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A bad April doesn’t mean much. Just ask Andrew McCutchen.

“Trophies don’t go to the ones who have a good month,” McCutchen said, pointing out that he’s been through plenty of rough Aprils and bounced back to have some pretty impressive seasons.

Just how good has McCutchen been of late in his career? He’s finished in the top three in MVP voting the last three seasons, all before his age-28 season—which he’s one month into at the moment. That puts him in rarified company. There are 17 other players who have accomplished that feat—at least three top-three finishes in MVP voting prior to turning 28—and 12 are in the Hall of Fame, including the likes of Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams. The other five are Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and Dave Parker. So outside of the Cobra, we have a pretty clear indication that McCutchen has put himself firmly on a path toward the Hall of Fame.

So what happens when a superstar, a player who appears destined for Cooperstown, hits .194/.302/.333 in the first month of the season? Does the player change anything? What about the opposition? Sure, it’s a small sample size, but is there anything that can be learned, either by the star who’s struggling on how to get better, or by the other team on how to attack the player’s newfound weaknesses?

You could brush aside McCutchen’s numbers by pointing out that he’s historically struggled in April—his .764 OPS in the month is 90 points worse than any other month. McCutchen pointed out that April has never been good to him, as did his manager.

“His Aprils have never been one to just come out of the gates and just blow the doors down,” Clint Hurdle said. “And all the spring trainings have been strong, so it just happens for whatever reason. He continues to go out there and work. He was out hitting early again (Monday), he was out hitting in Arizona, so he’s diligent and very professional about his approach, very stubborn with it. And I think he’s getting close.”

Hurdle also suggested that it was a possibility that his struggles were weather related, while denying that some rumored knee problems could be the stem of the problem. For his part, McCutchen admitted that he wasn’t completely healthy earlier this month, but apparently he isn’t lacking in confidence.

But for discussion’s sake, let’s assume it’s not just an April thing, a weather issue, and that Cutch can handle any issues—whatever they may be, if they even exist—with his knee just fine. Is there more to McCutchen’s struggles?

“I promise he’s not going to struggle all year, he’s too good,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of McCutchen prior to his team taking two of three games from the Pirates earlier this week. “If you’re the opposition and you catch him in a bad moment, good for you, lucky you. Because, this guy is a top-five player in baseball. If he is struggling at all, you’re fortunate for that moment, it’s not going to last too long. Let’s just hope he struggles for three more days here.”

So Maddon wasn’t about to light a fire under McCutchen by suggesting the team had discovered some flaw that exposed the Pirates star over the first month of the season. Perhaps there was nothing for the opposition to learn from McCutchen’s early struggles, but Cubs backup catcher David Ross felt a little differently.

“When guys are struggling, you can’t base things off their real numbers,” Ross told me. “Same thing as when they’re hot. When you’re struggling, you might not be able to hit the fastball, the breaking ball, whatever. That’s why scouts are so important. We just played these guys, but we’ll still get a whole new scouting report. We try to go off what’s recent, what they see, and what our numbers tell us. We try to come up with a plan and attack them that way. You can’t generalize it with just, ‘this guy’s struggling,’ because sooner or later that guy is going to get hot and his numbers are going to even out.”

Ross continued to explain that it’s not just the type of pitch that you have to look at, but where, and even when, you need to throw it.

“Let’s say we’re looking at his scouting report and his numbers on fastballs, he’s hitting no less the .300 anywhere in the zone,” Ross said. “And on breaking balls, he’s hitting anywhere from .220 to .420. Well, you try to figure out where the .220 breaking ball is and you try to get to there. You can’t just throw that pitch all the time, but you try to get to that pitch.”

Ross is of course referring to sequencing, which any pitcher will tell you is essential to getting a batter out, especially the great hitters. As Ross put it, “If we just flipped him three breaking balls, he’s probably going to hit one of them real far.”

Year

Hard

Breaking

Offspeed

2009

65.95

23.34

10.71

2010

68.13

22.32

9.51

2011

60.43

27.68

11.82

2012

61.81

28.13

9.95

2013

58.19

29.70

12.10

2014

57.04

31.26

11.66

2015

56.30

33.61

10.08

The above table shows us the percentage of each category of pitch McCutchen has seen over the years. It’s clear that he saw a significant dive in fastballs, coupled with a jump in in breaking balls, from the 2010 to 2011 season, which was his first season as an All-Star. That trend has continued over the years, and we even saw a jump in offspeed pitches during McCutchen’s MVP season in 2013.

“I believe it’s just one of those stretches, because we’ve seen pitchers try attack him differently probably a couple seasons ago,” Hurdle said of McCutchen’s current struggles. “It happened right in the midst of his MVP season and last year we saw it quite dramatic at times. There are some teams that just opt not to pitch to him. Other teams, like we’ll do, will just go to spots to get a certain player out.”

Pitch Category

Count

AB

K

BB

HBP

1B

2B

3B

HR

BAA

SLG

ISO

BABIP

Hard

1469

341

47

45

5

83

22

3

16

.364

.587

.223

.389

Breaking

755

170

34

14

2

28

9

2

4

.253

.400

.147

.296

Offspeed

316

75

22

7

2

11

6

0

1

.240

.360

.120

.327

The above is how McCutchen fared in 2013 against hard, breaking, and off-speed pitches. It’s interesting to note that in 2012, he hit .357 against off-speed pitches, but during his MVP season, pitchers went to the pitch a higher percentage of the time and saw positive results.

The next season, pitchers attempted to go with the same strategy, but the results were a bit different.

Pitch Category

Count

AB

K

BB

HBP

1B

2B

3B

HR

BAA

SLG

ISO

BABIP

Hard

1495

312

46

47

7

59

22

4

19

.333

.612

.279

.344

Breaking

823

175

48

25

3

32

7

0

4

.246

.354

.109

.317

Offspeed

305

63

22

5

0

13

8

1

2

.381

.635

.254

.564

Looking at the heat maps tells us that the mode of attack with the off-speed pitches generally remained the same—low and away—but the results are vastly different. McCutchen had adjusted. And it appears the league is attempting to adjust back, throwing more breaking balls to the Pirates’ star than ever before.

“The game is a game of adjustments,” McCutchen told me when asked if it was important to just keep things the same, given his history, when faced with struggles. “Every year is not the same, so you have to learn how to make an adjustment. Some people can be stubborn and not want to change, but the greats, they make the adjustments. That’s all I’m trying to do on an everyday basis, try and make adjustments. The game will take care of itself, you just need to go out there and do what you do and that’s what I do every single day. I’m not too focused on struggles because you’re going to go up and down throughout the course of the season.”

McCutchen continued that while you have to make adjustments, it’s important to keep things the same. It’s seems counterintuitive, but when he explains it, it’s as plain as day.

“There’s a lot of things in this game you can’t control,” McCutchen said. “But you can control your preparation, you can control your attitude, you can control your effort. Those are the things you can control and those are the things you focus on. If you get results oriented, and you focus on that, you’re in for a long season.”

It’s something you hear over and over from players around the league. Preparation, a routine, is essential to finding success in the bigs. McCutchen has found that, and he’s not about to change that aspect of his game due to another bad April. He pointed out that he could be hitting .400 right now and feel like crap, but he knows things will click because he doesn’t feel off his game.

On Tuesday, McCutchen hit the ball hard multiple times—sending one ball to the warning track, a drive that likely would’ve ended up in the stands had it been hit in June rather than April—and he ended the night with just one hit. And even on that one single, Starlin Castro made a diving stop and nearly threw McCutchen out. When things are going bad for a player in baseball, it seems like even when you do everything right, things don’t work out exactly as hoped.

“You can’t focus so much on that, you just go out and keep doing the same things,” McCutchen said of the results when the process is sound. “Keep preparing, and I’m gonna keep doing that. I know that it’ll change and if not, oh well, I’ll just keep working. I assure you, I won’t be how I’ve been.”

In McCutchen’s final April game he went 2-for-5 with a triple. In his final at-bat on Wednesday evening, he roped a ball down the line that would’ve inevitably been a double had Kris Bryant not made a brilliant diving stop, but McCutchen still managed to leg out a single. The pitch that McCutchen ripped? A slider. It’s a game of adjustments; it appears that once again a superstar is making them.

Thanks to Rob McQuown for assistance with research on this piece.

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jfranco77
5/01
I hope you're right. I love watching him play. I'm encouraged that he hit a few balls hard this week. I'm just really worried about the knee.
newsense
5/01
Kudos for the Gay Talese / Frank Sinatra reference.
LorenA19
5/02
He cut his dreadlocks ... and lost his mojo.
joughbrasch
5/03
Am I the only one that finds McCutchen's quote at the beginning of this to be extremely ironic? Trophies, in fact, do go to the ones who have a good month. I know he was referring to April, but still...