Can Pirates star outfielder McCutchen be even better in 2014?
BRADENTON, Fla. — After every season, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle conducts exit interviews before players depart for their offseason homes.
After the 2012 season, Hurdle and Andrew McCutchen discussed the need for the center fielder to strengthen his throwing arm, his one lacking tool. McCutchen improved his throwing strength and accuracy in 2013, matching a career high for assists.
After the 2011 season, they discussed the need for an adjustment at the plate after McCutchen hit .259. The next season? He hit .327 with 31 home runs and 96 RBIs, all career bests.
Usually there is an apparent weakness to be addressed with any player. But how does one constructively criticize the reigning National League MVP? What was there to say after McCutchen led the NL in wins above replacement (8.2)?
Hurdle said he thinks McCutchen can be even better as he enters his physical prime at 27 years old.
“He didn't have a career year offensively,” Hurdle said. “There's still room for more growth. … We can put some runners on base in front of him more (and enhance) his ability to drive runners in. The stolen base game still has room for improvement. Outfield play, he's won one Gold Glove. I know one of his goals is to win another. The ability we've seen at times this spring, we've seen at times (in the past), to open up the entire field, to focus on right-center field, can take him to another layer offensively.”
Friday against the Minnesota Twins might have offered a sneak preview at one area of improvement when McCutchen smashed a ball well over the opposite-field wall for his first home run of the spring.
In 2012, his career offensive year, McCutchen hit 14 of a career-best 31 home runs to the right of center field. He hit seven such home runs last season. Hurdle believes McCutchen can become less pull conscious — McCutchen put nearly twice as many balls in play to the left side of the field (134) as the right (74) in 2013.
McCutchen said his spray chart is tied to pitchers' plans of attack.
“They grooved a lot of fastballs (in 2012). People were still challenging me (after batting .259 in 2011). I guess they thought I was getting lucky,” McCutchen said. “I was making them pay.”
Hurdle wants to see McCutchen stay within himself more and noted he became a more patient hitter in the second half of last season when the Pirates added lineup protection in Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. McCutchen's walk rate jumped from 8.2 percent in the first half to 12.7 percent in the second half.
McCutchen has reported to camp in excellent shape and again worked out at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he practiced grueling and unorthodox training techniques.
“This game itself should be enough motivation,” McCutchen said. “A lot of people don't get this opportunity. The day I lose the want and the willingness to work hard in the offseason is the day I don't play.”
There was one major, documented change this offseason. McCutchen became engaged, proposing to his girlfriend on national TV. McCutchen said he enters 2014 in the best place he has been professionally and personally.
“I'm continuing to grow and know myself and getting (engaged) … all that helps and makes you a stronger person and a better person,” McCutchen said. “I love the game.
“But the game isn't so important to me now. … Now I go out there and I play the game and I do what it says: I play it. I don't work it. I play it. In order to play, you have to be having fun. I'm having fun.”
Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.
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