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McCutchen one of best in MLB in 2-strike counts

| Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
The Pirates' Andrew McCutchen makes contact on a pitch from the Padres' Cory Burns Sunday August 12, 2012 at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
The Pirates' Andrew McCutchen makes contact on a pitch from the Padres' Cory Burns Sunday August 12, 2012 at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

Two-strike counts spell doom for most hitters. Their backs against the wall, batters expand the strike zone, take defensive swings and often slink back to the dugout after punching out or making weak contact.

Major leaguers are batting .178 and slugging .274 with two strikes this season, according to Inside Edge, which provides data-driven scouting reports and analytics to major league teams. James McDonald, for comparison's sake, is hitting .156 this season.

Those general rules don't apply to Andrew McCutchen and his lightning-quick wrists.

The Pirates' MVP candidate is tied for second in the majors in two-strike batting average (.276) and home runs (14) and leads in slugging percentage (.509) through Friday's games.

“You're still looking to be short and quick to the ball (with two strikes),” McCutchen said. “With the hands that I have, I'm able to let the ball travel a little deeper than somebody with a long swing. Just protect the zone, and work with my hands.”

McCutchen didn't always protect the zone so well. He batted .154 and slugged .225 with three home runs in two-strike counts last season. That performance prompted swing tinkering that Pirates hitting coach Gregg Ritchie credits for McCutchen becoming such a tough out.

“It's a huge difference,” Ritchie said. “It has allowed him to get a cleaner path. He has opened up a little bit, and he has dropped his hands to a comfortable slot, which is basically the top of the strike zone, and it has simplified things.”

“That's why I did it.” McCutchen said. “I just wanted to find something that kept me more consistent at the plate.”

McCutchen's more open stance has helped him become an all-fields slugger. Of his 14 two-strike home runs, six have been to the middle or opposite fields.

“When I was first drafted, I couldn't even hit the ball to the right side of the field,” McCutchen said. “Gregg and I worked ever since I was drafted, and it has come over time that I'm able to drive the ball with power to the right side. I'm starting to trust it more and more.”

“He's not lying,” said Ritchie, who served as the organization's minor league hitting coordinator from 2006-10. “He had tremendous pull juice and quickness. Most of his doubles, triples and homers were from center field to the left foul pole.

“And of course the two-strike average wasn't as good because you can't cover and you're too quick to the pull side.”

McCutchen has done most of his two-strike damage on fastballs. He has hit 11 fastballs over the fence in such situations, all of them thrown within the strike zone. Despite that success, McCutchen continues to see about the same amount of two-strike fastballs (52 percent) as an average MLB hitter (53 percent), according to Inside Edge.

That doesn't surprise McCutchen or Ritchie.

“It's out of my control,” McCutchen said. “The only thing I can control is being prepared for that at-bat and doing everything I can to be ready to hit. I don't focus on fastballs, sliders or changeups coming. Whatever comes, I just need to be ready to hit.”

McCutchen's patience means pitchers won't get many lousy swings on pitches thrown off the plate, Ritchie said.

“He has a knack for recognizing pitches early out of the hand, and he stays off a lot of bad breaking balls and hits a lot of hanging breaking balls,” Ritchie said.

McCutchen has chased just 31 percent of two-strike curveballs and sliders out of the zone, well below the 41 percent MLB average.

Dodgers left-hander and 2011 NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw challenged McCutchen with a slider over the plate on Aug. 15 at PNC Park, serving up a 430-foot shot that landed in the center-field shrubbery.

“There's just less holes — less ways to get him out,” Kershaw said. “He's covering more pitches, and he's raking left-handed pitching.”

Just don't expect Kershaw to back down next time.

“It's a good battle,” he said. “You just have to attack him with your best stuff and make your pitch. You just kind of go up there and say, ‘Here it is.' ”

“Some of the pitchers out there say, ‘Hey, it's mano y mano — you've got your good stuff, and I've got my good stuff. Let's see who wins,' ” Ritchie echoed. “And Cutch wins a lot.”

David Golebiewski is a freelance writer.

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