It’s always hard to admit when there is an issue with a popular player. Even on younger travel teams, when parents see a player struggling but keeps getting run out on the field, there are whispers about that player and why he is still playing. It’s clearly not the same situation as what is happening with the Phillies right now, but left field is an issue, one that has been glossed over thanks to the glaring spotlight placed on center field. Andrew McCutchen has not played well since the start of the season and it is time for the team to take some action.
Let’s preface this by admitting it is still early. 18 games does not a season make, but there seems to be a general lack of wanting to admit the team has a problem. The team has been struggling to score runs, to generate offense and it starts at the top of the lineup. McCutchen has struggled this year, getting off to a .164/.313/.255 start (61 OPS+). He has gotten on base at a decent clip, his 17.9% walk rate the highest of his career, but his strikeout rate (22.4%) is also the highest rate of his career. He has always had good power to go along with that good plate discipline, but he’s only had two extra base hits so far this season. And yet he continues to take up the leadoff spot in the lineup. Is that for a lack of better options? Probably. There really isn’t anyone else to take his spot at the top of the lineup right now, so it’s almost by default that manager Joe Girardi keeps penciling him in to begin the game. But with the team struggling to generate consistent offense, the team is drawing near to discuss whether a platoon should be in order.
With the roster as it is currently constructed, that would leave two options on table: Brad Miller and Matt Joyce. Joyce would seem to be the natural choice and the one that Girardi has leaned on a bit more in recent play. With the team having been shut out by the Giants on Monday night, Girardi looked for a spark atop the lineup and went with Joyce to start over McCutchen. Joyce did reach base in his first two plate appearances to begin the game, but overall didn’t do much to help state his case why he should be playing more.
Miller, on the other hand, has been hot lately. His home run Tuesday night was a big one, changing the win expectancy by 14% at the time while his 4 for 5 performance Wednesday was only slightly overshadowed by other offensive contributions made that day. If it feels to you like all Miller does is hit when he’s in the starting lineup, you are not alone.
The likely reason why Girardi has been hesitant to institute a platoon is twofold. The first is his stated preference for a consistent lineup where everyone knows their role. You aren’t going to see players shuffled around the lineup too often under Joe unless it is to shake things up a bit, something he has done this year already. You’ve seen the willingness to move players around the cleanup and fifth spots in the lineup to see what combination of players will help score more runs, but what we’ve seen from Girardi is a desire to have consistency. Even last year, his first with Philadelphia, Girardi didn’t like to mess with the starting lineup too much, preferring to have players stay in one spot to get comfortable with where they were.
The other reason why McCutchen will likely remained rooted atop the lineup is 2020. We just talked about wanting players to get comfortable in a spot and that’s what happened last year. If you recall, last year McCutchen started slowly as well. Through 14 games, he was hitting a robust .167/.234/.190. A lot of that was probably due to the fact that he was still recovering from his knee injury, but once he got hot, he got hot. From game fifteen onward, McCutchen was a force atop that lineup, hitting .274/.345/.491 with all ten of his home runs from 2020 being hit during that span. The easy way to explain the way out of that early slump in 2020 is health, but there is probably a myriad of other reasons (timing, swing changes, etc.) that we won’t know.
The same thing could be happening now. The other day, Girardi mentioned that McCutchen seemed like his timing was off and that he would get there eventually. This could be why he has been reluctant to pull his leadoff hitter out of that role since he has seen how well he can play once he gets locked in. Since McCutchen isn’t even at 100 plate appearances for the season, he might just be letting him try and find his timing and work his way through it. However, that doesn’t mean he has to do that in the leadoff position. By letting him continue to struggle offensively in the position in the batting order that gets the most at bats, Girardi is putting the team behind the eight-ball when a different option could be used. There is also the possibility that Girardi could use different hitters in McCutchen’s spot in the order until Andrew figures out whatever it is he needs to figure out. There wasn’t the depth on the roster last year for someone to challenge McCutchen for playing time. This year, there is.
It wouldn’t hurt the team to try and accentuate the strengths of the roster by letting hitters who are struggling sit and let those who excel against opposite side pitchers bat in their place. The guess here is that Girardi will continue to let McCutchen play and try to get his offense going. If it continues at this pace though, changes will have to be in order.