Where Will McCutchen Peak?

On Monday, March 5th, 2012, it was reported that Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen had signed a six-year contract with a $14.75 million option for a seventh year.  At the end of his contract, in either 2017 or 2018, McCutchen will be 30 or 31 years old, depending on the Pirates picking up his option.

2011 was a season of highs and lows for McCutchen.  His batting average of .259 was the lowest of his three-year career, but his .364 on-base clip was on-par with his career average of .365.  His power, both home run and gap power,  had increased, meaning his slugging average increased, to .456, the second-highest of his career.  He hit a career-high 23 home runs, but stole a career-low 22 bases.  Though his stolen base numbers were not on par with what we have come to expect, he still became the eighth Pirate to join the 20/20 club, which includes Dave Parker (1978, 79), Barry Bonds (1987, 1990-1992), Andy Van Slyke (1987, 88), Al Martin (1999), Kevin Young (1999), Jason Bay (2005), and Nate McLouth (2008).

Not only are his home run numbers impressive, but he was also able to increase in the little-seen parts of the game.  McCutchen increased his BB% to 13.1%, which is 13th in the MLB.  While his K% increased considerably, to a whopping 18.6%, McCutchen was able to lower his GB%, or ground ball percentage, to 38.4%.

McCutchen was also able to improve in the fielding aspect of the game.  His range factor per game, or RF/G, of 2.73 was the best in the MLB for any outfielder, and his range factor per nine innings, RF/9, came in as second best in the MLB for an outfielder, at 2.81.   The scary part is that McCutchen is only 25 years of age.

But it’s a well-established fact that Andrew McCutchen is an incredible talent.  However, his future is unclear: is he going to continue being one of the best center fielders in the game of baseball or will he fall off?  Historically, scouts believed that a baseball player will hit his “prime,” or peak seasons, at around the age of 27 years old, and it will be over at about 32.  However, Eno Sarris of Fangraphs has published proof that baseball players will actually prime at 26 years old and be out of it by 30.

According to a graph that Sarris published, there is a considerable plateau for GB%, BB% and K% at around 26-30 years old.  Let’s throw McCutchen into the fire and see how he comes out.

In McCutchen’s 2011 season, he was 24 years old.  His GB% was 38.4%, which is supposed to be about 5% lower than his career GB%.  This number won’t change much over the next few years, as it is supposed to hover around 5%, so expect to see numbers in the 38-40% range.

What about his strikeout percentage?  2011 was supposed to be the beginning of his prime in that area, but his K% actually went up, with no rhyme or reason (except for the Shake Weight).  His K% was 18.6% in 2011, which is supposed to be 2.5% lower than his career high.  Assuming this is not a statistical anomaly, it’s supposed to stay the same for the next five seasons, so expect a number in the 16-19% range.

His walk percentage is where things get interesting for the good.  His career-high 13.1% BB% in 2011 is supposed to be .5% lower than his career high when all is said and done.  In 2012, his BB% will be .25% lower and then it will peak around 2013 and fall back down in 2016.  His peak will be 13.2%, which isn’t that much of a change from his 2011 season, but still significant.

His power numbers have obviously risen, but where will they be in his prime?  It turns out, his ISO of .198 is supposed to be his career high, even if he is just 24 years of age.

Where will McCutchen be in 2018 when his option year expires?  Well, his GB% is supposed to be around 38.7%, his K% around 20.1%, and his BB% around 13.1%, still good enough to warrant a contract extension if need be.

His power numbers will dip a bit, with his ISO supposed to be around .158 in 2018 when he is 31 years of age.

There are obviously going to be statistical outliers for McCutchen, such as his .259 batting average in 2011, but these are the development curves for a typical MLB player.

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