It feels like we’ve reached a point of inevitability for Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen and his candidacy for National League MVP.
The thing is, it has just as much to do with his team as his own individual performance.
A glance at the numbers tells you that McCutchen’s offensive production is slightly down from his career year in 2012, although a depressed run-scoring environment this season means he’s still 62 percent better than the average league hitter according to OPS+, identical to his rating last year.
Any true disparity between last season, when his raw OPS was .953, to this year’s .926 can be explained by a 33-point drop in slugging percentage. However, his batting average (.326) and on-base percentage (.406) are essentially the same as his 2012 numbers.
(McCutchen’s slight downturn in power is likely a blip, considering that slugging is the baseball “tool” that ages the best. The 26-year-old figures to get better at driving the ball into his early 30s, so it’s not a concern. Also, McCutchen has been at or near the top of the “hard-hit average” leaderboard compiled by ESPN.com’s Mark Simon all season long. He’s stinging the ball, even if he’s not lifting it in the air as much.)
Any minute drop-off at the plate has been made up for in the field. McCutchen’s always had the speed and athleticism to be a great center fielder – and he won his first Gold Glove last season – but he’s reached new heights in 2013, helping the Pirates become a defensive efficiency machine.
In short, McCutchen is making more plays look routine than ever before, getting better breaks on balls and seldom making the big mistake that leads to extra bases for the opposition. He hasn’t skimped on the spectacular catches either, with perhaps his best one of the year coming in Thursday night’s seventh inning:
Combine McCutchen’s continued offensive excellence and his improved defense at a premium position, and it’s easy to fall in line with the appreciative PNC Park crowd in the above clip. “Cutch” has become the favorite for NL MVP.
The advanced metrics agree, as McCutchen is the National League leader in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the ultimate all-encompassing player-value stat. Whether you look at FanGraphs (7.5 WAR) or Baseball-Reference (7.7), McCutchen finds himself first in the NL in WAR and second overall to Anaheim’s Mike Trout.
Of course, McCutchen finished with very similar numbers last season, but came in third in NL MVP voting, behind Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun and winner Buster Posey of the Giants. What did those players have over the Pirates’ No. 22? Not much, except previous national exposure.
With the Bucs assured of at least a playoff berth and still in the running for the NL Central title, McCutchen has the proper stage to haul in the accolades this time around. While he’s almost literally the same player he was in 2012, the Pirates’ rising tide is lifting McCutchen’s boat to new heights.
It’s a shame the recognition will come a year late, but because of his team’s success, 2013 will go down as the year Andrew McCutchen took his place among MLB’s marquee names. Winning the NL MVP won’t be a coronation, but a validation.