In the endless sea of losing that the Pittsburgh Pirates are currently mired in, it’s hard to think of a rookie that was more exciting than Andrew McCutchen was in 2009. Jason Bay’s Rookie of the Year campaign in 2004 was fantastic, sure, but Bay was already 25 by that point and we didn’t watch him rise through the minors and all he really did was replace Brian Giles. McCutchen was a Pirate draft pick, a kid that was drafted by the Pirates and who we watched every step of the way, and when he burst onto the scene last year he was everything we’d all hoped for and more. He was fast and hit with pop and made diving catches and came up with huge clutch hits and suddenly, there was one guy that we could be proud of as Pirate fans, no matter how many games we lost, no matter how many players we traded.
Now in his second year, we get to face all the questions that great rookie seasons bring about. Was his flash of power (12 homers and a .471 slugging percentage in 108 games) real, or will he slide back towards his minor league numbers? Will pitchers handle him differently with more of a book on him? How will he adjust? In a more abstract sense, how does a 23-year old perform with the expectations of an entire fan base upon him?
It’s not remotely fair to McCutchen, but Pirate fans need McCutchen to be the player that he was last year. We need a guy to rally around, to pin our future hopes on, to be, as my dad would put it, our Moses (Passover reference purely coincidental). So, can he be that guy? Are those expectations unfair?
Because of McCutchen’s career .423 slugging percentage and 43 homers over 511 games, the place most projection systems predict a sophomore slump for McCutchen is in his power. Bill James projects him for a .430 SLG and 13 homers, CHONE has him at .445/12, ZiPS has him at 15/.446, and Marcel has him at 12/.471. Since none of the systems see a huge dip coming in last year’s OBP (they all have him between .355 and .365), they’re all projecting fine seasons for him once his position and defense are figured in even if they’re not quite up to the torrid pace that he set last season.
As much as McCutchen’s power surge last year may seem out of place with his minor league numbers, let’s not forget that they’re not really out of line with the 49 games he played with Indianapolis before his callup. There, he slugged .493 with 10 doubles, eight triples, and four homers. McCutchen’s career high for total bases in a minor league season was 239 in 134 games Hickory and Altoona in 2006. Last year he had 303 in 157 games with Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. But McCutchen was a high school draftee that was aggressively promoted through the Pirates’ system. He was in Double-A by 19, Triple-A by 20, and he made his big league debut at 20. Being young at each level, he was never expected to show a ton of power (though he did show some nice pop in that ’06 season) but to rather show a good approach at the plate and move on once it was obvious he could handle himself.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that last year’s breakout for McCutchen could’ve simply been his talent finally catching up to the competition, though. At FanGraphs, Bryan Smith compared some rookie outfielders’ numbers to their minor league numbers and found that McCutchen’s biggest difference last year was more line drives, something that could certainly be sustainable.
To be perfectly honest, I’m a little nervous to try and make a prediction for McCutchen in 2010. I really think that last year may have been a breakout and not something unsustainable. I try to avoid saying things without something solid to base them on, but I’ve just got a feeling about the guy that I haven’t had about a player in a long time, maybe ever. But there’s always room for regression and the Pirates sometimes seem to invite that more than other teams, so I’m always hesitant to get my hopes up. Like any young player, the only way to be certain what the future holds for McCutchen is to keep watching him. Based on what we’ve seen and what we know about him, doing that should be fun.