New Giants Right Fielder, Andrew McCutchen, has some red flags
When I take the time to talk about hitting, like much of the baseball community today, I will generally espouse two things – hit the ball hard and hit it in the air. These aren’t novel concepts, in fact you can trace them all the way back to Ted Williams’, ‘The Science of Hitting’ but they have earned popularity in the last few years. It’s been coined the ‘Fly Ball Revolution’ and you can attribute to it a good deal of today’s electric offensive environment. However, today I’m advocating for the opposite – the fly ball revolution isn’t necessarily for everyone and we have to be more personalised than that.
Andrew McCutchen has joined the fly ball revolution though if you just ran a quick search at Baseball Savant you’d probably miss it. Just looking at McCutchen’s average launch angle or fly ball rate over the last few seasons will tell you that he’s right in line with his career averages, however in this case, averages tend to lie. Let’s look at this visually:
The chart on the left shows McCutchen’s launch angles in 2015 – the first year for which we have StatCast data and the closest we have to his prime. On the right is McCutchen’s 2017 season. While the two seasons have virtually identical average launch angles (appx. 14 degrees) you can see that the right-hander got to them in rather different ways. While McCutchen consistently recorded batted balls in the 10-20 degree range in 2015, his 2017 numbers show a much wider spread. In 2017, the former pirate hit both more extreme fly balls and ground balls largely cancelling each other out in aggregate. If we focus in on just the balls McCutchen has hit in the air, his average launch angle has steadily increased from 36 degrees in 2015 to 39 degrees in 2017 – the highest average launch angle on fly balls in baseball.
In today’s game, emphasising balls in the air makes a good deal of sense. The balls are juiced and home runs are flowing, it’s the perfect environment for such a change. However, not all fly balls are created equal, for them to be effective you have to be able to hit them hard.
Source: Baseball Savant
The table above shows McCutchen’s average Launch Angle, Exit Velocity and Expected Weighted On Base Average for fly balls over the last three seasons. As you can see, while the average launch angle on fly balls has increased, McCutchen’s exit velocity has trended in the opposite direction. Where McCutchen’s exit velocity on fly balls ranked 21st in baseball in 2015 (min 30 fly balls), he has now fallen to 129th in 2017. That’s a large swing and that means that a greater number of McCutchen’s fly balls should turn into outs. And yes, while McCutchen’s xwOBA did rebound in 2017, last year was also the first full season of MLB’s new SuperBounce Baseballs. MLB’s new offensive environment may have arrived just in time for ‘Cutch’.
However, as I said before averages can lie in these situations. When it comes to hitting it’s not so much how hard you can hit the ball but how often you can hit it hard. Unfortunately for McCutchen, his number of fly balls hit at greater than 95 mph has decreased 8% since 2015 as well, dropping from 42nd to 144th in baseball.
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So Andrew McCutchen, former MVP, is hitting the ball higher and softer in 2017 than ever before. These are the types of balls that tend to turn into outs and if McCutchen is unable to do any damage in the air and continues to push his launch angle higher – one of the faces of the game could come crashing back to Earth.
There’s one other thing that needs to be mentioned here as well.
As we know, McCutchen will play his home games with the San Francisco Giants for the first time in 2018. In doing so he will move to the only park that suppresses offense from right-handed hitters more than his previous home, PNC Park. AT&T Park also happens to be the toughest park for left-handed hitters as well – something of surprising importance for McCutchen. So not only will McCutchen be a year older and a year further in decline in 2018, he will also be moving to one of the toughest hitting parks in baseball.
To get a feel for what that might look like, let’s overlay McCutchen’s fly balls from 2017 with the dimensions of AT&T Park:
If you didn’t know better, you would be forgiven for thinking that this spray chart belonged to a left-handed hitter – McCutchen certainly hits his fly balls like one. Left-field, based purely on dimensions, is surely much shorter than at PNC Park so perhaps McCutchen will find some solace there but towards right-center – home of Triples Alley – AT&T is significantly larger than his former home. Based just on the dimensions alone, McCutchen stands to lose some 4 or 5 home runs thanks to the change in park. However, to look solely at the dimensions of a field misses much of what impacts the actual distance a ball travels. Altitude, temperature and wind all play a significant role in determining how far a batted ball will travel so it’s likely that San Francisco’s bayside conditions will knock these fly balls down even further.
Perhaps the extra space in right-center will give enough room for McCutchen’s fly balls to fall for extra base hits, leading to a significant uptick in production. Just as likely however, is that these balls get knocked down instead turning into routine fly outs.
But it’s not just McCutchen’s new home field that could prove problematic. Moving to the NL West means replacing games at right-handed hitting havens in Chicago, Cincinnati and Milwaukee to pitcher friendly Los Angeles and San Diego as well as Arizona which will feature a humidor for the first time in 2018. Rare will be the game where McCutchen will enjoy the ability to play in a hitter friendly stadium. McCutchen is not only moving to a tougher home field but a tougher division as well.
It’s certainly possible that Andrew McCutchen will continue to produce at similar levels to his 2017 season going forward. That’s always a possibility and of course there is a chance that McCutchen is able to abuse that right-center gap at AT&T leading to a significant uptick in production. However, just as likely, McCutchen’s exit velocity will continue to fall, which combined with the tougher hitting conditions in the NL West will lead to a significant number of outs in the air.
Of course, McCutchen shouldn’t abandon hitting the ball in the air all together – he did just post the second highest home run total of his career in 2017 (28). But unless the Giants’ new right fielder can reverse his declining exit velocities, continuing to hit the ball in the air could really decrease his production. In this way, Andrew McCutchen should join the resistance