The Pittsburgh Pirates are in the middle of their most successful season in nearly two decades, but you can’t blame their fans for still being disappointed. The Pirates have received virtually no coverage despite the fact that they are currently four games above .500, play in a winnable division, and currently employ one of the best players in baseball. Despite his All-Star Game “snub” — which Eric Seidman covered last week — Andrew McCutchen has officially established himself as one of the best, and most exciting, players in the game. It’s a damn shame that he continues to fly under the radar.
McCutchen has truly taken a huge step forward this season. The 24-year-old center fielder currently rates as the third most valuable position player in all of baseball according to WAR, he’s rated as the best defensive center fielder in baseball this season, and he’s far surpassed his season-high in WAR in just 88 games. Based on his age and current performance, this could be the start of a string of MVP-caliber seasons from McCutchen.
Just how has McCutchen done it?
Well, even though we shouldn’t rely on half-season defensive numbers, his allegedly improved outfield defense is a strong reason for his breakout. Since it’s such a small sample, though, we have to remain somewhat skeptical. After posting a slightly below-average season in 2009, McCutchen posted a terrible -13.7 UZR last year — among the worst of all center fielders. There’s been some talk out of Pittsburgh that McCutchen is positioning himself deeper than usual this season, which may be the main reason for such a major defensive turnaround. While he’s likely not this good of a defender, it seems reasonable to think that there are some legitimate gains in his new approach.
As a hitter, almost all of McCutchen’s peripherals are headed in the right direction. He’s managed to increase his walk rate for the third consecutive season — putting him at 12.7% on the season. Although his strikeouts are slightly up this year, he’s made up for it by showing a huge increase in power. McCutchen has nearly surpassed his season-high total in home runs this season while posting a .214 ISO — good for 16th among all outfielders. The spike has come despite the fact that he hadn’t really been considered a power hitter in the early stages of his career. With his strong base-stealing ability, McCutchen might be on his way to posting the quietest 30-30 season in Major League Baseball history.
Some slight changes in his approach at the plate may be the cause of his increased power. His fly ball percentage is up this season, which could indicate that he’s getting more loft on pitches, perhaps contributing to his career high HR/FB rate. He’s also absolutely crushed fastballs this season — rating fourth in the league against the pitch. While the sample is likely small, he has also improved against the slider this season, a pitch that had given him trouble in the past. These improvements, while not drastic, have certainly contributed to McCutchen’s meteoric rise up the WAR charts.
Despite the fact that the Pirates are off to their best start in decades, and are led by one of the best/youngest/most exciting players in baseball, they can’t seem to get any recognition. While the All-Star “snub” made people more aware of McCutchen’s breakout, it’s truly a shame that nobody paid attention to McCutchen until now. For the first time since Barry Bonds patrolled the Pittsburgh outfield, the Pirates have another home-grown, phenomenal young outfielder — and one of the best players in the game. You would think that would command a little more attention from the baseball world.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.