they can’t blow him away and start mixing in more off-speed and breaking balls. But he has aged gracefully in the traits that once made him such a star, and he appears to be the same discerning curator of pitches that he’s always been. A litany of projection systems agree that he should be a slightly better than average hitter from here in, even at 36. While McCutchen’s Pirates story was mostly written long ago, it turns out the last chapter is a compelling read.
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Alex Kirshner is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in Slate, The Ringer, VICE and SB Nation, and he co-hosts the podcast Split Zone Duo. @alex_kirshner
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