It was a rather nondescript loss last month in Los Angeles, but for Andrew McCutchen it was his 60th game of the season. It’s been nearly three years since he signed a $50 million contract with the Phillies, but this was the first time McCutchen made it to the 60-game mark.
A knee injury ended his season in 2019 after 59 games and he played 57 games last summer in a season truncated by the pandemic.
“I was talking to my wife the other day and said no one here has ever seen me past two months,” McCutchen said.
So perhaps that lack of familiarity with McCutchen left fans feeling alarmed when he finished the second month of the season with the eighth-lowest batting average (.201) in the majors and an OPS (.681) that was nearly 200 points below his career average.
McCutchen, in his 13th season, was no longer looking like an everyday player. But the first two months of the season are historically McCutchen’s least productive. So McCutchen never panicked. That’s the way it goes.
And then he hit .301 with a 1.027 OPS in June. He was one of baseball’s worst hitters in April and May and has since been one of the league’s best.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at my numbers in my career and see how I have slower starts,” he said. “I seem to heat up when it actually heats up. It’s kind of what I’ve done in my career. I don’t panic because of that. I’ve played 12 years now and it’s not anything for me to overthink when things aren’t going the way I want them to go. Just know that the tide will turn and I’ll be able to ride a wave. It’ll all work out for me.”
By the end of June, McCutchen’s batting average was 30 points higher and his OPS had increased by 103 points. He started July as a productive hitter, which could cause him to start August in a different uniform if the Phillies fall out of playoff contention.
McCutchen has won an MVP, four Silver Slugger Awards, made five All-Star teams, and won a Gold Glove. The 34-year-old has done nearly everything except win in October. McCutchen has been to the playoffs three times, but lost each time in the division series.
This year should give him another chance to play for a contender. Either he’ll be with the Phillies as they try to win a division that has been underwhelming or they’ll likely move McCutchen — who is in the final year of his deal — to a contender looking for a hot bat with experience.
“We all have personal accolades that we want and we strive for, but at the end of the day you play the game to win a championship,” McCutchen said. “I don’t play for personal accolades. I play to win a championship. It would be nice to play past my birthday one time. October 10. I was eliminated a day before twice. That would be quite the gift to play past my birthday.”
“We’re fighting every day. Every game counts. Every game matters. I’m going to be out there on that field every single day if I can. I’m on the back end of my career and I’m not going to get too many more times of being able to be out there to play. I’m going to play as much as I can, regardless of how I feel. I know whatever I’m feeling today — 50, 60, 70 percent — is better than zero percent.”
Dave Dombrowski will use this month to gauge if his team will be buyers or sellers as the July 30 trade deadline approaches. The Phillies have at least three players — McCutchen, starting pitcher Vince Velasquez, and reliever Archie Bradley — who are free agents after the season and would be valued by contenders.
But all three of them will stay if Dombrowski thinks his team has a chance to chase down the division. The Phillies, according to FanGraphs, have an 11.8% chance to reach the playoffs.
They entered Sunday two games below .500 and four games back of the first-place Mets, who are the only NL East team with a winning record. The Phillies have struggled this season, but the division remains wide open. McCutchen thinks the Phillies can still get hot.
“We’ve done it already. We’ve gotten hot earlier this year,” McCutchen said. “Everything was promising and looking good for us in the beginning, but we haven’t been able to hit that stride yet. We have the team. We do have it. We just have to go out there and be consistent with it. Do the small things right. Make the plays that need to be made. Make the pitches that need to be made. Make the defensive plays. Everything. You do those small things and we’ll be fine. Because we’re not going to be the team who can hit five, six, seven homers a game. We’re a team that has to do small things right. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
The rest of the month should present a clear picture. One good week could be enough for the Phillies to be buyers, but one bad week will start the sale.
The Phillies end the first half with a seven-game road trip to Wrigley Field and Fenway Park and play 12 games against division opponents before the trade deadline.
Maybe they’ll be buyers. Or maybe McCutchen’s postseason chase will take him to another city. His strong June made him an attractive player and his two slow months were no reason to panic.
“There’s nothing like it,” McCutchen said of the playoffs. “You really have to psych yourself out to not let the game speed up on you in those moments because we can really let the moment get in front of us. Think about it. Opening day happens and everything around it makes it amazing. First game of the season, fans are excited, we’re excited. Banners, sellout crowd, anticipation, you name it. It’s exciting.
“But what is any different about today? It’s still a baseball game. You still go out there and play. Maybe it’s not Game 1. Maybe there’s not 40,000 people in the stands going crazy, But that’s kind of what you have to do in the playoffs. Treat it like it’s in the middle of the season and you’re playing a baseball game. The game is the game. Baseball is baseball.”