Four All-Stars in Four Days: Andrew McCutchen and the next “next level”

Andrew McCutchen’s slow start was scary. It wasn’t scary because there was a chance Andrew McCutchen was going to put up a .600 OPS season or even a .700 OPS season, it was scary because it was a sign that maybe his peak was ending. This happens, of course, as players get older, but most players aren’t as good as Andrew McCutchen.

Of course, we know now that McCutchen’s slow start was caused by a knee problem, and he’s put that knee problem behind him. If you watched Tuesday’s All-Star Game long enough to see McCutchen’s home run off of Chris Archer, you saw a slow motion replay of McCutchen driving so hard off of his back foot that it ever-so-slightly came off the ground, creating the violent forward weight-transfer that’s been making life miserable for National League pitchers for a long time now. That’s what was missing in April, and that’s what’s back now. Since literally the day that the Jeff Sullivan article referenced in that post above ran, McCutchen is hitting .343/.441/.593 with 10 homers and 22 doubles in 60 games. I suspect that that’s as good as any 60-game stretch in his career. After his awful April, McCutchen is hitting .295/.392/.500 and is back on all of the WAR leaderboards. That line’s lower than the three years that preceded it, but only just barely. With a strong second half, future observers will never have any idea that we spent April panicking about McCutchen.

“Great player is great” is a boring headline to run every day, and so it’s understandable that people that watch and cover the Pirates have spent much time over the last few years lauding the Russell Martins and Josh Harrisons and Neil Walkers and even the Starling Martes with praise along the lines of “maybe not the best but definitely the most valuable.” Sometimes we spend so much time on that that we forget how incredible Andrew McCutchen is. Let’s take a second to appreciate just that.

Since the beginning of the 2013 season, Andrew McCutchen is hitting .316/.403/.529. That’s over 546 games and 2,367 plate appearances. He’s averaged 191 hits, 27 homers, 39 doubles, 95 RBIs, 102 runs scored, and 21 stolen bases per 162 games. Andrew McCutchen was always supposed to be good, but he was never supposed to hit for a high batting average or to regularly cross the 25 homer boundary. He was never supposed to be .300/.400/.500 good, and now he’s been there for four years. In terms of pure offense, McCutchen’s wRC+ since 2013 is 159. That’s fourth in all of baseball, behind Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and Paul Goldschmidt and ahead of Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper. In terms of total FanGraphs WAR, which includes positional adjustment and defensive stats,* McCutchen’s been the third best position player in baseball since the start of 2013, behind Trout and Josh Donaldson (he’s only just barely behind Donaldson, 18.8 to 18.5).

There is also this ludicrous idea that McCutchen is a great hitter, but not a “clutch” one. After his dramatic walk-off on Saturday night I’m sure almost every Pirate fan saw the stat that placed him third all-time in Pirate history with five walkoff homers, one behind both Ralph Kiner and Willie Stargell. Kiner spent eight years with the Pirates, he got 4,732 PAs, and he hit 301 home runs. Stargell spent 21 years with the Pirates, he got 9,027 PAs, and he hit 475 home runs. McCutchen is at 6 1/2 years with the Pirates, 4,191 plate appearances, and 140 home runs. Of McCutchen’s 140 home runs, 18 have tied the game and 49 of them have given the Pirates the lead. In total, 98 of them have come in games that were two-run games or closer. He’s hit nearly as many in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings (46) as he has in the first three innings (50), even though the Pirates win 40-50 games at PNC Park every year and don’t bat in the ninth in many of them. It feels insane that I even have to do this.

Andrew McCutchen is the best player by a fairly wide margin on one of the best teams in baseball over the last 3 1/2 seasons (yes, I’m counting back to the 79-win 2012 Pirates). During Saturday night’s thrilling win against the Cardinals, FOX play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian spent much of extra innings counting down to McCutchen’s next at-bat. It felt borderline silly at points, until McCutchen did exactly what Vasgersian obviously thought that he might: create a defining moment in a career full of them.

Something else has started happening in the last few weeks that’s almost impossible to ignore. When McCutchen made the All-Star team for the fifth straight year, it was immediately noted that he’s the first Pirate to make that many All-Star teams in a row since Roberto Clemente. When he hit the walk-off homer on Saturday, Kiner and Stargell were mentioned. When he hit the All-Star Game home run, no one failed to mention that he joined Stargell, Kiner, Clemente, Dave Parker, Arky Vaughan, and Vince DiMaggio as Pirates to homer in an All-Star game**. It’s one thing to have a great season, or to be the best player on a playoff team. It’s another thing to have four consecutive seasons that are so great that they make the first three very good years of your career pale in comparison, or to be the best player every year on a constant playoff contender. Andrew McCutchen has gone from a good player to a star, from a star to a superstar, and from a superstar to an MVP in front of our eyes. He’s still climbing, and the only places left for him to go are awfully special.

*Let’s say evaluating McCutchen’s defense is complicated, thanks to PNC Park’s huge left field, the Pirates’ excellent defensive left fielder, and the way the Pirates position their outfielders — McCutchen is not a great defensive outfielder by any stretch of the imagination and his arm is not good, but he occasionally scores horribly on advanced defensive metrics and that doesn’t seem right to me, either. 

**The All-Star Game home run thing might seem a little bit silly and it is kind of random, as the presence of Vince DiMaggio attests, but look at it like this: McCutchen started the game for the National League, and he hit his home run in his third at-bat and in the game’s sixth inning. Basically, he only hit that home run, because he’s the type of player that gets three at-bats and six innings in an All-Star Game. That’s what’s telling.

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.