Yankees fans are buzzing this Friday with the news that the team has acquired former NL MVP outfielder Andrew McCutchen. With his significant name recognition, the move grabbed headlines throughout the baseball world. For casual fans unsympathetic to the Bombers, it feeds the narrative that the Yankees simply go out and buy the best players in the world to fuel their championship teams.
The reality is far less flashy than the headlines. While Cutch is undoubtedly a massive upgrade over Shane Robinson, the Yankees are hardly acquiring a superstar. McCutchen is now five full years removed from his MVP title, and three years removed from his last All Star appearance. Though he’s shown signs of life this season, he’s much closer to the 1.1 WAR player he was in 2016 than his peak 8.1 WAR in his MVP 2013 season.
So what can Yankee fans reasonably expect from this new addition to the team? It’s important to begin by noting that he is purely a rental. Cutch is eligible for free agency once the season concludes, and is being brought in almost solely due to the outfield vacuum caused by injuries to Aaron Judge, Clint Frazier, and to a (much) lesser extent Jacoby Ellsbury. He also is not costing the Yankees much in terms of salary, allowing them to continue to stay under the luxury tax. This is a short term, band-aid measure aimed at bolstering the team’s 2018 World Series chances, and nothing more.
With that being said, let’s dive into the numbers to see just how much on-field production McCutchen might bring to the Yankees down the home stretch.
In his prime, McCutchen was a legitimate world class hitter. During his five consecutive All Star seasons, he slashed a combined .302/.396/.509 (151 wRC+) and amassed 34.3 WAR, second only to the indomitable Mike Trout over that span. McCutchen did it all as a hitter, walking at a 12.5% clip, hitting for power with a .509 SLG and .208 ISO, and striking out a below average 18.1% of the time. It would be hard to put together a more complete hitting skillset than what Cutch exhibited during those years.
This year, he is a far cry from that player. His slash line sits at just .255/.357/.415 (115 wRC+) with a 1.8 WAR. What explains this drastic decline in both average and power? The main point is obvious: he’s striking out more. Where he struck out a minuscule 15.0% of the time in his MVP season, he now strikes out 21.7% clip. Fewer balls in play means fewer hits and fewer times on base. The strikeouts almost single handedly explain the declines in AVG and OBP.
The disappearance of power is more perplexing. Cutch has actually achieved by far the highest hard hit percentage of his career this year at 44.1%. He’s hitting an equal number of balls in the air as he did at his peak, and he’s actually hitting fewer ground balls and more line drives. All of that points to roughly equivalent power numbers, if not better. So why the precipitous decline in ISO down to .160?
The answer may lie primarily in his home ballpark. McCutchen’s ISO is a mediocre .151 at home, highlighted by his microscopic 7.9% HR/FB ratio. In the massive confines of AT&T park, his ability to sock dingers has taken a major hit. This is a major reason for optimism for Yankee fans. In the much friendlier environment of Yankee Stadium, Cutch could be due for a power surge that would greatly boost his production.
One further piece of good news is McCutchen’s success in August. After a fairly dismal July, McCutchen slashed .244/.376/.422 (123 wRC+) with a robust 17.4% walk rate. Even better, his power was up thanks to a higher percentage of hard and medium contact, with his ISO rising to .178 this month. If he can continue to hit the ball hard in pinstripes, he could be due for some success in the American League.
This part will be brief. As every sabermetrics enthusiast knows, defensive metrics are still imperfect. That being said, it is still possible to glean some value from seeing how players stack up against others who play their same position.
Among the 22 players who have logged at least 500 innings in right field this season, McCutchen grades out as roughly average. The metric UZR/150, which grades players based on range and other factors and then normalizes for innings played, has him at -0.9 UZR/150. That means the metric sees him as just below average in terms of range, arm, and other factors. He also ranks 13 of the 22 right fielders, confirming this average rating.
Likewise, DRS gives him 2 defensive runs saved on the season. DRS is a more outcomes based defensive metric, with anything above 0 grading as above average at the position. This makes him a barely above average right fielder, again confirmed by his ranking of 12 out of 22 right fielders in the metric.
In other words, McCutchen is about as much as you can ask for in a stand in outfielder in the field. He can’t touch Aaron Judge, who amassed 11 DRS in 400 fewer innings and has an UZR/150 of 16.1, but then again few in the league can. Only Mookie Betts is even in the same ballpark as Judge in right field defense. McCutchen should be a perfectly adequate fielding stand in for the final month of the season.
In sum, the Yankees are acquiring a very capable outfielder who has a track record of excellence on the field. If you squint hard enough, you can see the potential for solidly above average offensive production in a friendlier stadium with a better lineup around him. Expecting MVP caliber performance is unrealistic, but the potential for McCutchen to be an impact hitter in this batting order is not. Especially relative to the sputtering Shane Robinson, McCutchen will represent a significant upgrade.
Though it is disappointing that the front office took so long to make this move, there is no doubt the Yankees just got a whole lot better and insured against the possibility that Judge misses the remainder of the season. As an everyday player, McCutchen will be an immeasurable upgrade over current alternatives. And if Judge does (hopefully) return, there is one more valuable piece for Aaron Boone to use during the postseason. No matter which way you look at it, this was a good baseball decision from the Yankees. Hopefully McCutchen’s acquisition will bring the off-field bonus of a veteran presence and spark in the clubhouse for the struggling Yankees as they gear up for the playoffs.