Center field was the dominant Phillies storyline in spring training, and Adam Haseley, Roman Quinn, and Mickey Moniak made sure it stayed that way three weeks into the season. Entering play Friday night, four National League teams were getting more offense from their pitchers than the Phillies were from their center-field trio.
But after watching a few games at Citizens Bank Park this week, a talent evaluator from an NL team emerged with a different outfield takeaway.
“Left field is definitely an issue,” the evaluator said. “They need to figure that out.”
It’s a thorny subject. Andrew McCutchen is a five-time All-Star and former NL most valuable player. He’s also one of the most widely respected players in the game. It usually takes more than a slow start for teams to bench players of his stature or even reduce their playing time, especially if they’re making $20 million a year.
But McCutchen began the season in a 9-for-55 funk. He had two extra-base hits, none since April 10. He’s moving better on the bases and in the outfield than he did last summer, when he was recovering from major knee surgery in 2019. But he also dropped a routine fly ball in the seventh inning Wednesday.
Manager Joe Girardi bristled this week at questions about dropping McCutchen from the leadoff spot, citing his on-base percentage against right-handed pitchers. Going into this weekend’s series in Colorado, he had more walks (11) than strikeouts (10) and was reaching base at a .356 clip against righties.
Oh, and there’s also this: Three weeks into last season, McCutchen was batting .180 with a .450 OPS and no home runs. He wound up hitting .275 with an .849 OPS and 10 homers in the next 43 games.
“We’ve played 10 percent [of the season],” Girardi said. “It seems like a lot of games, but it’s only 10 percent. And in this game, guys have tough two-week spans or even a month span sometimes, and they eventually come out of it. You try to look at the back of their baseball card and say, ‘OK, who is this guy really?’ ”
Indeed, that’s the central question facing the Phillies.
There’s little denying that McCutchen, at 34, isn’t the player he once was with the Pittsburgh Pirates. For seven years, from 2011 to 2017, he batted .292 with an .877 OPS and averaged 33 doubles, 25 homers, and 17 steals per season. He won a Gold Glove in center field. He was the face of a franchise.
A dropoff is evident in the last season of McCutchen’s three-year, $50 million contract with the Phillies. But how steep is it? And how long into a 162-game season should the Phillies wait to find out?
One potential caution flag, as the NL evaluator observed: McCutchen’s early-season struggle to handle fastballs.
Last season, he batted .306 and slugged .507 with a 16.5% swing-and-miss rate on fastballs, according to Statcast. This year, he’s batting .139 and slugging .194 with a 26.7% whiff rate. And while Phillies officials point to facing several quality pitchers in the first three weeks, from Atlanta’s Max Fried and Charlie Morton (twice) to the Mets’ Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman (twice), McCutchen hasn’t teed off on lesser pitchers, either.
“He’s always been able to get to the fastball,” the evaluator said. “I know it’s early and cold, and a lot of guys don’t get to deGrom’s fastball. But he’s getting beat with more fastballs.”
McCutchen is also hitting the ball on the ground more often. Entering the weekend, he ranked eighth in the majors in ground-ball rate (60%) and only 167th in hard-hit percentage (17.5%).
All the usual caveats apply about the size of the sample, but, as the evaluator said, it bears watching.
The Phillies made a calculated decision to not upgrade the outfield in the offseason.
After satisfying their top priorities by signing a late-inning reliever (Archie Bradley) and star catcher J.T. Realmuto to a five-year, $115.5 million contract, they considered free-agent shortstop Andrelton Simmons. But after Simmons went to Minnesota on a one-year, $10 million deal, the Phillies gave Didi Gregorius two years and $24 million, all but taking them out of the center-field market.
In hindsight, perhaps they would’ve been better served spreading around that money. Simmons is an inferior hitter but a better defender than Gregorius. Signing him might have left room in the budget to add, say, center fielder Kevin Pillar, who signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Mets at the start of spring training.
Instead, the Phillies bet on an internal candidate to win the center-field job in spring training. But neither Haseley, Quinn, Moniak, Scott Kingery, nor Odubel Herrera stepped forward with a strong camp. So the Phillies must figure out center field before they worry about McCutchen in left.
McCutchen is the ninth-oldest outfielder to play a game in the majors so far this season. Only Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon and Houston’s Michael Brantley, also in their age-34 seasons, are playing as regularly as McCutchen.
The NL evaluator suggested the Phillies may have to consider cutting back McCutchen’s playing time similar to the way the New York Yankees planned to use 37-year-old outfielder Brett Gardner. Lefty-hitting Matt Joyce and Brad Miller could be platoon options in left field.
But the Phillies aren’t there yet. Players with McCutchen’s track record aren’t easily written off – and rightly so, especially three weeks into a season. But when is it no longer too soon for the Phillies to get concerned?
“It’s just timing for him,” Girardi said. “Sometimes it seems like he’s working uphill a little bit. I feel like he’s a second late, so he has to catch up, and that leads to ground balls. He’s a big ‘feel’ guy, and he just hasn’t felt it consistently this year.
“I know the average isn’t where we want it. I know it’s not where he wants it. But he has managed a way to get some walks and grind out some at-bats. It’s important for our club that we get him going, and we’re going to do everything we can to.”