I didn’t get a recap of last night’s game up, but I think that this post will suffice in its place because it’s going to say about the same thing that the recap would’ve. The Pirates won last night because Andrew McCutchen took Drew Smyly deep twice early in the game to give the otherwise lifeless Pirate offense four runs and AJ Burnett was good enough to hold that lead for the bullpen to shut the door on.
McCutchen missed games sporadically early in the month of May with a wicked bout of stomach flu, but when he came back on May 8th he drew a walk and homered and I noted that I thought he was poised on the brink of a breakout. Here are McCutchen’s numbers since he came back from the flu, including that May 8th game: .452/.510/.986 (that’s a 1.486 OPS), 7 homers, 1 2B, 13 RBI, 11 R. The Pirates are 7-5 in those games, despite being shut out twice, scoring three runs or less six times, and only scoring 37 runs total. A lot of credit obviously goes to the pitching for that, but I’d say that plenty goes to McCutchen as well, for scoring or driving in 17 of those 37 runs.
This hot streak brings his season line up to .346/.405/.566. His isolated power is at .221, which would be a career high. The bad news is that this probably isn’t sustainable over the long-term: his BABIP is .377, which is high even for a guy like him that ropes line drives and can fly around the bases. His strikeout rate, which I tagged as an important stat to watch for him this year, is down quite a bit at 16.3% (it was a career high 18.6% last year), but it’s not quite as low as it was in 2010. His walk rate is a career low 8.5%, though I suspect that has something to do with the balls looking like grapefruits these last two weeks. If the rest of the offense doesn’t step up, that walk rate will accelerate in a hurry. He’s not hitting many more line drives this year (20.4% vs. 20.0% last year) and he’s actually not hitting many flyballs at all, which makes his homer spree over the last 12 days feel pretty unsustainable.
Now that we’ve gotten the realism out of the way, though, let’s take a second to admire this hot streak. McCutchen hit 11 homers total in 2007 with Altoona and Indianapolis, then followed up with just 9 in 2008. His career has gotten off to an excellent start, and this is almost certainly the best sustained strech of play that we’ve seen from him. He’s definitely been prone to the occasional slump in the past. I’m no hitting coach and I don’t have the charts in front of me, so this is a bit anecdotal, but it’s always seemed to me that when he’s slumped in the past, it’s been because he started trying to pull too much. Early in this season, when he was getting a ton of hits but with almost no power at all, my dad remarked to me that he was really happy to see ‘Cutch going with the ball as it was pitched to him even if it just meant a lot of singles. I grumbled at that (there’s no actual statistical evidence to support the oft-repeated assertion that some players “choose” to hit for average when they can hit for power) a little bit, because that’s what I do. Yesterday afternoon, though, McCutchen’s second homer was a flat-out screamer to right field that reminded me of the missiles that Vlad Guerrero used to hit at me and my dad up in the right field grandstand at PNC.
McCutchen has two homers to almost dead right field so far this year and another to right-center. Last year, he had three all year (with a few more on the right/right-center border). He didn’t have any in 2009 or 2010. It’s pretty obvious to say, but Andrew McCutchen is evolving into a dangerous hitter. I’m awfully glad he’s on the Pirates’ side.