The unexpected is a regular occurrence during a baseball season. There are always players who outperform their expected production, and those that under-perform expectations. Injuries are the norm and they lead to someone getting playing time that wasn’t expecting to. Cheslor Cuthbert would fit that criteria, as no one knew that Mike Moustakas would get hurt on a collision in May and miss the rest of the 2016 season. Cuthbert was the immediate replacement, as he was having a stellar season in AAA Omaha and had seen some time last year in Kansas City. Cuthbert saw limited time for the Royals in 2015, putting up a line of .217/.280/.370 with an OPS+ of 74 and a bWAR of 0.0. It was a very small sample size(19 games, 50 plate appearances) but in a lot of ways he looked over-matched. He was only 22 years old, and it wasn’t like Cuthbert was going to unseat Moustakas anytime soon. But 2016 has been a different story for Cheslor…
Cuthbert would make his first appearance of the year on May 7th, as Moustakas was dealing with a left thumb fracture at the time. Cheslor had been tearing it up in Omaha, hitting .333 in 24 games with 7 home runs, 28 RBI’s and 58 total bases. Moustakas would return on May 21st, with Cuthbert being shipped back to AAA. During that first stint in the big leagues this year, Cuthbert hit only .255/.269/.373 with 1 home run and 3 RBI’s. My honest assessment at the time was that he would probably be a league average hitter, good fielder but the power we had seen from him in AAA wouldn’t translate. Moose would turn around and get hurt a day later, giving Cheslor his second recall to Kansas City of the young season.
Cheslor would return to the Royals lineup on May 24, going 1 for 4 against Minnesota. At the time there wasn’t a definite on Moose’s condition. No one knew the severity of Moustakas’ ACL and wouldn’t until two days later, when it would be announced that he had a torn ACL and would miss the rest of the season. This was big for Cuthbert, on multiple levels. For one, he was the man that most figured would see the most playing time at third base. To me though, it meant something so much more. A young player often struggles mentally when they are recalled to the majors, for fear that they will not perform good enough in the little time they might see. Cuthbert now knew he was going to be given the first shot at the third base job with regular at bats and a weight had to be lifted off his chest. This was a big contributor on how he would produce in the coming months.
Starting on May 27th, Cuthbert would show the offensive prowess that he produced in AAA earlier in the year. Since that date, Cuthbert has hit .300/.331/.475 with 7 home runs, 27 RBI’s, a BAbip of .347, and has raised his average to .288. Digging a bit deeper, Cuthbert has an wRC+ of 104(with 99 total bases), and 0.7 fWAR. It’s been obvious that Cuthbert has hit for a bit more power this year in the big leagues, and it shows with a 28.3% hard hit rate, up by 15% from last year and 13.8% HR/FB rate, a good 5% higher than last year. Another positive to take on his numbers is the fact he is hitting the ball more to center field this year, hitting the ball up the middle 34.7% of the time, a good 7.7% more. Percentage wise, Cheslor is hitting the ball at about the same rate as last year, only with a bigger sample of playing time to play with. It does appear as if there is a bit of luck involved, as his BAbip of .347 is almost a full .100 points higher than last year. Where last year he was finding leather, this year he is finding grass and dirt. Offensively he has just been a shade over replacement level but the improvement has to give a person hope as the season is progressing.
As much as Cuthbert has outperformed expectations offensively, defensively he has been as steady as expected. Cuthbert has not only been an above-average defender this year, he has excelled in a few areas that were a bit unexpected. His UZR sits at 0.4 while his defense sits at 1.2. The impressive part to me is how he is performing on the unlikely play(which normally has a 10-40% chance of being fielded); Cheslor has been making those plays at a 62.5% clip, well above the league average. Add in the fact that he makes the likely and routine plays in the range he should and you have the making of a plus defender. Cuthbert might not make the flashy play on the corner, but he will make the majority of the plays he should and even the majority of plays slightly below average. Cheslor might not be quite the third baseman that Moustakas is, but he is a steady replacement that won’t make anyone regret the decision.
Cuthbert’s performance this year has raised some eyebrows and has forced the Royals front office to look at some new possibilities. Do you keep Cuthbert in case Moustakas leaves after 2017? Do you find a new position for him? Do you use him as trade bait? Do you move third base prospect Hunter Dozier to another position? Do you trade Dozier? There are a slew of decisions that Kansas City will have to make because Cuthbert is only 23 years old and has shown he is worth a longer look. There were some doubts about Cheslor before the season and many of them are summed up by this scouting report on scoutingbook.com:
Royals slugger Cheslor Cuthbert needs to level up a bit if he’s going to stick as a permanent MLB player. He showed readiness with a .277/.339/.421 slashline in AAA last year, leading to a 46 at-bat stint with the big club, but the .217/.280/.370 line he showed there wasn’t exactly impressive. Still, he more or less held his own and looked like he fit defensively. The bat might yet come along. He just needs more reps before we’re sure.
The bat has come along and if I was going to pick a word to describe Cuthbert it would be this: steady. Steady is what the Royals needed after losing Moustakas and Cheslor has been the answer. It has been a pleasure to watch him succeed where some expected him to fail. Now comes the hard part; deciding Cuthbert’s future in Kansas City. Luckily, a decision could be put off until next year, plenty of time for him to continue to show his worth.