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The Evolution of Andrew McCutchen

Andrew McCutchen has come a long way since draft day 2005. Image via USA Today Sports (Charles LeClaire)

Andrew McCutchen has come a long way since draft day 2005.
Image via USA Today Sports (Charles LeClaire)

In November, Andrew McCutchen finished 3rd in the 2014 NL MVP voting. There’s no shame in that, considering that Clayton Kershaw put up one of the most dominant regular seasons in recent history. The past three years, here’s how McCutchen has finished on the MVP ballot:

  • 2012 — 3rd
  • 2013 — 1st
  • 2014 — 3rd

That’s the best run in the MVP race by a Pirate over three years since Barry Lamar Bonds went 1st, 2nd (should have won), and 1st from 1990-92.

This year, McCutchen put up a triple slash line of .314 AVG/.410 OBP/.542 SLG (952 OPS, 68% more offense than average player) with 25 HR and 18 SB’s. His career high for homers (31 in 2012) and stolen bases (33 in 2010) make you feel that he could put up a 30-30 season every year. In some ways, McCutchen seems like he’s not producing enough based on his skill level — which, admittedly, is crazy to say looking at his production. He is consistently mentioned as one of the five best position players in all of Major League Baseball, not just the National League. And he’s still right in the middle of his prime at age 28.

When he was drafted as a smallish, skinny kid out of Fort Meade High School in Florida, this was not the predicted career path for McCutchen. Based on his height (5′-10″) and frame (175 lbs on draft day), he was put in the bin of “leadoff hitter, low homers, great speed and defense”. No one, probably not even the diligent scouts that followed him and convinced ex-GM Dave Littlefield to draft him, could envision that he would become a disruptive middle-of-the-order force with consistent mid-20’s home run power. All while still possessing blinding speed.

The first round of the 2005 draft is one of the strongest first rounds in recent years. In addition to college players like Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, and Troy Tulowitzki (seriously, those guys all went in the first seven picks), it was considered to be a bumper crop of high school outfielders. That year, the Pirates drafted 11th, so they missed the aforementioned college players. Among the high school outfielders, Justin Upton (1st pick) and Cameron Maybin (10th pick) were off the board when it came to the Pirates. They selected McCutchen, the Reds chose Jay Bruce right after them at 12th, and the Cardinals picked Colby Rasmus at 28th.

Those five high school outfielders would be compared against each other for the next three to four years while advancing through the minors. It quickly became apparent that all five were special talents, with Justin Upton consistently viewed as the top of the class. Everyone else was fighting for second. Because of his physical presence and loud tools, Cameron Maybin (6′-3″, 200) usually was viewed as the next best. Jay Bruce put up the power numbers and would slot in third. McCutchen and Rasmus were typically interchanged in fourth and fifth in the comparison.

I tracked Andrew McCutchen’s progress through the minors closely. In 2006, I drove over to Lake County, Ohio to see Andrew McCutchen’s Hickory Crawdads (the Low A affiliate at the time) play the Lake County Captains. I have an old photo — an actual photo that needed developed, not a digital camera, and certainly not from a smartphone — somewhere in my house. It was a very young, non-dreadlocked McCutchen patrolling center field and another one of him stealing a base. At that time, I knew he was going to be special for the Pirates, but not to his current level.

In 2007, I drove over to Altoona to see the young 20-year old play for the Curve. It was a challenging assignment, as he was skipped over High A, and he struggled that year. But his speed was still present, so I figured at worst he would be a dynamic leadoff man. McCutchen would spend all of 2008 and the first third of 2009 (presumably for service time purposes) in Triple A Indianapolis before debuting on June 4th, 2009. Of the five outfielders, McCutchen debuted last, well behind Maybin/Bruce/Upton and a few months after Rasmus.

Cameron Maybin stalled out in his development, due mostly to strikeout issues, so by the time all five reached the majors Maybin slid to the back of the pack. Yet still, McCutchen was viewed below the others. Here’s an excerpt from an ESPN chat with Baseball America’s Jim Callis from the 2009 offseason, after McCutchen’s debut season:

Gerald (St. Louis):

Going forward, how do you rank the High School outfield class of 2005?

ESPN Jim Callis (2:29 pm)

I still believe in Jay Bruce, so I’d go: Upton, Bruce, Rasmus, McCutchen, Maybin. And I like Maybin.

Jim Callis is one the most respected baseball analysts in the national media. He’s always been viewed as fair and level-headed, aside from his Lars Anderson fascination, so even he was still under the sway of the Upton mystique. All five of these players have had good to great careers so far, but it’s pretty obvious that McCutchen has separated himself from the pack at this point.

McCutchen has the hardware of an NL MVP. Justin Upton has finished in the top 10 one time, a 4th place finish. Jay Bruce has two finishes in the top 10, both times in 10th place. Neither Maybin nor Rasmus have done so. McCutchen also has more subjective awards, like a Gold Glove and three Silver Sluggers. No one else has a Gold Glove and both Bruce and Upton have two Silver Sluggers. Maybin and Rasmus have no awards to this point.

By Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the difference is even more striking.

  • McCutchen 33.9
  • Upton 22.5
  • Bruce 15.3
  • Rasmus 13.4
  • Maybin 8.2

So where does McCutchen’s career go from here? He’s still under contract with the Pirates through 2017, with a no-brainer club option for 2018 that will be exercised for $14.5M, as long as he’s healthy. That will take him through his age-31 season and into a part of his career where he will be exiting his peak; at the start of the 2019 season, McCutchen will be 32. As we saw with Russell Martin, who is entering his age-32 season in 2015, the Pirates have some reticence about committing large dollars to a player with a potential to decline in performance.

The typically quiet and reserved McCutchen became more of a vocal leader during the 2014 season, especially after he would be repeatedly targeted for retaliation hit-by-pitches after an opposing player was plunked. He also raised an eyebrow or two with his provocative comments in the Tribune-Review recently about how the Pirates need to surround him with more championship-caliber talent and how the Pirates need to procure an everyday 1B that doesn’t need platooned.

It’s clear that since he has a taste of the playoffs these past two years, he doesn’t want to just get there. He wants to win the whole thing. After Pedro Alvarez was drafted by the new Huntington regime in 2008, it was presumed that Alvarez would carry the team on his broad shoulders to respectability. As it is, Alvarez was a false prophet. The Pirates shall be led by the same small, still thin but muscular, Andrew McCutchen instead. It’s a responsibility that he seems primed to handle.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

2 Comments on The Evolution of Andrew McCutchen

  1. nice article, we are lucky to have such a great young man lead the Pirates into the new era! Love your writing, wish there was more Bucco coverage!

    • Kevin Creagh // December 23, 2014 at 12:50 PM //

      Thanks for reading. Please share the new site with others if you like it.
      There will be plenty of Pirate coverage, especially during the season. We’re trying to keep a nice mix of sports, city life, interviews, and original ideas.

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