Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Jason Delay spent much of last season on the big league club. The Pirates were 100-game losers last season. It was an ugly year. They’ve been one of the best stories in baseball this season, with a 16-8 record through the first 24 games. Delay gave a response as to what the most significant difference between this season and last season has been. Without hesitation, he answered two words: Andrew McCutchen.
McCutchen is back in Pittsburgh after spending the first nine seasons of his career there. He was drafted in 2005 and debuted in 2009 while the Pirates were spending most of their time in the cellar of the National League Central.
In 2012, the Pirates got off to a start similar to the one they’re having this season. McCutchen was maturing into one of the league’s premier players. They eventually fizzled out, but it started a string of four consecutive seasons where McCutchen finished in the top five in NL MVP voting. McCutchen won the award in 2013, which coincided with Pittsburgh’s first playoff appearance in two decades. It was no accident.
McCutchen and the Pirates want to avoid what happened in 2012 this season. He knows this team is better equipped for that.
“I think we let a lot of that success get to us,” McCutchen said.”People can say it’s like that, but I’m here and not planning to let that happen. I know what it feels like to surprise people and feel like you have the city right there with you…You can’t let that stuff get to you.”
The Andrew McCutchen Effect
The Pirates went into their series against the Dodgers as winners of seven-straight baseball games. People have questioned the legitimacy of it because of their “weak” schedule so far. Good teams beat bad teams, but I digress. They want to put a stamp on the fact that they’re here, so what better way than to beat the Dodgers?
Andrew McCutchen stepped to the plate with the Pirates leading 4-2 in the fourth inning with two runners on. You could feel that something was coming with the way their season had gone. Boy, did it ever.
McCutchen deposited a sinker from Noah Syndergaard over the Clemente Wall in right field to give the Pirates a 7-2 lead. Captain Cutch did it again. The Pirates’ bullpen let them down, and the Dodgers re-took the lead in the eighth inning. Ironically, McCutchen stepped to the plate again with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth. This time around, however, McCutchen popped out in foul territory. Not all moments can be magical.
McCutchen played the hero once in the game, and expecting him to do it again was a bit much. McCutchen has certainly been drinking from the fountain of youth. He’s 36 years old, but he looks 26 again. This Pirates team is benefitting greatly from his presence in the locker room.
McCutchen Turning Back the Clock
Andrew McCutchen has made 89 plate appearances so far this season. He’s slashing .270/.371/.527 through 21 games. McCutchen is tied for the team lead with five home runs. He’s third on the Pirates with 12 RBIs. He isn’t just a piece of this team this year but one of the pieces of the early hot start.
His .371 on-base percentage is a testament to his consistently elite walk rate. His 12 walks lead the club so far this season, and that’s just typical Cutch. Since he departed from Pittsburgh, he has been a different level of hitter. Where he’s allowed himself some longevity in the majors is with his eye on the plate.
According to FanGraphs, the average walk rate is 8.0%. McCutchen’s worst walk rate in a season came in 2020 with Philadelphia at 9.1%. That’s certainly something to hang your hat on. Early this season, he sat at 13.5%, slightly above his career average of 12.1%.
As far as strikeouts go, Andrew McCutchen has always been good in that category as well. In the two seasons leading up to this one, McCutchen struck out at 23% and 21.4%. As his average has dipped, he’s tried to hit for more power to sustain a valid role for teams in previous seasons.
Through his 89 plate appearances this season, he sits a 16.9% strikeout percentage. FanGraphs considers 20% as the average number, meaning he’s also above average this season.
At 36 years old, regression has to come at some point. He won’t play at the elite level for 162 games. That’s why the Pirates are being careful how they deploy him this season. He’s been a designated hitter with protected time in the outfield to try and keep him fresh as the season goes on.
The Gift That Keeps on Giving
No one in Pittsburgh wanted to see Andrew McCutchen go in the first place. Fans pleaded with Pirates’ owner Bob Nutting to keep Cutch in Pittsburgh. Things didn’t work out. The Pirates traded him for relief pitcher Kyle Crick and outfielder Bryan Reynolds.
At the time, it was impossible to see past McCutchen’s impact in Pittsburgh and that he may have been beginning his decline. The trade worked fine for the Pirates and improved with the news of Reynolds’ contract extension on Tuesday.
McCutchen’s first stint in Pittsburgh saw just three playoff wins. That was due to their inability to win their division and ending up in the wild-card game three straight seasons. They won it in 2013, took a 2-1 lead against St. Louis in the NLDS that season and proceeded to lose games four and five. 2014 and 2015, they ran into Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrietta. If you remember anything about those seasons, the Pirates certainly saw some hard luck.
Ownership mandated that the front office begin stripping the team down after that 2015 season inexplicably. They’ve been out of contention ever since. McCutchen is rejuvenated to be back in the Steel City, playing for the only franchise he should’ve ever played for. On the bright side, it did bring the Pirates a cornerstone piece in Reynolds.
Vibes are higher in the Pirates’ clubhouse. They’ve got a Pikachu doll they give out to the team’s best performer from a given game. The music is deafening in the clubhouse. The Pirates even have a home run sword. The team is very animated in the dugout and cheering.
McCutchen’s impact indeed can’t be understated in all of this.
Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports