It was fair to wonder earlier this season if Father Time had finally caught up to Andrew McCutchen. He entered June balancing the Mendoza Line with an OPS that ranked well below the league average.
So perhaps it was time for the Phillies to shift McCutchen into a part-time role.
And then he spent the final six weeks of the first half as one of the National League’s hottest hitters. McCutchen entered the All Star break with a .941 OPS since June 1 and a WRC+ - an advanced metric that totals how many runs a player creates - that is the 10th best in the NL since May turned to June.
The 34-year-old McCutchen proved that not only can he still play everyday but he could be the key to the team’s playoff chances when they begin the second half of the season Friday with a .500 record and within striking distance of first place.
“What I think he’s telling everyone is that he has baseball left in him and very productive baseball,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “That’s the problem, right? When you’re young, they say you’re not ready. When you’re old, they say you’re old. It’s only in those years from like 26 to 31, 32 that you don’t have to listen to those whispers if you’re struggling a little bit.”
“But once you get over 32, everyone says ‘Well, is he close to done?’ Sometimes it’s not fair, but sometimes it is. I think it’s a legitimate question that people have and he’s answering those questions.”
McCutchen’s batting average is still just .228 but his on-base percentage has increased by nearly 20 points since June 1 and his slugging percentage has spiked by nearly 70 points. He’s reaching base via walks and hitting extra-base hits. What more could you want, Girardi asked?
Only one NL player - 36-year-old Justin Turner of the Dodgers - is as old as McCutchen and has totaled as many plate appearances this season as the Phillies’ left fielder. In 2019, just 10 players aged 34 or older had 500 or more plate appearances. It was the lowest number in 30 years. Players are being aged out quicker than ever, but McCutchen is doing more this season than just hanging on.
“I don’t think they’re getting the benefit of the doubt as players did 15, 20 years ago about being 34 or 35,” Girardi said. “ ... He works. He takes his defense seriously. He takes everything seriously. He’s been big for us.”
When McCutchen hit his 10th homer of the season last month it didn’t feel like anything more than a three-run homer. Hitting 10 homers - especially at the rate baseballs now leave the ballpark - is hardly an accomplishment. But this was different.
It was another sign of just how McCutchen continues to defy his age. He joined Nelson Cruz as the only players to hit 10 homers per season for 13 straight years since McCutchen debuted in 2009. Ten homers? No big deal. Doing it every year for more than a decade? That’s longevity.
“If I get 500, 600 plate appearances. I’m going to hit 10. There’s no doubt in my mind. Ten? I’m going to run into 10,” McCutchen said. “But being able to do that, to be able to get in that box and get the at-bats, it’s been good. I don’t think much of it past that I’ve been able to play long enough to get enough at-bats.”
What do the Phillies need at the trade deadline? Pitching.
Dave Dombrowski has been at the controls for seven months but he has yet to truly put his fingerprints on the team. He re-signed J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius, added Brad Miller and Archie Bradley, and brought on two veteran pitchers for $7 million who have combined for 14 starts.
For the most part, the 2021 Phillies look a lot like the 2020 Phillies. That could change later this month when Dombrowksi - the team’s president of baseball operations - reaches his first trade deadline.
The Phillies are in the market for a starting pitcher and a reliever as they vie to win a division that does not seem as tough as it did before the season started. Craig Kimbrel of the Cubs and Richard Rodriguez of the Pirates will be two of the better closers on the market. Starters Kyle Gibson of the Rangers and Danny Duffy of the Royals are also expected to be available.
The Phillies will have the chance this month to add arms. It will be interesting to see how serious Dombrowski’s pursuit is and what players and prospects he sees as expendable.
Can Zack Wheeler maintain this workload and production? Yes.
Consider the Phillies pleased with Dave Roberts after the Dodgers manager used Wheeler for just one batter and three pitches in Tuesday’s All-Star Game. The Phillies worked their rotation to give Wheeler, the major-league leader in innings pitched, an elongated break. When he pitches Sunday, it will be 11 days since his last start.
Wheeler threw 1912/3 innings in this season’s first half after throwing just 71 last season. He’s on pace to reach 200 innings for the first time in his career so it’s worth monitoring how he’ll hold up. The Phillies, by modifying their rotation, are trying to make sure he does.
In the first half, the Phillies were one of just four teams to have three starters - Wheeler, Eflin, and Nola - log 100 innings. The Phils were healthy in the first half, but that will be tested in the final stretch of the season when pitchers log nearly double the amount of innings they did last summer.
The Phillies bet on Wheeler’s future when they signed him before last season for $118 million, believing the pitcher’s best years were ahead of him. But the way he pitched in the first half - an emergence as one of the NL’s best pitchers with an 2.26 ERA in 18 starts - exceeded even their own expectations.
“I think you saw it in the second half of 2019, what he was capable of doing, but I think he’s taken even another step or two,” Girardi said. “I think his slider has made a big difference for him. He’s using it against lefties inside, up and in, and getting strikes. Not always throwing just five or six fastballs in a row. It’s a guy who’s figured out what his whole repertoire is and he knows how to use it. That’s why he’s been so effective. It probably did exceed because we didn’t necessarily see all of that in 2019.”
Wheeler, if he pitches the way he did in the first half and stays healthy, is the type of arm who can pitch a team to October.
“It’s pretty impressive what he’s been able to do,” Girardi said. “I give him a lot of credit because sometimes guys will be pretty good and they’ll level off but he continues to get better and strives to get better. I give him a lot of credit for that.”
What does Cole Hamels have left? We’ll see.
The Phillies, who can use a starting pitcher, will find out Friday when they attend his showcase in Texas.
The 37-year-old Hamels has thrown just 31/3 innings since the end of the 2019, which he finished by allowing a .903 OPS in his final 10 starts. He was slowed last season by injuries and said his struggles in the final two months of 2019 stemmed from him coming back too quickly from an oblique injury.
Friday’s workout - which is to be attended by many teams - will provide a good indication of the left-hander’s health.
Hamels joined Atlanta last season on a one-year deal worth $18 million. The contract was prorated to $6.6 million when the season was shortened to 60 games. This season, he’ll be joining a playoff contender for roughly the final 60 games of the season. But is he worth more than $6.6 million? We should find out soon.
Will the lineup finally start hitting? Probably not.
McCutchen said earlier this month that the Phillies aren’t a team who would hit “five, six, seven homers in a game.” What McCutchen meant, was the Phillies weren’t going to outslug anyone. Instead, he said the team needed to do the little things right and play consistently if they were going to string together some wins.
So don’t get too excited over the 60 runs the Phils scored on their seven-game road trip to end the first half. That was likely just a good week and not a sign that the Phillies - even though they were constructed to power their way to wins - are not suddenly an offensive juggernaut.
Perhaps that changes if the Phillies finally stay healthy or if Dombrowski adds an impact bat this month. The Cubs are expected to trade Kris Bryant, but it would be tough to sacrifice significant prospects for Bryce Harper’s childhood friend if the Phillies are still a handful of games behind the Mets.
They ended the first-half ranked around the National League average in nearly every offensive category. Three of their regulars had an OPS+ of below 90 and the team’s overall OPS+ is 98, meaning they’re two-points below the major-league average. The Phillies, despite a strong finish, for an average offensive team in the first half. They’ll need more than one good week to change that.
“We’re a team that has to do small things right. If we do that, we’ll be fine,” McCutchen said.