In my last blog, I literally had to come out and say “I’m bored” by the lack of teams’ transactions. Most of the best available free agents are still available and most of the trades have just been salary dumps by teams who are cleaning house (that’s code for, “we’re not even going to try for the next four years”, which to me is a bigger problem in our sports culture than most realize – but that’s a different rant.)
But then the San Francisco Giants came along and have created an interesting plot for the upcoming season. They are clearly “going for it” to use another term often used in mass media that I can’t stand. But what makes this interesting, if you put any value in Las Vegas’ pre-season odds of winning the World Series (and I do), is that the Giants don’t really have a chance to win the World Series this season. Neither Evan Longoria nor Andrew McCutchen nor the tandem will move the needle enough to make them serious threats to the Dodgers. The question is, do the moves make them competition for Arizona, and St. Louis for a Wild Card spot?
For discussion’s sake, let’s talk Longoria – who’s had essentially two different careers – another time, so we can focus on the McCutchen trade today.
The Giants traded minor league OF Bryan Reynolds and part time big league reliever Kyle Crick for McCutchen. Put a pin in that, we’ll come back to it.
McCutchen, from 2012 through 2015 played like a first ballot Hall of Famer – over a .400 OBP and over 140 wRC+ each season – then had a precipitous drop in production in 2016 with a rebound in ’17. Even with the rebound however, he was nowhere near his former productive self.
Let’s look at some numbers more closely to see if we can figure out what kind of player he’s going to be for the Giants in ’18. It must be noted that he’s in a walk season of his contract, which usually makes a player a good investment for a team.
When looking for trends, the first thing that jumped at me was his decline in Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). Over the past six seasons, starting in ’12 his BABIP were .375, .353, .355, .339, .297, .305. Note the significant drop starting two seasons ago.
This could mean a) he’s been hitting the ball right at people because of bad luck, b) he’s hitting the ball right at people because teams know how to defend him, c) he’s not hitting the ball very hard anymore. Determining which one of those is the overriding factor in his decline over the past two seasons goes a long way to attempting to predict in which direction he’s headed.
Being unlucky for an entire season isn’t really uncommon. I’m not going to buy a two season stretch of bad luck though, so I’ll rule that out.
From 2012 through 2017 his spray charts look exactly the same – he hits his Home Runs and line drives to all fields. In other words, a defensive shift or strategy wouldn’t affect his numbers.
So that leaves the question of “Is he hitting the ball more softly than he used to?” The answer is “Yes.”
The percentage of batted balls he hit hard over the past four seasons, starting in ‘14 have been 40.5, 39.4, 35.8, 35.2.
The percentage of batted balls he hit softly over the past five seasons, starting in ‘13 have been 10.9, 11.8, 13.1, 19.7, 17.5.
For more context, his chase rate and contact rate have stayed pretty much the same, but his walk rate has gone down.
So here’s what we can safely conclude from the above: He doesn’t hit the ball as hard as he used to, the other teams know this, so they’re more likely to throw him strikes. The combination is resulting in less power and fewer walks.
Now if he were still a Gold Glove CF, his production from the past two seasons would still make him a pretty valuable player.
But he isn’t. His range has declined and he should be a corner outfielder the rest of his career.
So what you have is a corner OF with average offensive production for the position. In other words, a very common player. Think of Eddie Rosario as a comp: good player, but not the difference between winning a World Series or not.
As I said, having him in a walk season may help and should be considered, but let’s circle back to what the Giants gave up for a corner OF with average offense:
Bryan Reynolds has been a plus OBP and plus SLG player at every level in the minors, in addition to being below league average age at every level at which he’s played.
Crick throws hard and has struck out many and walked many at every level in the minors and in limited time in the bigs.
Players who have plus power and on base at high A ball at an age lower than league average shouldn’t be dismissed easily. Give the trend of needing multiple arms out of the bullpen who can throw high velocity and miss bats, I’m not sure I’d toss away that reliever either, despite the walks.
The Giants made a bad move here. They took a risk with prospects for a likely level of production that can be easily replaced. I’m not a fan of signing over 30 center fielders with free agent contracts, but signing Lorenzo Cain would’ve made more sense. At least they would have a plus center fielder (offensively and defensively). That in itself probably wouldn’t be enough of a difference for them either, but it certainly would move the needle more than this does.
And if your position is that McCutchen was not 100% healthy during his funk but now he is, I would ask you this: Since when is trading for a 31 year old outfielder who was injured for a year and a half a good thing?
But thanks for playing anyway, San Fran. You certainly grabbed my attention.