|If OF Michael Cuddyer could perform a magic trick and become a valuable baseball player again, it would be the best trick in his arsenal.|
In November, I was driving from Southern California to San Francisco and had MLB radio on in the car as any die-hard fan like myself would. I was very surprised to hear the breaking news that the Mets had surrendered their first round (#15) pick in 2015's draft to sign Michael Cuddyer to play left field. A number of things about this puzzled me:
- Sandy Alderson, a GM who has preached about maintaining the state of the minor league system, surrendered an unprotected first round pick.
- The deal gave a 36-year-old outfielder two years.
- The deal was worth 21 million dollars.
- The second year puzzled me for two reasons. First, Cuddyer is not young and was not coming off a very healthy stint in Colorado. Second, prospects Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto should at least be ready by 2016 if not late 2015. The second year made no sense to me.
- The Mets under Alderson built a team around elite starting pitching and Michael Cuddyer is one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball and had been for years before signing with the Mets. Citi Field is not a small outfield.
What I was not concerned about was Cuddyer's one tool, his bat, being this poor through the first 33 games of the season.
Whenever you have a player with only one tool, I cringe at that player touching my lineup. That is all Cuddyer is at this point in his career. He hits. He does not run well, he does not play defense well, and outside of the cozy, thin-air confines of Colorado which allowed nearly 20% of his fly balls to turn into home runs (MLB average is about half that), his power is not exactly terrifying to opposing pitchers.
The numbers point to a player who all of a sudden started having vision problems or is not preparing at the level he needs to at his age and point in his career. Here's what I mean:
Michael Cuddyer's O-swing percentage, career: 29.8%
MLB average O-swing percentage: 30.0%
Michael Cuddyer's 2015 O-swing percentage: 37% (this will go up once the stats update from Tuesday's game).
O-swing is the percentage of balls out of the strike zone that a swinger offers at regardless of contact or no contact. Typically, these go for swings and misses and if contact is made, it is generally not good contact. So you do not want to do this.
What you want is hard contact. How is Cuddyer doing on that side of things? Is it that he is just not getting lucky? That happens, especially with sample sizes this small in the first fifth of the season.
Well, he is not doing well with that at all.
Career line drive percentage: 19.0%
2015 line drive percentage: 17.5%
Career hard contact %: 29.8%
2015 hard contact %: 27.5%
Career soft contact %: 15.5%
2015 soft contact %: 23.8%
What about BABIP? That seems to plague everyone on the Mets. Nope, not Cuddyer. His career rate is .314 and his 2015 mark is .312. He is not getting lucky or unlucky. Par for the course on batted balls.
Michael Cuddyer's RC+ is 98 which means he is 2% below league average as a hitter in 2015. Considering he does nothing else well on the diamond, he has to be in the 120-130 range to even be worth a roster spot, not to mention a middle-of-the-order hitter and every day starting player.
Michael Cuddyer also owns the lowest average exit velocity of any Met hitter with enough at bats to qualify.
Even with the league and career average BABIP, Cuddyer's average sits at .235 and his OPS is a paltry .696. He has been worth a quarter of a win which would extrapolate to about a win and a quarter over the course of an entire season.
Why should this surprise us, though? Over 1450 games, Michael Cuddyer has been worth just 16.3 wins, or about what it takes Mike Trout to get to in 200. That works out to just over a win and a half per season. Was this worth 21 million? Was this worth surrendering the draft pick? Is this worth hitting Cuddyer third or fourth in the lineup and suffering through bad at bats?
Typically there are signs that a player is suffering the effects of old injuries, getting unlucky, or facing a disproportionate number of tough same-side pitchers. Those things tend to work themselves out and those sorts of things are usually evident in the numbers. What Cuddyer's numbers tell me is that he is an aging player who is not adjusting to the challenges that come with being a 36-year-old player in the MLB. He is not seeing pitches well. He is not swinging at pitches in the strike zone and when he does make contact, it is weak and slowly hit which has resulted in rally-killing production from the middle of the order. It is difficult to accuse a player of a lack of effort or opine that this is anything other than a slump from a good hitter but I'm going to anyway. Cuddyer has to prepare better in order to adapt to the twilight of his career. He has to watch more video, he has to work on pitch recognition with the urgency and dedication that Juan Lagares and Lucas Duda have. Right now, he seems to have no idea what the opposing pitcher even has in his arsenal and the numbers support my theory. He is swinging at pitches that Jeff Francoeur would lay off.
I hated the signing. I chastised Sandy Alderson for it back in November and called him hypocritical. If the Mets were going to surrender the draft pick, I wanted a better player. I stand by it and this signing will never be good even if Cuddyer turns it around and hits like an All-Star the rest of the way.
For now, though, Cuddyer is as much at fault for the struggles of the post-streak 2015 Mets as any other player. The easy target is Murphy, whose mental errors and poor hitting are a problem. Shortstop is another favorite of fans since one option can't field but shows promise at the plate and the other can pick it but cannot hit the broad side of the barn. But if you want the true villain of 2015's troubles, look no further than left field where a slow-footed, aging former batting champ roams a very small portion of the field. He will be there a while, too, even if Brandon Nimmo is ready. He will be there if Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto are both ready. The Alderson administration has shown incredible reluctance to remove ineffective veterans from their roles even long after it is clear they should not be regular players. If Chris Young and Eric Young Jr. cut out of 2014's Juan Lagares playing time, you can bet that Curtis Granderson and Michael Cuddyer will delay Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto long after their time is due in Flushing.
If the 2015-and-onward Mets want to contend, they need to show more faith in young players and be quick to remove the ineffective veterans. That means moving Murphy right now (or once Wright gets back). That means bumping Cuddyer once Brandon Nimmo has cut his teeth at double and triple-A through enough games. That means adding Conforto not long after that. That means making the easy decision to take Matz over Niese when the time comes. That means actually finding a real shortstop instead of trying to outsmart opposing GMs. Mets fans have suffered long enough and have been unfathomably patient with this franchise. It cannot withstand another Jason Bay in the outfield.
In the meantime, Mr. Cuddyer, if you are not taking twice the BP, doing twice the pitch recognition drills, and watching twice the video preparation for every start, you are not earning your paycheck. You are getting paid 21 million guaranteed dollars over the next two years to be a barely better than replacement level player. It is the least you can do. If you can at least hit like you have throughout your career, you'll stop being a major culprit in Met losses.