Gene Collier: It's the thrills that make the MVP



Endemic to baseball’s new age of advanced metrics is the hard truth that any modern mathlete can deal you a dozen numbers that demonstrate why Andrew McCutchen is the Most Valuable Player in the National League today.

And a dozen more for why Paul Goldschmidt should have been the MVP of the National League.

And a dozen more for why Yadier Molina was most deserving among the top three vote-getters.

Two-Minute Warning: Gene channels his inner Mike Tomlin

In this edition of "Two-Minute Warning," Gene Collier takes on college football before channeling his inner Mike Tomin. (Video by Melissa Tkach; 11/14/2013)

And somewhere out there along the algebraic continuum, I’m sure there’s a set of integers that strongly suggest the award should probably have gone to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who, for all that most of baseball knows, probably spent a couple of weeks in the bullpen of the Houston Astros this summer.

But here’s the number that best defines McCutchen, who on Thursday night became only the sixth Pirate to take the honor since its creation in 1931, and no, it’s not WAR, the wins above replacement figure we all respect so much for expressing exactly how far above average a player who is so obviously above average is. Exactly.

Cutch’s figure is not his WAR, it’s his TAR — thrills above replacement, and the number itself is incalculable. From the passionate baserunning to the circus act center field play to the jolt of his hot liners to the gap and beyond, the broad emotional impact of Andrew McCutchen on the Pirates, the city, the fan base, and the whole arc of 2013’s baseball narrative can’t be fully expressed.

And don’t for a minute think it was easy being Cutch, not from the moment the Pirates took him instead of Jay Bruce or Jacoby Ellsbury in the 2005 draft, not through a four-year term in the bushes, not through four seasons of metronomically awful big league baseball.

Somewhere in his mind at some point, in all of that, Cutch had to realize that if the Pirates were ever going to turn their competitive profile inside out, that it was in large part going to be up to him.

Read carefully his reaction when I put that to him 10 minutes after Thursday night’s announcement.

“No, I never put that on myself. Honestly, going through the minors, I wasn’t very aware of what the Pirates were going through, as far as the losing. I knew they weren’t doing too well, but past that, I didn’t know much. I was just trying to get there. That’s what minor league players do. They’re trying to do their job to make to the majors and live their dream.

“It didn’t really sink in until I was actually in Pittsburgh in 2009, when winning meant a lot more. That’s what it was all about and that’s when I started to feel the losing, the years of it, and then I started to think that when it changed I could be a big part of it, and that we had guys who could be a part of a winning team.

“It was gonna take some time, but I knew eventually it would happen, and right now it is happening. We’re winning and we have the ability to keep winning and to bring a championship back here.”

See how that answer went from “no” to “yes” in three short graphs? That’s the real McCutchen story beyond any relevant number. He was born into baseball’s “no” and turned it into “yes.”

That’s one pretty good definition of a most valuable player.

During the summer in which he made it happen, the Pirates were never so efficient and inspiring as when McCutchen felt the game come to him. When he drove in a run, the Pirates were 42-18. They were 52-50 otherwise. When he scored, the Pirates were 58-24. They were 36-44 when he didn’t. And when he unleashed a career-high 11 assists and ran down so many troublesome baseballs that found his glove a good place to die, he and they were simply awesome.

In the locker room, McCutchen was a calming voice in a manic summer. He understood the game’s endless aptitude for humbling its actors, and understood that every time they draw the lines and throw the ball down to second to start the next game, the story can change again for good or bad.

It was McCutchen’s tweet of a Michael McKenry idea — the blackout — that resulted in the playoff massing of the Black Army of the Allegheny, the one that took down the Cincinnati Reds and nearly the National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals.

McCutchen didn’t need an MVP Trophy to validate his immutable status as the living symbol of the Pirates revival.

All the same, he appeared pretty thrilled.

You may adjust his Thrills Above Replacement as needed.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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