There are a million things that I’d like to write about over this All-Star break because the storybook first half that the Pirates just finished up lends itself to a million different stories. I’ve been waiting for this kind of thing for forever, really, and now that I have a few days without baseball games I want to write about all of them all at once. I’ll do my best to get through them in the next 72 hours or so, but before we launch into this in earnest I wanted to take some time and talk about Andrew McCutchen.
I started WHYGAVS in April of 2005. It’s no coincidence that this is when I started paying much more attention to things beyond the final on-field product in Pittsburgh. The more I wrote, the more I became interested in all of the things that went into building a successful Major League organization (and the more I realized how hopeless the Pirates were at the time). In June of that year, the Pirates drafted Andrew McCutchen. If you check back through my old Blogspot archives, I was pretty reserved about the pick at the time. Dave Littlefield loved himself some toolsy outfielders and McCutchen just seemed so, so raw in 2005 that he was more of an enigma than anything. They projected him as a five-tool player, but what skinny, speedy 18-year old outfielder that dominated his high school league isn’t projected as a five-tool player?
Still, McCutchen became the first Pirate prospect that I really followed. He rewarded the Pirates pretty quickly; he started 2006 in Single-A Hickory and hit 14 home runs with a .291/.356/.446 line in 114 games. The Pirates responded by skipping him over Advanced-A and sending him to Altoona for 20 games as a 19-year old. That proved to be an aggressive placing and his power dipped a bit in both 2007 and 2008, when he was in Double-A and Triple-A, but young for both levels.
I’ve told this story a million times before, but the first time I saw him in person was in Durham towards the end of the 2008 season. I saw him before the game and was incredulous; he’s listed as 5’10”, but there’s no chance he’s that tall. I couldn’t believe that this prospect that’d I’d invested so much time and hope in was this short, skinny little guy. In the first inning, he stepped into the box against David Price and his hands flashed through the zone and he crushed a flyout to deep left center field and immediately the light bulb went on in my head. I’m not a scout and I’m not good at identifying the difference between minor league talent and Major League talent, but in one swing it was immediately apparent to me that McCutchen had something special. I never wondered about him again.
Pirate fans are familiar with the arc of his career from this point on; he impressed in spring training 2009, but was sent to the minors for some final seasoning and to delay his arbitration clock. His power came back in 40 games with Indianapolis that year and he blasted the door to PNC Park down so emphatically that the Pirates felt they could trade Nate McLouth away once he was ready. He didn’t miss a beat; in his first 108 games with the Pirates he had a three-homer game and hit a dramatic walkoff off of Brad Lidge that resulted in an iconic celebration that no one that watched will ever forget. Through 2011 and 2012, various aspects of his game improved bit by bit. His power grew, his patience grew, he learned how to use his speed to his advantage in the field. Before 2012 started, you could point out all of the disparate parts of his game that have improved since his debut in 2009, even if his numbers every year seemed to be static.
This all became a conversation point when he signed his extension this winter. He got basically the same contract as Justin Upton and Jay Bruce; two incredibly talented young players that were both younger than McCutchen when they inked their deals. Some people wondered if McCutchen was in the same class or if he was already plateauing at his 120-130 OPS+ level. It’s not that McCutchen wasn’t a good player from 2009-2011; he was an excellent one. But the contract the Pirates gave him this winter designated him as a franchise player, not just a building block but the cornerstone for a franchise that’s been foundationless for almost a generation; Pirate fans hoped he could be that player, but no young player is ever guaranteed to make the leap from good to great, from star to superstar, from building block to cornerstone.
Five months later, it seems impossible that anyone could’ve thought that. At the All-Star break, McCutchen is hitting .362/.414/.625. He has 18 home runs, and they’ve all come since May 8th. In fact, since his first homer on May 8th, he’s hitting .391/.439/.730. He’s leading the NL with both that .362 average and that .625 slugging percentage. His 193 total bases lead the league. In the last week or so, pitchers have gotten the idea that the way to get him out is to pitch him outside. Four of his last five home runs have been to right field or right-center and the fifth came to nearly straight away center field. How can a guy so small generate so much batspeed? He plays in a park that kills right-handed power and during a season in which Casey McGehee’s .252/.328/.408 line is just about average and it hasn’t stopped him one bit. His line looks more like a typo than anything else right now.
He’s been so good that even though I want to sit here and wonder about his walk rate (career low 8.2%) and his strikeout rate (career high 18.7%) and his insanely high BABIP (.407 vs. .324 career), I just can’t do it. Why would a guy that’s being pitched to and hitting the ball square like he is ever draw a walk? Shouldn’t a guy with his speed that hits a line drive a quarter of the time have an enormously high BABIP? Who am I or the laws of the universe to tell Andrew McCutchen what he can or can’t do?
The ultimate Andrew McCutchen game, for me, was last Tuesday’s comeback win against the Astros. Everyone remembers the Garrett Jones homer and the Drew Sutton walkoff and Sutton’s emotional interview after the game was over, but McCutchen was the glue at the seams that made everything else possible. Early in the game when the Astros had a 4-0 lead, it was McCutchen’s opposite field bomb that brought the Pirates back into the game and kept things manageable when the Astros tallied two more runs. In the seventh inning, with the Pirates having clawed to within one, he lead off with a bouncer to short. Instead of throwing his bat down and accepting a routine groundout on one of the few balls he hasn’t hit squarely in the last seven weeks, he bolted out of the box like someone possessed and beat Jed Lowrie’s throw for an infield single on a ball that by all rights should’ve been a pretty easy out. One batter later, Garrett Jones hammered his two-run homer to give the Pirates a lead and to set the stage for the ninth inning dramatics. It’s been like that all year; some nights McCutchen’s the guy that gets the big hit or hits, other nights he’s the guy doing the little things behind the scenes to set things up for his teammates, but any way you cut it, pretty much every night, he’s done something that’s helped the Pirates win.
I don’t normally care about the Home Run Derby. It’s three hours of meaningless pomp and bombast; it’s Chris Berman’s and ESPN’s and Bud Selig’s annual shrine to their own excesses. It’s everything that’s wrong about baseball in a number of ways; it glorifies a relatively small part of the game while dropping all of its beautiful subtlty and it’s interminable in such a way that it’s not even remotely interesting or exciting to me. Tonight, though, I’ll be watching, because tonight some of that ridiculous excess will be focused on McCutchen. The same Andrew McCutchen that I’ve watched since Day 1 of his career, the same Andrew McCutchen that has the Pirates in first place at the All-Star break, the same Andrew McCutchen that might finally start to repay all of the hopes and dreams that we Pirate fans have poured into the minor league system over the last 20 years. If anyone deserves this spotlight, it’s him. Up until today, Andrew McCutchen has been the best-kept secret in baseball; a guy really only appreciated by Pirate fans and hardcore baseball watchers. Starting tonight, we’re going to have to start sharing him with everyone. I’ve been waiting a long time for something like this to happen.