I recently completed a mini-2017 mock draft with some colleagues and luminaries the last few weeks. We only went six rounds and you can see the complete results here. My travel schedule is currently at max capacity, so I have not yet had too much time to sit down and digest the results, but one thing really stood out to me — the second pick of the sixth round. That's where perennial first round pick Andrew McCutchen was finally taken.
McCutchen played at least 145 games last year for the seventh consecutive season, which is surprising because he was plagued in the first half with a sore thumb. It was not something bad enough to put him to disabled list, but there was clear discomfort when he didn't square up the ball and would help explain some of the lowest hard-contact rates (Hard%) of his career.
Normally, when we see a player fall five rounds from one year to the next, it is due to the player missing extensive time with injury. That is not the case with McCutchen, as the thumb issue didn't caused missed time and he is not having offseason surgery to correct it. What is true is McCutchen had one of the worst peak declines in recent memory. Drafting him did not cross my mind because I had other plans, but I also did not expect to see him drop this precipitously. Yet, there is good reason to approach this superstar with caution.
The main reason I am worried about McCutchen is because he is 30 years old. I am 44, so 30 is definitely young to me in real life, but in baseball, and in center field, it is old. Now, political pollmeister and former baseball writer Nate Silver first looked at the aging curve for center fielders in 2005. In short, once the production starts slipping, it does not fully recover.
The decline is harder on center fielders than it is on other positions, as well, because it is a taxing position. Center fielders have to cover more ground than the corner outfielders and are typically hitting high in the lineup getting more at-bats, and speed is a big part of their game. The human body can only hold up for so long, which is why great shortstops go to third base and great center fielders end up as corner outfielders.
McCutchen has started 1,171 games as a major leaguer, all in center field. It would be sloppy analysis to say that and that alone was why McCutchen took a step backward last season, but it certainly did not help.
If we look at other center fielders who have played a similar volume of games, the track record of the position in the 30s is not terribly encouraging.
Bernie Williams steadily declined with the help of a nice short porch as did Carlos Beltran, but there has been a cluster of inconsistency from the other samples in the pool as they transitioned out of their 20s. Here is how that weighted on-base average graph looks for just McCutchen:
While McCutchen's offensive production was still above league average, his fantasy value was far from it. He earned just $11 in standard 12-team mixed leagues, which ranked 37th for outfielders last year. His walk rate has remained in the double-digits throughout his career, but the strikeout rate is slipping lately as it has worsened each of the last four seasons. 2016 saw his strikeout rate reach a career-high 21.2 percent, but a lot of that decline was front-loaded as his rate improved as the season went on. In the first half of the season, he struck out 24.7 percent of the time while that rate improved to 16.9 percent in the second half.
One of the things that made McCutchen a perennial high pick was that he contributed in all five categories and at a high rate in some. He has never been a big home run guy, partly because his home park does him few favors, but he even in a year when he struggled with hand health he still surpassed 20 homers. His batting average fell off quite a bit, as it did in 2011 before it rebounded in a big way the following season.
The batting average could do it again in 2016 if the second-half improvements are the new norm for him. However, the days of him being a five-category player appear over. His stolen bases have declined each of the last four seasons, and he has not even eclipsed 20 in any of the last three seasons.
In the mock, he ended up as the 15th outfielder selected, which feels about right. If you still think that is too high, you can always pass on him and take the comparable Adam Jones later if you are willing to sacrifice some batting average upside for some more power upside.