Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen heavy favorite for MVP

The announcement tonight of the National League Most Valuable Player Award, for which Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen is a favorite, will conclude months of hype and speculation. McCutchen is worthy of all of it.

Whenever millions of people invest themselves in something, hype eventually builds, often with its own runaway momentum. Ask Jeremy Lin or any of the finalists on “American Idol.” For McCutchen, the hype was unavoidable: As the best player on a team destined for the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, his MVP candidacy almost built itself, much the way a quarterback on the best team in college football finds himself in consideration for the Heisman Trophy. The media started writing and saying it, and the fans started chanting it, and now here we are.

In McCutchen’s case, the combination of his broad skill set, consistency and top-notch performance stamp his candidacy as legitimate.

“I’m very grateful that I’m in the running for it,” McCutchen said. “We have two other guys in [St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier] Molina and [Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul] Goldschmidt, those guys definitely had great seasons as well. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

Members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted for the award before the playoffs began, and McCutchen, Goldschmidt and Molina were named finalists last week. The presentation begins at 6 p.m. on MLB Network.

McCutchen finished third a year ago in voting, behind San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey and Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun.

McCutchen, 27, made his third consecutive All-Star team in his fifth season in the majors. He played in 157 games and hit .317 with a .404 on-base percentage and a .508 slugging percentage. McCutchen hit 21 homers and stole 27 bases and earned his second consecutive Silver Slugger award.

Those numbers are strong on their own, but they stand out in the context of the rest of the league. McCutchen ranked seventh in the NL in average, third in on-base percentage, sixth in slugging percentage, seventh in doubles, fourth in walks and sixth in steals.

“I did everything I could do to put myself in that position,” McCutchen said. “Whoever wins will definitely deserve it.”

Goldschmidt tied Pedro Alvarez for the NL lead with 36 home runs and hit .302 while leading the league with a .551 slugging percentage. Molina’s .319 average ranked fourth in the NL and his 2.1 defensive wins above replacement (WAR) ranked eighth in the league.

McCutchen ranked high in advanced statistics as well. Because WAR is calculated differently on different sites, McCutchen ranked either first among NL batters, according to Fangraphs.com, or second behind Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez, according to Baseball-Reference.com. McCutchen ranked second in the NL behind Goldschmidt in adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage, or OPS-plus. That metric equalizes OPS using league and ballpark factors, making comparing players easier. McCutchen’s 158 OPS+ means he was 58 percent better than the league average.

In previous years, McCutchen’s speed helped cover for the fact that he had room to improve defensively. This year, McCutchen ranked 15th among qualified fielders in the NL with a 6.9 ultimate zone rating, a statistic that attempts to quantify how many runs a defender saved or allowed in relation to an average player. A similar statistic, defensive runs saved, calculated that McCutchen saved seven runs above average this season after allowing five runs below average in 2012.

Part of the improvement came from McCutchen’s arm strength, a liability in years past.

“In the three years I’ve been here, his throwing accuracy and arm strength has increased every year,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It just goes to show you, he’s … really working hard on every facet of his game to be the best complete player he can be for this game.”

Though voters did not consider this, McCutchen improved upon 2012 despite a lower batting average and fewer home runs. He walked more, struck out less and stole more bases with a better success rate in addition to his defensive improvement. After fading in August and September in the previous two seasons, McCutchen finished strong in 2013, hitting .384 in August and .318 in September.

“Andrew … wasn’t happy how the last two seasons finished for him on the offensive side of the ball,” Hurdle said.

This one finished just fine, and come tonight, McCutchen might be rewarded for it.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.

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