If I’ve heard it once over the past month or so, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “If Andrew McCutchen can get going, imagine how good the Pittsburgh Pirates will be.”
I’ve been guilty of it myself, as the Pirates have surged to the best record in Major League Baseball through 81 of their 162 games. For some reason, their 51 wins at the season’s halfway point have obstructed what has been another applause-worthy season from their superlative center fielder.
But a quick glance at the Pirates’ player-value leaderboard on Baseball-Reference.com reveals that McCutchen has been Pittsburgh’s top contributor in terms of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). The 26-year-old has accounted for exactly four wins over 81 games, just ahead of left fielder Starling Marte (3.7), with catcher Russell Martin (2.8) claiming third place on that list.
In case you’re wondering – because I was – McCutchen is behind his offensive pace of 2012, when he seemingly carried the Pirates with his hot bat during June and July. His .953 OPS last season put him 63 percent ahead of the average MLB center fielder at the plate; this year McCutchen’s OPS is at .822, with both his on-base percentage and slugging down from last year.
However, while “Cutch” was just an average defensive player last year, according to Baseball-Reference he has contributed more than a win to the 2013 Pirates with his glove alone. That improvement in the field is enough to make McCutchen Pittsburgh’s first-half MVP, despite the perception he’s having a sub-par year.
With McCutchen still on the front side of his prime, one imagines his plate production will improve as the season moves along. It was fitting that McCutchen, who had the second-most “hard-hit” balls in June (via ESPN.com analyst Mark Simon), smacked one of his signature line drives to left to tie Sunday’s game in the eighth inning, the biggest hit of the Pirates’ victory over the Brewers that stretched their winning streak to nine.
McCutchen may have ridden some batted-ball luck to his breakout 2012, so maybe he’s seeing the downside of fortune through the first half of 2013. At any rate, if he continues to square up pitches like he has over the past month, he should see some positive regression in both batting average and power.
His offensive numbers may look more like 2011 than 2012, but I’d wager McCutchen will finish closer to last year’s eye-opening production than he currently stands. Still, it’s instructive to realize that even though he hasn’t lived up to his own lofty standards, McCutchen is still the most powerful cylinder in the Pirates’ engine.
With the Bucs’ stunningly-good pitching unlikely to maintain its blistering first-half pace, Pittsburgh will need McCutchen and others to continue to improve at the plate to stay on track for the National League Central title. The Pirates are averaging nearly five runs per game during their remarkable streak, so maybe it’s the offense’s turn to provide the primary thrust for a while.