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Fantasy owners can be notoriously fickle, but no one can fault them for becoming impatient with Andrew McCutchen. Even while McCutchen's real-life manager, Clint Hurdle, has shown him the pine for the entire series with the Braves, owners in 87 percent of CBSSports.com leagues have kept him in their lineups.
It's been a tough slog for McCutchen's owners, who have now endured four months of production that have been well below his 2015 levels, which were a slight letdown in their own right. Despite the consistent underproduction, McCutchen remains owned in virtually all CBSSports.com leagues. This week's benching is likely to add even more sting to a painful year, given that owners typically needed a late first-round or early second-round pick to draft McCutchen.
What can an owner do? Given the persistence of his slump, it will be hard to get good value for McCutchen in a trade, but it's also risky at this point to start him. Even this late into the season, it seems extreme to drop someone who was going in the first round in many leagues, but is it worth keeping McCutchen around just to take up a bench spot?
A majority of Twitter poll respondents think so. Nearly half said they would bench McCutchen if he doesn't improve by the end of Fantasy Week 19 (Aug. 8-14), and a total of 65 percent of respondents would keep him on their roster in some capacity. It's telling, though, that the other 35 percent are close to getting rid of him, either by trade or drop.
Andrew McCutchen Poll! If he doesn't turn it around by the end of next week, I'd:— Al Melchior (@almelccbs) August 4, 2016
How you decide to proceed with McCutchen likely has to do with what you think is ailing him. If you think he is just going through a garden-variety slump -- albeit a colossal one -- you may be inclined to keep starting him. If you think he's hurt, you may lean towards letting him heal while on the bench. However, if you see McCutchen as a player in decline, you might conclude it's time to deal him or dump him.
Poll: Why do you think Andrew McCutchen has underperformed this season?— Al Melchior (@almelccbs) August 4, 2016
There is evidence to back up each of these theories. McCutchen is still only 29, so it's conceivable that this season has just been one terrible slump so far. It's rare, but it happens to players who have yet to hit the decline phase of their careers. One of the most prominent examples of this was Mike Lowell's age-31 season in 2005, in which he compiled a .658 OPS, and then went on to post four straight seasons with an OPS of at least .798.
McCutchen's struggles, at least earlier this season, seemed to be related to his swollen thumb, and it would make sense, given that such an injury would surely affect his bat grip. Then again, you could also point to the fact that McCutchen has increased his swinging strike rate for the third straight season.
It's not too hard to poke holes in these theories. Pirates trainer Todd Tomczyk suggested to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that McCutchen's thumb was not related to his protracted struggles, saying he "is about as healthy as anybody else on the club, for August." And while McCutchen's whiff rate is not trending in the right direction, it has only impacted his production in a profound way this season, which coincides with a huge spike in his swing rate. Four months into the season, we can only guess what's behind that particular trend.
So we can hypothesize all we want about what's wrong with McCutchen this season, but there is really no clear answer. At this point, there is little to lose by benching him until he starts to improve. At worst, you lose out on a week's worth of his more typical level of production.
Still, a substantial portion of Twitter poll respondents said they are close to ready to trade or drop McCutchen, but a comparison with another Fantasy star in his peak years shows the potential pitfalls of those choices. While it's not a perfect comparison, the similarity between McCutchen's current funk and the one that Brian Dozier snapped out of roughly two months ago is instructive. Dozier finished last season in a terrible slump, posting a .600 OPS over his final 44 games while playing through a labral tear in his right hip. Dozier pronounced himself healthy in spring training, yet his first two months of 2016 produced a .624 OPS and only marginally more power than he had shown late in 2015.
Though Dozier's slump was interrupted by the offseason, by May he was in his fourth month of subpar production. All in all, Dozier's multi-season slump encompassed 399 plate appearances -- 0r 32 short of McCutchen's total for this season so far. We have seen what Dozier has accomplished since snapping out of his extended downturn, and while he overperformed in June by batting .369, he has settled into a sustainable level of production since.
In May, during the final weeks of Dozier's slump, I made a couple of ill-advised trades just to get some value for him. Little did I know that a turnaround was just around the corner. But just because Dozier broke out after 399 plate appearances doesn't mean McCutchen is necessarily due. Both players are about the same age, had health issues at the beginning of their slumps and have been reliable must-start options in Fantasy in recent years. The point is that if Dozier could get back on track, there is no reason to think McCutchen can't.
Whereas Dozier is hitting as well as he ever has, it's probably not realistic to expect McCutchen to make a full rebound to his peak level. That's because, at his best, McCutchen was a threat to steal at least 20 bases per season, but he hasn't reach that threshold since 2013. Still, even in the midst of his slump, McCutchen could easily reach the 25-homer mark. The power is still there, but he needs to be more selective, which should help both his batting average and walk rate, and reduce his rate of soft contact (22.2 percent, per FanGraphs), which should help his BABIP.
If McCutchen can improve his batting average in the way that Dozier rediscovered his power, he may not be a top-0 outfielder, but he should be able to at least put himself on a par with Stephen Piscotty. That would make McCutchen worth starting in any format. That would also reward any owner who has resisted the temptation to trade or drop him.