McCutchen matures into a more dangerous hitter

Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen connects on a pitch during a game against the Twins on March 9, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen connects on a pitch during a game against the Twins on March 9, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Photo by Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Rob Biertempfel
| Friday, March 15, 2013, 6:57 p.m.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Although he never faced Andrew McCutchen in a game, former big league pitcher John Smoltz remembers scouting the Pirates outfielder in 2009. It was McCutchen's rookie season and the end of Smoltz's 21-year career.

“Like a lot of young guys, McCutchen had some holes in his swing and he was pitchable,” Smoltz said.

Now an analyst for MLB Network, Smoltz marvels as he watches McCutchen go to work at the plate. Smoltz sees a mature hitter who would give any pitcher nightmares.

“He's made more one-year adjustments than I've seen from a player in a long time,” Smoltz said. “He's put those holes down to a very few if any. He's not a free swinger; he's more than just a home run-hitter. He's got all the tools. He's got plate coverage and discipline. He can do it all. It takes most guys years to make certain adjustments, but he seems to have picked them up a lot quicker.”

The Pirates went through two hitting coaches — Don Long and Gregg Ritchie — in McCutchen's first four years in the majors. Jay Bell took over the job this year. But many of the adjustments McCutchen has made are his own handiwork.

“They say you're your own best coach, and I believe it,” McCutchen said. “Only you know how you feel when you're hitting. There are physical things that people may see, but a lot of times it's not anything mechanical that needs adjustment. It's more mental. It's more of a feel. For me, I coach myself because I know what I need to do. It's about feel and being comfortable.”

Some of the differences in McCutchen from his rookie year to now can be quantified statistically. For example, he has become more of a line-drive hitter, and a greater percentage of his fly balls end up being home runs, which shows he's a more purposeful and powerful hitter.

Pitchers are throwing McCutchen fewer fastballs and going outside of the strike zone more often. McCutchen, in turn, has begun offering at more pitches regardless of whether they are inside or outside the zone.

Like most hitters, McCutchen has tweaked his mechanics. But the biggest reason behind his adjustments, he said, is something intangible.

“Pitch recognition and all that comes from being comfortable at the plate,” McCutchen said. “I needed to find consistency. The key to that is being comfortable, and last year I found it. It helped me have a good year.”

McCutchen lost that feeling in the second half of the 2011 season when his performance dropped significantly.

“There were times a couple of years ago when I felt like I had to be the guy who got the big hit when we weren't scoring many runs,” McCutchen admitted. “I was trying to swing out of my shoes. Now, I stay toward the middle of the field and try to hit low line drives. That's what it's all about for me. “

McCutchen has had a lot of success as his own mentor, but that hasn't prevented Bell from offering advice.

“Hopefully I'm wise enough to sit back and listen to what he has to say, too,” Bell said. “He's made some adjustments. There are going to be times when he'll fail, and he's going to have to learn a little bit more. I try to make it as simple as I possibly can in my approach.”

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