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Pirates, McCutchen banking on bounce-back season from center fielder in 2017 | TribLIVE.com
Pirates/MLB

Pirates, McCutchen banking on bounce-back season from center fielder in 2017

Tribune-Review
| Saturday, October 1, 2016 9:42 p.m
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen takes off his helmet at home plate after being called out on strikes to end the sixth inning Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016 at PNC Park.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen misplays a ball hit by the Reds' Brandon Phillips during the second inning Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, at PNC Park.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen reacts after striking out against the Cardinals Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, at PNC Park.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen connects on a solo home run during the seventh inning against the Brewers Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, at PNC Park.
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen makes a throw to home plate during the seventh inning against the Cubs on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, at PNC Park.

With Miller Park’s retractable metal roof closed, amplifying the echoes of batting practice, it sounded as if the old Andrew McCutchen was back last week in Milwaukee. Balls ricocheted around off the aluminum bleachers, creating a metallic ringing in the mostly empty pregame stadium. Later, in the game’s first inning, McCutchen launched a majestic home run that seemed to nearly scrape the roof.

Since his early-August benching, McCutchen has hit more like the player who has recorded four straight top-five National League MVP finishes. McCutchen has followed an .810 on-base plus slugging in August with a season-best .898 mark in September.

However, he turns 30 on Oct. 10 and will be coming off the worst season of his career. What is next for the face of the franchise? Has McCutchen begun a shockingly steep decline? Or is the second half a sign that McCutchen — who is owed $14 million next season — will bounce back? It’s perhaps the first question the Pirates must answer this offseason.

In August, ESPN analyst Dave Schoenfield’s research found McCutchen was in the midst of a unprecedented drop-off. Schoenfield found that since 1950, no player to sustain a superstar level from ages 25 to 28 — like McCutchen — had declined at 29 like McCutchen.

McCutchen has produced 1.4 wins above replacement (WAR), a plummet from his 2013-15 level when he ranked fourth in baseball in WAR (21), trailing only Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw and Josh Donaldson.

A FiveThirtyEight.com analysis in July examined dramatic declines of stars between ages 28 and 30. Neil Paine found such players bounced back but “as shadows of their former selves.” The average player studied had 5.4 WAR per 600 plate appearances before his drop-off season and averaged 3.0 WAR over his next three seasons.

“Will he return to the elite of the elite?” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said of McCutchen. “We are not ready to close the door on that. If we can help get him back to as close as that as possible, we are going to have a player that continues to have a fabulous career.”

Diagnosing the decline

Even if McCutchen’s bat rebounds, there is one critical element of his game that has declined over multiple seasons and is at a career low this season: speed.

Defensively, McCutchen’s struggles in center field have deepened. McCutchen is the worst defender in baseball, according to defensive runs saved (-26).

McCutchen’s stolen-base totals are in a four-year decline, at a career low (six) this season.

In his MVP season of 2013, he took an extra base 64 percent of the time as a baserunner. This season? He’s at a career-low 27 percent rate, part of three-year decline.

McCutchen’s infield hit percentage (7.1) is also at a career low.

McCutchen says he’s healthy. He does not believe he’s lost a step.

“I think my speed is still there,” he said. “I think my athleticism is still there.”

Has McCutchen lost an element that isn’t coming back?

Said Huntington: “As players age, they pick their spots more often to have the burst, to show the burst. … We still see the explosiveness in the legs. We still see the explosive in the bat. It will show up on the bases. It will show up on defense. For us, it’s still in there.”

In addition to leg speed, is McCutchen’s bat speed slowing?

His strikeout rate is at a career high. Against pitchers defined as “power” arms by Baseball Reference, McCutchen has a .652 OPS this season. For his career, he has an .850 mark. Moreover, velocity is on the rise in the game.

“I don’t know that you’re 30, you can’t get to a fastball,” Huntington said. “David Ortiz seems to handle velocity pretty well. … We had an interesting conversation the other day where if everyone throws hard, is it that hard to hit 94-95 (mph) when it’s become the norm? Does your body become used to hitting 94-95 all the time, what used to be 92-93?”

Still, time is against all players, particularly at demanding, up-the-middle positions. The Tribune-Review studied how all center fielders have aged from 1946-2015. Consider:

• Age 28 center fielders: 426.1 WAR and 23,983 games played.

• Age 30 center fielders: 302.8 WAR and 18,076 games played.

• Age 32 center fielders: 174.8 WAR and 11,000 games played.

“We certainly respect aging curves. We also recognize aging curves are flawed based upon what time frame you are looking at,” Huntington said. “We are not slaves to (aging curves). We do not follow them blindly.”

The fix?

Pirates head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk believes historical age curves should be viewed skeptically because sports science, training and nutrition have changed dramatically.

“I think we are rewriting (age curves),” Tomczyk said. “I don’t think we fully understand the 21st-century athlete. That’s why we are emphasizing recovery. It’s why we are collecting as much data as we possibly can on how their bodies are responding to help them perform day-in and day-out.

“It’s very simple to say, ‘This guy is 30. He has lost a step.’ We’re not in that mindset. We try to look at players individually. … Usain Bolt (a 30-year-old) hasn’t lost much speed. … (McCutchen) is probably one of our strongest guys. This man is on pace for almost 700 plate appearances. That’s astonishing. That’s a tribute to how hard he works, how hard he emphasizes recovering and training during the offseason.”

Said Huntington: “With the foundation we are working from, we believe Andrew is going to be one of those guys that has a quality bounce-back year.”

Perhaps McCutchen would benefit from more rest. His second-half breakout coincided with his three-game benching in Atlanta. But McCutchen remains hostile to the idea that days off recharged his play. McCutchen believes the offensive fix was mechanical. He said he knew there was something off during a spring-training game in March against the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota, Fla. After McCutchen homered on a slider earlier in the game to deep left, Dylan Bundy threw three straight fastballs by McCutchen for a strikeout.

“I shouldn’t be missing fastballs,” McCutchen said. “Spring training was over, and the season started, and I felt I wasn’t where I need to be. I was playing catch-up.”

McCutchen believes he found a fix in the second half of the season, better connecting his swing.

“Everything starts from the bottom up,” he said. “My hands were going, but my bottom half wasn’t. That’s kind of where I was at. I was late on the fastball.”

McCutchen has begun to catch up to fastballs, but can he hold off a premature decline?

“We look at Andrew as not the first player to have a year below what we’ve been accustomed to. He’s not going to be the last player that bounces back from that and gets much closer to the accustomed level,” Huntington said. “Now, does he exceed the accustomed level? Does he come near the accustomed level?

“We have to do everything in our power to take his abilities and allow him to get there. … He’s committed. He’s going to work.”

Travis Sawchik is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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