McCutchen never felt like himself at plate in '16

Former MVP endures worst offensive season of career for Pirates

McCutchen never felt like himself at plate in '16

PITTSBURGH -- The weirdest, worst season of Andrew McCutchen's career ended with a solid two-month stretch. After four miserable months, McCutchen at least looked more like himself.

He never felt like himself, though.

"I got to that level where I was like, I'm good. It wasn't like, I'm good," McCutchen said in an interview with MLB.com. "I never got to that. I plateaued at good enough."

After five straight All-Star seasons as one of the game's elite hitters, McCutchen on Sunday finished a shockingly pedestrian offensive campaign. He hit .256 with a .766 OPS, both career lows. He struck out a career-high 143 times. He stole only six bases and was caught seven times.

In a disappointing season for the Pirates, McCutchen's dramatic drop in production may have been the most surprising and critical development.

The Pirates' $13 million question: What happened to Cutch?

"I was waiting for that 'a-ha' moment. Most of the time, we have them. 'There it is!'" McCutchen said. "Working, working, working and knowing it was going to come. But this year, it really didn't."

McCutchen's two-run single

McCutchen chalked up his offensive struggles to mental and physical mistakes. He focused too much on trying to get back to who he was before, trying to mimic his mechanics when something went wrong instead of trying to build off whatever went right. Too often, he felt out of whack in the batter's box.

"That's something I'm going to be working on this offseason, getting a more consistent feel with my setup and then going from there," McCutchen said, then pointed a finger to his head. "Where are you here? Where are you physically?"

McCutchen denied the idea that he was held back by an injury, though he was plagued the first few months of the season by a jammed and swollen right thumb.

"My body's in the best shape it's been in over the past couple years," he said. "It didn't show out on the field. … I'm going into the offseason not sluggish, not feeling like I need downtime to get my body back. I might need the downtime more for my head than my body."

Case in point: McCutchen's thumb injury was caused by squeezing the bat too tightly. That's the equivalent of a flashing neon sign pointing to a player pressing at the plate. McCutchen admits he fell victim to that mindset in 2011, when he wanted to put the entire Pirates lineup on his shoulders.

With a deep supporting cast around him in the lineup, McCutchen didn't think he had to be the guy for the Pirates this year, he said. Pittsburgh thrived at the plate in April and May even as McCutchen struggled. But he did feel an obligation to be himself.

"There were spots where I felt like I may have been trying a little too much, trying too hard," McCutchen said. "I think just the stresses of my performance, more than anything, got in the way of that. Going out and playing, not getting the results that I wanted, that created the gripping of the bat, that stress. It was more me than team. From a team standpoint, we were pretty good."

McCutchen's two-run double

The 29-year-old former National League MVP turned things around in August and September, hitting .284/.381/.471 with nine homers, 36 RBIs and nearly as many walks (34) as strikeouts (36). General manager Neal Huntington pointed out that McCutchen drove pitches with authority to right-center field, stayed on breaking balls and stopped pulling inside fastballs into foul territory as often as he did from April to July.

"There's a lot of positive signs the last two months that show us he's probably not the first and not the last star player that goes through a tough stretch," Huntington said.

What changed? McCutchen adamantly downplays the impact of his three-day benching in Atlanta the first week of August. He said he felt better in his final at-bat on July 31, when he singled in the ninth inning against then-Brewers closer Jeremy Jeffress.

"I said I'm going to stick on that, I'm going to stick on that swing until I hit again. That's what I did," McCutchen said. "Those four days, just thinking about that. I went from there. … The adjustment's been good. I feel good. But definitely still don't feel like me, for sure."

When the Pirates' season concluded Sunday afternoon, McCutchen set out from St. Louis with an idea of what he could work on over the long winter. When he reports to Spring Training next year, he hopes that "good" is no longer good enough. He wants to feel like Andrew McCutchen again.

"At the end of it, it's a really weird year for me. But at the same time, it's cool because now I know how to deal with things in a different way," McCutchen said. "This whole season's pretty much been a slump. I've dealt with it. I know how to deal with it. That's only going to make me a better player."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.