From Merriam-Webster: nonesuch (noun | none·such | \ˈnən-ˌsəch\): A person or thing without equal
Have you ever had a feeling that something was going to happen and then it does, exactly as you thought it was going to? Like you willed it to happen, even if you actually had no bearing on it? That happened to me once back in 2013 and it's one of my favorite Andrew McCutchen moments. The Pirates were playing the Brewers in an early season game that was mostly uneventful early on. After scraping a run across in the eighth to tie it up, the Pirates managed to get through a few more relatively boring innings and it seemed like everyone could be in for a long night. Then, in the bottom of the 12th, McCutchen led off against Mike Fiers (who wasn’t very good) and I thought to myself "Cutch is gonna park one here." A few pitches later, Cutch deposited a 2-2, 90 mph fastball into the nearly-empty left-center bleachers for a walk-off win. It was only a random weeknight in May, but I felt really good about the season at that point and thought I had willed this to happen. Then I realized, "no stupid, Andrew McCutchen made that happen."
The bombast in the title of this post isn’t without merit. According to Fangraphs, in the past four seasons, only Mike Trout has had more Wins Above Replacement than Cutch (I think Mike Trout was going to be a twin and then resorbed the other fetus, and that fetus also happened to be Superman), and McCutchen’s four consecutive top-5 MVP finishes are warranted given that performance. I almost forget how good he is sometimes and start to take him for granted. It’s unfair, but I hold him to a higher bar than anyone else that I watch for the Pirates or otherwise.
But the value of Cutch extends beyond his on-field contributions. I remember watching him for the first time in person early in the 2010 season, thinking about how great this guy looked; I even bought a McCutchen shirsey right there at the ballpark that day, overpriced as it was, because he seemed like a guy I could believe in to bring this franchise back from the brink. Being able to get someone who didn’t remember winning baseball in Pittsburgh in his entire life (although my dad tells me I was watching them in the playoffs with him in ’92 as a two-year-old) to be excited about the Buccos is something special. Cutch was the spark that revitalized baseball in the Steel City; without him, we’d all be lamenting the loss of the Pittsburgh Kid Neil Walker more than the yinzers already are, because the hometown guy would be all we’d have to cheer for. Cutch is the most important part of this franchise right now. He won the Clemente Award for his charity work in the Pittsburgh area. His mom sings the national anthem at games. He wore a “Retire 21” shirt during Spring Training a few days ago. The dude understands where he is in Pittsburgh, understands how to be a leader, and had the largest part in bringing baseball back to Pittsburgh.
This wasn’t exactly what I planned on writing my first real baseball-related post about, but with all the hubbub over McCutchen’s comments about re-signing with the Pirates at Spring Training recently, I figured the time was ripe to address this issue. First and foremost, I don’t think he’s going to take much, if any, of a “hometown discount” on any extension or free agent contract. He already did that when he signed his pre-arbitration extension prior to the 2012 season, giving the Pirates 27.9 WAR over the four years of the deal thus far for only $23.5 million, or about $840,000 per 1 WAR. There have been various articles discussing the value of a win over time, but during the 2014 offseason, a win was valued at a little over $7 million. Think about how crazy that McCutchen contract is in that context. If Neal Huntington and the front office didn’t sign him to that extension, he would have been a free agent this past offseason. Fangraphs did a short write-up of him in a longer article and projected a ten year contract for him at over $370 million. As in, the biggest contract ever in North American professional sports history (that is, until Bryce Harper signs his new contract compensating him with $800 million, the keys to the city of Atlantis, and the Ark of the Covenant). We would be watching McCutchen in spring training in Arizona right now in a Cubs or Dodgers to Diamondbacks uniform. Instead, we get three more seasons of watching this guy hit baseballs better than almost anyone else on the planet.
In contrast with the comments about wanting to stay in Pittsburgh, one thing McCutchen said was that “No one plays for free. People rarely ever work for free.” This supports my theory that a hometown discount isn’t necessarily on the table given the disparity between McCutchen’s value and monetary compensation. Imagine that you and a coworker both have the same job title and get the same grades in performance reviews, yet your coworker is making 3x the salary you are. If another company comes and offers you the same job but with pay equal to your coworker, wouldn't you jump at the opportunity? Precluding an unforeseen change of heart in terms of another hometown discount, it seems unlikely that the Pirates would be able to resign McCutchen due to the success he's had in his career thus far. Without a salary cap, small-market teams simply can’t afford to sink large chunks of money into one player, regardless to his talent or what he means to the franchise. Huntington and crew have a business to run, and spending money on aging players has been shown time and again to be bad for business. (Not that Ryan Howard is a good comparison because he’s an entirely different type of player, but I’d just like to take this opportunity to mock the Phillies for paying Howard $25,000,000 this year and possibly having him sit on the bench because he’s so bad.)
Let's ignore that for a second, though, and assume the Pirates would be willing to spend the money to keep their aging star. The question then becomes “How good will McCutchen be after 2018?” This is the root of the issue here; if his production is projected to remain steady, then he’d obviously be worth signing for a lot of money. The most important thing is how the Pirates value him relative to other clubs, however. As long as there are idiots running the show for certain other teams, which there most certainly are, then teams like the Pirates won’t be able to compete with the offers that other teams might be willing to give to as big a star as McCutchen that effectively nullify any sort of calculated decision the Pirates can make based on projections. His production last year already started to drop off, although a sluggish start due to a knee injury likely skewed those stats in a direction unfavorable to Andrew; he claimed a few days ago that “I'm looking forward to this year just for the fact that I'm 29 years old, but I feel like I'm 22.” Hopefully this is true and he continues to find success for years, but projecting future performance is always a fun thing to do.
An easy (and by no means rigorous) way to evaluate this is through similarity scores, an explanation of which can be found here. If you go to McCutchen’s Baseball Reference page and scroll down to his similarity scores, you’ll find a number of interesting players. Let’s just focus on the “Similar batters through 28” list, since it seems most relevant. Andre Dawson tops the list, with a pretty high score of 945. Andre Dawson played into his age 41 season and was healthy until his age 38 season. Most notably, he was an All-Star for five straight years starting with his age 32 season, which is the first year outside of McCutchen’s current contract. Several other Hall of Famers populate McCutchen’s list, including Billy Williams and Dave Winfield; both were successful well into their mid-to-late thirties. This list is a mixed bag, however, as Matt Kemp is in the second spot; his career dropped off a cliff after two consecutive All-Star appearances, although his defense was always suspect and is a big part of his decline. Vernon Wells also declined rapidly in his early thirties. With the very big caveat that similarity scores only scratch the surface of a player’s later career potential, the point is that these kinds of projections are difficult, yet will significantly impact the Pirates’ brass’s decision on how much money to offer McCutchen when the time comes.
The combination of a Pirates front office that has shown itself to be pretty responsible with how and on whom they spend their money and the big contracts that older players still receive when they hit free agency, it seems unlikely to me that they’ll resign McCutchen, either to an extension before 2018 or as a free agent after. Like I said before, though: the guy means so much to Pittsburgh baseball at this point and I hope to God that the front office stretches to the very end of their means to keep him aboard. Given the type of athleticism he has, it seems that he’ll age well (says the average guy watching baseball from his couch with almost no data or aging curves to back this up) and would be worthwhile to have as a contributor on any team, although we'll have more information after the next three seasons. The presence he brings to the Pirates is one of those things that’s difficult to put a price on; additionally, the manner in which the Pirates approach this will be a bellwether for future negotiations of this type, as free agencies for Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole are coming down the pipe sooner than you expect.
Seeing McCutchen retire in a Pirates uniform would really be a wonderful thing, given what he means to the city and to the Pirates. However, if you want to keep enjoying moments like his Jumpman leap into home after his first ever walk-off homer and that epic walk-off homer against the Cards this past season, enjoy them for the next three years, because it isn't easy to know what’s going to come after that.