Can 2016’s Fallen Stars Bounce Back in 2017?
Last week, we took a look at a couple of players who achieved a new level of performance out of nowhere. Those two, Daniel Murphy and Matt Shoemaker, broke out in a way that was unprecedented given their track records. Now, let’s do the opposite.
Baseball always keeps us on our toes, and just as there are players breaking out with little warning, there are stars who slump seemingly inexplicably. Sometimes, an established player capable of elite production suddenly falls from grace, from star all the way to also-ran.
Who were the best examples of this in 2016, and what are their chances of returning to form? Let’s take a look:
After a winter full of trade rumors, it seems that the Pirates’ relationship with their beloved center fielder will continue. It will do so, however, after a near-disastrous year for McCutchen. Two years after leading the league with a 166 OPS+, and three years after winning NL MVP, McCutchen was below replacement level per rWAR.
What happened? Frankly, it appears that McCutchen simply regressed slightly in nearly every facet of the game. Consider, firstly, his quality of contact. According to FanGraphs’ batted ball data, McCutchen’s hard contact rate declined while his soft contact shot upwards. Back in 2014, over 40% of McCutchen’s batted balls were struck hard, and just 11% were struck softly. In 2016, his hard contact rate was down to 35%, while his soft contact rate was a career-high at nearly 20%. This is backed up by Statcast, as McCutchen’s average exit velocity fell from 91.3 mph in 2015 to 90 mph in 2016.
Even so, those quality of contact numbers are still fairly solid, if not spectacular, so there must have been other causes of McCutchen’s harsh decline. Indeed, it seems that McCutchen’s overall plate discipline and approach became less efficient in 2016.
In most basic terms, McCutchen’s walk rate fell to a career-low 10.2%, while his strikeout rate increased to a career-high 21.2%. That makes sense, as his contact skills waned in 2016. His out-of-zone-contact rate slipped to 59.8%, four percentage points below both his career and the league average, and his zone-contact rate fell to 83.8%, three percentage points beneath both the league and his career average. This all led to a career-high swinging strike rate of 10.7%.
The list of areas of decline goes on, as his fielding and baserunning figures slipped. FanGraphs valued his defensive contributions as 16 runs below average, while Baseball-Reference pegged him as a staggering 28 runs below average, both career-worsts. He also stole a career-low six bases while being caught in over half of his steal attempts, which helped lead to a career-worst rating in baserunning runs. If you’re wondering how to go from an 8-win player to replacement level in two seasons, McCutchen just laid out the recipe: regress across the board.
McCutchen’s all-around fall would seem to hurt his odds of bouncing back. Typically, if a player declines because one tool slips off, it feels like he’ll have a chance to rebound should he simply focus on remedying that primary reason for decline. For McCutchen, he has no primary reason to hone in on. He hit worse, for less power, and appeared a step slower both in the field and the basepaths. Such a thorough collapse makes it seem as though McCutchen has begun an irreversible decline, rather than simply having had an off year.
Perhaps he will bounce back all the same, because he is Andrew McCutchen, and was very recently an excellent player. Projection systems peg him to be at least above average, as FanGraphs depth charts forecast him for about 3 WAR in 2017. Still, even if McCutchen can get to that level, it would a disappointing level of performance for a former superstar. If all McCutchen can muster in possibly his final years in Pittsburgh is modestly above average production, it will be a sad end to what was an fantastic career with the Pirates.
There was another former star National League outfielder that lost his shine last year, and his name is Yasiel Puig. Just a couple years removed from being an All-Star and a national sensation, Puig appeared to hit rock bottom of his baseball career when he was sent to Triple-A mid-season.
When the Dodgers demoted Puig at the beginning of August, they painted a picture of a player who was just a bit off. He was fairly lost at the plate, as his slash line at the end of July was a paltry .260/.320/.386. Plus, the rumors of Puig as a damper on the locker room persisted. According to Andy McCullough’s reporting, Puig was inconsistent with his meeting attendance, and sloppy in his off-field preparations. Far from career-killing tendencies, but those small transgressions added up to a point where the Dodgers felt compelled to act. Puig’s demotion seemed in part to serve as a chance for him to regain his feel at the plate, and to sharpen his habits off the field.
Puig did play better once he returned to the big league roster in September, but a solid month of play wasn’t enough to drag his numbers to respectability. His 102 OPS+ was the worst mark of his career, as was his fWAR total of 1.0.
All of Puig’s underlying numbers at the plate regressed. He walked in just 6.5% of his plate appearances and ran an ISO of .153, both career-lows. His swinging strike rate of 13.2% and contact rate of 74% were both much worse than league average. He was an aggressive hitter at the plate overall, but that aggression led to little pop and a large number of swings and misses.
And yet, could Puig be poised to recover? Unlike McCutchen, who struggled mightily all throughout the year, it is easier to construct a narrative for Puig that ends with him rebounding in 2017. For one, his summer demotion may have spurred him, and led to his strong finish. Plus, Puig was plagued by injuries in the first half of the year, but he seemed to elevate his level of play once healthy.
Puig missed multiple games with a hamstring injury before going on the disabled list with the ailment on June 2nd. Prior to that, Puig was dreadful. He posted a miserable .237/.283/.360 slash line, and totaled a meager 11 extra-base hits. It seems simple to say that all Puig needed to do was get healthy, as he still got demoted some time after returning from injury, but his numbers once returning from a few weeks on the disabled list are telling: a .297/.371/.486 line that is much more in line with Puig’s prime from a couple seasons ago.
It could be just a coincidence that Puig’s performance rebounded both after returning from injury and being called out with a demotion. Regardless, Puig’s performance significantly improved as the season wore on, and by the end, he looked at least fairly similar to the Puig of old. He may never again be the Earth-shaking force that he was when he burst onto the scene in 2013. However, his play down the stretch does provide hope that a productive Puig is something that can be reasonably expected moving forward.