In trading for Andrew McCutchen back in January the Giants added another formerly great veteran to their formerly great veteran core in the hopes of propping their World Series window open, but McCutchen and the team as a whole underwhelmed. Neither were bad, exactly—McCutchen remains an above-average hitter and the Giants are hovering around .500—but the potential for greatness appears to have disappeared from both player and team. With free agency around the corner and the possibility of draft pick compensation no longer seeming like a viable option because the 31-year-old former MVP would likely accept a one-year, $18.5 million qualifying offer, the Giants recouped whatever value they could.
This move will undoubtedly carry a strong rich-get-richer vibe for many people, with the Yankees adding a household name in a last-minute August trade so that he can serve as depth for their injury wrecked outfield, but McCutchen is in Year 3 of being merely a solid player rather than the superstar with whom Pittsburgh fell in love. Perhaps the league switch or the move to a power-boosting ballpark will rejuvenate him, but McCutchen has slugged just .445 since the beginning of 2016, including a career-low .415 mark for the Giants this season. Of course, making it clear that McCutchen is no longer an MVP-caliber player is very different than assuming he can’t help the Yankees.
Aaron Judge has yet to swing a bat five weeks into his recovery from a broken wrist, Jacoby Ellsbury is out for the season, and Clint Frazier is making his way back from a concussion, causing the Yankees to turn to career infielder Neil Walker and journeyman Shane Robinson as starting right fielders. McCutchen is certainly a significant upgrade over those two options, although his role if/when Judge returns is unclear. Presumably the Yankees would fill the three outfield spots and designated hitter with some alignment of Judge, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton, leaving McCutchen to either take playing time from Gardner against tough lefties or serve as purely a bench bat.
That would qualify as a nice problem to have, but even in his diminished state McCutchen warrants everyday playing time and he’s never been a role player before. He has, however, hit .272/.363/.450 against left-handers this season after crushing them to the tune of .336/.435/.696 last year, and for McCutchen’s career his OPS is 120 points higher versus lefties than righties. Gardner has never been particularly good against lefties, including .248/.323/.342 this year and .209/.299/.291 last year. On paper at least a Gardner-McCutchen platoon makes all sorts of sense once the Yankees’ outfield is healthy, and until then there should be plenty of at-bats for both.
Many of McCutchen’s once-abundant tools have eroded over the past few years, including speed, defense, and power. What remains is a a very discerning eye at the plate and a ton of baseball IQ. McCutchen has the 20th-best walk rate (12.9 percent) among all qualified hitters, sandwiched in between Alex Bregman (13.0) and Mookie Betts (12.8), and at this stage of his career he’s drawn those free passes mostly out of patience as opposed to inducing fear in pitchers. His out-of-zone swing rate is the third-lowest in baseball at 18.6 percent, compared to 23.3 percent last season and at least 22 percent every year from 2012-2017. Or, put another way: The only National Leaguer to swing at fewer non-strikes this season is Joey Votto, for whom that stat was basically invented.
McCutchen has always been a patient hitter, but by design or necessity he’s been ultra-patient this season, grinding out plate appearances and forcing opponents to throw him more hittable pitches to help make up for the loss of pure tools. The result is a solid .357 on-base percentage, which ranks 20th among all qualified outfielders, and a .286 True Average that puts him roughly on par with Gleyber Torres (.284), Didi Gregorius (.285), and Aaron Hicks (.291). If you’re expecting the superstar version of McCutchen to show up down the stretch for the Yankees you’re likely to be disappointed, but there’s still gas left in the tank and he’s a helluva luxury item for Brian Cashman to throw into the shopping cart while standing in the checkout aisle.