Andrew McCutchen: The Heart of the Pittsburgh Pirates
When asked the question, “which one player would you pick to be on your team for the next decade,” a short group of about 10 players come to mind, such as budding young superstars Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, dominating stars that are just hitting their primes such as Matt Kemp or Troy Tulowitzki, or a rising ace like Clayton Kershaw or Stephen Strasburg. But what about Andrew McCutchen? He is just 25 and has been worth over 15 wins since he was called up in 2009. The casual fan may not be so familiar with McCutchen, probably because he plays for a Pittsburgh Pirates team that last made the playoffs in 1992, 2 decades ago! Maybe some aren’t familiar with him because he isn’t a 30+ home run basher or someone who can steal 50 bases. It could be that McCutchen isn’t considered a “sexy” player by baseball standards. He doesn’t have that 80 grade tool or a flashy persona. The fact is, McCutchen is one of the best players in the game today, and he likely will be for another decade or so.
McCutchen was drafted by the Pirates with the 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft, and quickly tore up the minors. He was consistently considered one of the top prospects in the game, and he flashed potential plus tools in all 5 categories. He reached the majors in June of 2009, and quickly became a bright spot for a struggling franchise. In just 108 games, he posted a 3.5 WAR and a 121 OPS+. He continued his pace through the 2010 season, his first full year in the majors. He essentially replicated his 2009 numbers, albeit over a full season. His OPS+ (121), BA (.286), and OBP (.365) were exactly the same as the year before. He also showed signs of things to come. He followed up a poor defensive 2009 season with a solid 2010 season, and he looked like a future plus centerfielder. His strikeout rate dropped, and he was impressive on the base paths going 33 for 43 for a 77% success rate.
McCutchen took a large step forward in 2011, earning his first all-star game bid. He improved his walk rate, and finally demonstrated his power potential. He slugged .456 with 23 homers, each being full season highs. He also posted a new career best with a 128 OPS+ and 5.7 WAR. McCutchen’s average dropped significantly to .259 mostly due to a low BABIP, an increased strikeout rate, and a second half that was lackluster compared to his first. He still was able to post a .364 OBP though. His real growth came defensively in 2011. He finally became an above average centerfielder, posting a +5 defensive runs saved. It appears to be that McCutchen has become a true 5 tool talent who has yet to hit his peak. He is above average to plus in his arm, defense, and run tools. An above average centerfielder is extremely valuable, and when you consider his offensive upside, he becomes an extremely attractive commodity. He has plus hit and power tools and should settle into being a .290/.375/.500 type player with 30-30 potential.
Now in his age, 25 season he is proving to be even better. He is in the top 10 in the NL in home runs(6th), runs scored(7), batting average(1st), Slugging(2nd), and OPS(2nd). ZiPS projects McCutchen to finish 2012 with a .328/.393/.554 slash line to go along with 27 home runs, 96 RBIs, 104 runs scored, 26 steals, and a 6.7 WAR. Now, ZiPS is notably conservative, so McCutchen very well could end up exceeding their projections. Not shabby for a kid who won’t be 26 until October.
When McCutchen came up, he joined a Pirates offense that hadn’t finished in the top half of the MLB in runs scored since 1996. McCutchen has definitely been a great help in keeping the weak offense afloat at times. When the Pirates were a surprise contender last spring and summer, McCutchen was at his best. From the beginning of May through the end of July, he never posted a month with an OPS+ of less than 140. He batted .291/.390/.505 in the first half last season, before cooling off drastically in late August and September, which coincided with the Pirates collapse. McCutchen was actually one of only 3 Pittsburgh regulars to have an OPS+ better than 100 last season, 100 being average. The discrepancy in offensive ability between McCutchen and his fellow teammates is unbelievable. And this season it has actually gotten worse as Pedro Alvarez is the only regular aside from McCutchen at the time of this writing with an OPS+ of 100 or better, and his OPS+ of 116 has risen drastically in the last month. McCutchen’s OPS+ currently sits at 181. What’s even more frightening is that this could be a trend for at least the next couple years. Unless someone like Alvarez or Jose Tabata can emerge as consistent average to above average big leaguers, then McCutchen is the only player currently on the 25 man roster that could still be an above average offensive producer a few years from now. Starling Marte and Josh Bell stand out as potential top prospects that could someday help McCutchen, but Bell is 3+ years away from the big leagues and Marte has extremely poor plate discipline.
Thanks to outstanding pitching, and solid defense, the Pirates are surprisingly in 1st place of the NL Central despite an offense that struggled mightily until recent. They currently rank 26th in the majors in runs scored and without McCutchen, they would most likely be in last. Through all they’ve been through, Pirates fans should be thankful for Andrew McCutchen. He has provided a slight glimmer of hope and pride for an otherwise miserable franchise. In fact, McCutchen very well may be the best player to don a Pirates uniform since an athletic young outfielder named Barry Bonds.
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