Five-tool Pirates center fielder McCutchen arguably National League's best
By Travis Sawchik
Published: Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Andrew McCutchen is the odds-on favorite to win the National League MVP. The Pirates center fielder leads the NL in Wins Above Replacement (8.0). Teammates serenaded him with “MVP” chants and doused his dreadlocks with champagne Monday at Wrigley Field while the Pirates celebrated clinching their first postseason berth since 1992.
Eight years after being selected 11th overall in a historically rich 2005 draft, McCutchen is the class of the group and the league. He could become the Pirates' first MVP since Barry Bonds in 1992.
DNA gave McCutchen five-tool potential. Time matured his gifts. But it is through a drive to maximize his diverse athletic ability that he has become the NL's premier player.
On May 3, McCutchen uncoiled like a cobra on a 92 mph Ross Detwiler fastball. The ball left McCutchen's bat at 112.4 mph, the hardest-hit home run of his career, according to hittracker.com.
McCutchen never has hit the ball with more force. His home runs this season have traveled an average distance of 404.4 feet and with an average exit velocity of 103.5 mph, both career bests. Rare power from a player listed at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds.
“For a smaller-stature guy,” teammate Garrett Jones said, “he has the power of any big guy out there.”
Where is the power derived? Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said McCutchen has rare bat speed.
“That's something that's God-given. It's like having a 100 mph fastball,” Walker said. “Most guys have to cheat a little bit when a guy is throwing 96, 97 (mph). He doesn't have to. That's what makes him so special.”
The quick bat is a gift.
“Bat speed has to do with every part of your body,” McCutchen said. “You generate your power from your legs. That's where it all comes from. When you go from your legs (to core muscles), it just coils up and fires. ... It's your quick-twitch muscles, all of that firing. You either have it, or you don't.”
But the added strength was created, not given. Prior to the 2012 season, McCutchen intensified his workout program. He spent six weeks at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., undertaking core-strengthening drills. He hit three opposite-field home runs his first three full seasons. McCutchen has hit 22 opposite-field home runs the past two years.
On July 27 against the Marlins, McCutchen lined a ball into the left-field corner at Marlins Park and ended up where few players do on balls hit to left field: third base. McCutchen sprinted from the box without hesitation.
Speed was the first obvious tool to scouts who clocked McCutchen run a 6.4-second, 60-yard dash as a prep star in Fort Meade (Fla.) High.
McCutchen's instincts regressed in 2012. His steals were down. He was not as aggressive going from first to third.
This season McCutchen has his best stolen base rate since 2010. He's more effectively moving from first to third. He's better studying pitchers' moves.
“Last year, I think there was a little bit of a glitch for him trying to find his way on the bases,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He's back to being aggressive. His leads, his first-step movement, have improved.”
He graded as a below-average baserunner last season, according to Baseball Prospectus metrics, but he again rates as above average in 2013.
In the seventh inning against the Marlins on Aug. 6, Miami shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria lined a ball into the left-center gap at PNC Park that looked like a double. McCutchen's perfect jump, perfect angle and fully extended dive allowed him to intercept the ball before it hit the turf. The catch saved two runs. The Pirates won 4-3.
His defense is, in part, athleticism: His closing speed cannot be taught. But McCutchen said defensive play — angles and reading swings — largely is learned.
“It's something you've done your whole life, so it becomes second nature to you,” McCutchen said. “I know he hit it off the end of the bat, so I was just trying to get myself in good position to have a chance to catch it, and that's what I was able to do. You work on those things during batting practice. When the game starts, you just let your instincts take over.”
According to multiple defensive metrics, McCutchen is having his best defensive season. He won his first Gold Glove last season.
On Sept. 9 at Texas, rather than trying pulling a low-and-away 91 mph fastball from Joakim Soria, McCutchen rifled the ball into right field for what proved to be a game-winning RBI single.
It was one of three hits, one of 23 multihit games in the second half for McCutchen. But it was a hit indicative of his growth as a hitter.
“The way he's used the whole field, that's when I saw his game really take off,” Walker said.
McCutchen always has had the eye-hand coordination to be a .300 hitter. He was trained to be an all-fields, any-location hitter. As a boy, his father placed a broomstick in his hand and tossed him fishing corks wrapped in athletic tape. The knuckling game of soft-toss, repeated thousands of times, was designed to improve his bat-to-ball ability.
But by 2011, McCutchen had become too pull conscious. He pressed. He hit .259.
“I knew I was a lot better than that,” McCutchen said.
As he watched the postseason from his Florida home, he picked up a bat and tried timing pitchers via his flat-screen television. He was restless. He studied video of the best hitters in the game: Cabrera. Ramirez. Molina. He saw those hitters employing the whole field. He made a slight adjustment, opening his stance to improve his balance and serve as a timing mechanism.
“I was always taking pointers from everyone else. But I got away from thinking about what was comfortable to myself,” McCutchen said.
The third-place MVP finisher in 2012 is again hitting .320. He has reduced his strikeout rate to a three-year low and has a career-best 25 percent line-drive rate.
On Monday in Chicago, McCutchen began the putout that clinched the Pirates' first postseason berth in two decades.
With the Pirates holding a 2-1 lead and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Ryan Sweeney lined a Jason Grilli fastball into the right-center gap. McCutchen made a quick, one-bounce throw to Justin Morneau, whose relay throw beat Nate Schierholtz home for the final out.
It was McCutchen's 10th outfield assist, tying a career-high set in 2009 (he established a new mark with his 11th the next night). It was a throw he could not have made a year ago.
McCutchen acknowledged after last season that his throwing was a liability.
“It's one of the things we talked about that he wanted to take upon himself,” Hurdle said. “His (exit interviews) are usually some ideas and things he can improve upon. He goes and puts a plan in place. It was the last tool for him.”
McCutchen returned to his offseason home in Florida with a singular focus: Eliminate his lone weakness. He called upon former teammate and Florida neighbor Steve Pearce for help in early-morning workouts. McCutchen threw and threw and threw.
“Long toss. Long toss every day. That's it,” McCutchen said of his offseason throwing regimen.
Throwing allowed McCutchen to truly become a complete player.
“He's among what I like to call the ‘One Percenters' in Major League Baseball,” Walker said. “And I have a front-row seat.”
So, too, does Pittsburgh.
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