Now that Melky Cabrera has taken himself out of consideration for the National League batting title, the race will come down to two men: Buster Posey and Andrew McCutchen.
Heading into the games on Friday, the Pirates outfielder holds a slim margin over Posey, at .3388 to Posey's .3353. The fact that it’s gotten this close is a testament to Posey’s rise and McCutchen’s fade over the second half of the season.
The Giants catcher had a great start to the year, hitting .353/.413/.603 in April. But those numbers fell for the next couple of months, and at the All-Star break, Posey was at .289/.362/.458. Solid numbers, sure, but certainly not enough to contend for a batting title or MVP.
Meanwhile, McCutchen at that point had been tearing up the league. After hitting a modest .302 in April, he followed that with three spectacular months: .360/.424/.709 in May, .370/.420/.676 in June, and a mind blowing .446/.510/.739 in July. At one point, he was at .374/.426/.657 for the season, and settled in at .362/.414/.625 at the All-Star break.
Posey seemingly picked up where McCutchen left off after the break, as he’s recorded a .392/.467/.658 in the second half, the best numbers across baseball. Conversely, while McCutchen has been solid—.308/.402/.498 after the All-Star game—it’s not close to what he accomplished early in the season.
The tale of two halves has each player competing for the batting title late in September.
Posey has surged to within striking distance over the past two weeks, as he’s hitting .429 over that time, tops in the majors. McCutchen, on the other hand, has only hit .277.
It seems that McCutchen’s been sacrificing average for power recently: six of his past nine hits have been home runs. His September fly-ball rate of 40.7 percent is by far his highest of any month, while his line-drive percentage—McCutchen is hitting .737 on line drives this season—is down to 18.5 percent from a peak of 28.6 percent in June.
Posey has remained balanced throughout the second half, and has even decreased his ground-ball rate to 40.7 percent, his lowest total of any month. As he’s hitting only .260 on grounders, the added fly balls (.372) and liners (.740) have helped his average.
Baseball Think Factory’s ZiPS projection, a computer-based projection of player performance, predicts McCutchen will grab the title. ZiPS forecasts that McCutchen will finish the year hitting .298/.377/.532 and end the season with a .336 average. The program projects Posey will hit .297/.366/.432 over the rest of the year to finish with a .333 average.
The remaining schedule of games, though, seems to favor Posey. Normally one might think a catcher would fare worse in September because of fatigue from the season, but the Giants have done a good job resting him, and he’s played 26 games at first base over the course of the season. That being said, once the Giants lock up the division, Posey probably will get a few days off, which should help him in his quest for the batting title.
McCutchen, meanwhile, has no reason at all to stop playing this year. He’s hitting .403 against lefties and .320 against righties; the Pirates are scheduled to face two lefties over their next seven games.
Posey has an even more extreme split, hitting .416 against lefties and .301 against righties. In fact, Posey’s hit more home runs in 149 at bats against lefties than in 346 against righties. Posey is scheduled to face five(!) lefties in the next six games, including three rookies on the Arizona Diamondbacks staff.
Logic and recent statistics point to Posey having the edge. But if McCutchen can recapture some of that magic from earlier in the season, fans could be treated to quite the race to end the year.
Thank you, Melky Cabrera.
Stephen Sikora is a featured columnist for the Boston Red Sox. He also writes about Boston College sports for the school’s student newspaper, bcheights.com. Follow him @sjsik.