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When Bad Seasons Happen To Great Players (Like Andrew McCutchen)

For Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen, this weekend was one of highs and lows. McCutchen launched a pair of home runs off of Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda during Saturday’s 6-1 Pittsburgh win; he also, well, take a look for yourself at what happened Sunday:

On the 2016 season, McCutchen has had more lows than highs. Going into Monday’s game, he was hitting only .240 with an OPS (on-base plus slugging) 3 percent worse than the major-league average — easily the weakest batting numbers of his career — and he’s also been one of the worst statistical center fielders in baseball. Pro-rating his wins above replacement to 162 team games, McCutchen is on pace for a measly 1.1 WAR, which would be 68 percent worse than his previous career-low (3.4 as a rookie in 2009). His struggles rank among the main reasons Pittsburgh is under .500 with very little chance of getting back to the playoffs.

Up to this point, it wasn’t a stretch to say McCutchen looked like a future Hall of Famer. He’d been baseball’s third-best player by WAR over the previous seven seasons, stretching back to his MLB debut in 2009, and ranked 46th all-time in WAR through age 28. Pittsburgh fans could see in him the reflections of a young Barry Bonds; like Bonds, McCutchen through 28 also ranked in the top quarter of major-leaguers in power, speed and patience. So it’s exceedingly rare for a player this great to suffer a season this poor, smack dab in the middle of what should be his prime:

WAR PER 600 PLATE APPEARANCES
PLAYER YEAR AGE PREVIOUS CAREER SEASON FUTURE CAREER
Fred Lynn 1981 29 5.3 0.2 2.7
Edgar Martinez 1993 30 5.2 0.7 4.4
Andrew McCutchen 2016 29 5.4 0.9
Dave Parker 1980 29 5.2 1.3 0.9
Travis Jackson 1932 28 5.0 1.7 1.9
Joe Mauer 2011 28 5.4 2.2 2.9
Hank Greenberg 1941 30 6.2 2.2 5.7
Joey Votto 2014 30 5.2 2.2 4.8
Pete Reiser 1948 29 5.1 2.3 2.2
Arky Vaughan 1942 30 6.1 2.5 4.3
Ralph Kiner 1953 30 5.4 2.5 2.0
Frank Thomas 1998 30 6.1 2.5 2.7
Goose Goslin 1929 28 5.0 2.5 3.1
Nomar Garciaparra 2004 30 5.5 2.5 0.5
Snuffy Stirnweiss 1948 29 5.1 2.7 -0.4
Andre Dawson 1984 29 5.0 2.7 2.1
Darrell Evans 1975 28 5.6 2.7 2.8
Art Devlin 1910 30 5.3 2.7 2.2
Lance Berkman 2005 29 5.1 2.9 3.9
Evan Longoria 2014 28 6.2 2.9 4.2
Joe Torre 1969 28 5.1 2.9 3.6
Joe Cronin 1935 28 5.2 3.0 4.1
Scott Rolen 2005 30 5.6 3.0 4.0
Andruw Jones 2007 30 5.5 3.0 1.3
Snuffy Stirnweiss 1947 28 5.7 3.0 1.1
When bad seasons happen to previously great players

Lowest WAR/600 plate appearances at age 28, 29 or 30 for players with ≥ 5 WAR/600 plate appearances in previous career, 1901-present

Source: Fangraphs.com

In baseball’s modern era, McCutchen’s unexpectedly bad 2016 season ranks as one of the most shocking single-season mid-prime declines ever. If there’s any good news, it’s that most of the players in this group did manage to recover and play at a more respectable level going forward than during their down seasons. But even so, they were typically shadows of their former selves: The average player on the list above had 5.4 WAR per 600 plate appearances before his “bad” season, against only 2.8 over the remainder of his career (and only 3.0 over the very next three seasons).

Perhaps most concerning of all is that McCutchen’s decline has come virtually across the board, in every phase of his game:

paine-mccutchen-2

Although he’s also been slightly unlucky on balls in play, McCutchen’s numbers suggest a downturn in his underlying skill set. Even among the more fine-grained statistics, he’s hitting the ball more softly than ever and popping up more infield flies than ever. His average exit velocity is down, and he’s connecting on fewer swings than at any point in his career.

Even great players can suffer bad seasons sometimes, and it’s not unprecedented for them to recover and play well after a down year. So maybe McCutchen will bounce right back to his previous Hall of Fame form. But what we’re seeing from McCutchen now is the bad kind of history: one of the worst seasons ever to land in the middle of a great player’s prime.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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