BRADENTON, Fla. — Andrew McCutchen tracked the first pitch he saw Thursday from when it left New York Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka’s hand until it sailed over the McKechnie Field boardwalk and clattered off the left-field bleacher seats for his third home run in four games.
“Got my power back. Got my legs back,” McCutchen had said earlier. “It’s about using them now.”
Before the game, McCutchen opened up about the left knee injury that contributed to his slow start last season, like the .194 batting average in April, and robbed him of explosiveness in the batter’s box and on the bases. But he spoke first about something new, something different.
On Thursday, McCutchen’s name was written in the second spot in the Pirates lineup. As the best hitter on the roster and a perennial National League MVP candidate — even in a down year such as 2015 — McCutchen hasn’t batted anywhere other than third or cleanup since Aug. 13, 2011.
Here’s the story:
The other day, manager Clint Hurdle slapped down this stat in front of McCutchen: The Arizona Diamondbacks’ Paul Goldschmidt was the only player in the majors last season with more plate appearances with two outs and bases empty than McCutchen, 164 to 158.
“It was pretty eye-opening,” McCutchen said. “I could have guessed I was pretty high [on the list]. There were a lot of times I went to the plate like, ‘Dang, two outs again?’ That’s not to knock anybody on the team at all. But, for me, it was noticeable.”
There’s a theory laid out in “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball” that suggests a team’s best pure hitter should bat second. It’s a move McCutchen has noticed the Cincinnati Reds make with Joey Votto to give him more plate appearances and fewer with two outs and bases empty.
“I guess it kind of makes sense,” McCutchen said. “To be hitting how I’ve hit over the years and still can’t get 100 RBIs, I don’t know, man. It’s just one of those things. This game’s turned into a numbers game in so many ways, shapes and forms. It seems to be working for the most part.”
For now, slotting McCutchen second is in the experimental stage, but both Hurdle and McCutchen said they would not be surprised to see it employed during the regular season.
“I’m going to hit him second,” Hurdle said, “because [through] all the metric analysis we worked through this winter, the two spot came up a lot for him. It’s real. It makes sense on a lot of different levels.”
Where it doesn’t always make sense is in the mind of an old-school manager learning new tricks.
“The challenge for me is for 47 years the baddest dude in the game hit third,” Hurdle said with a big grin. “That started to flip a few years ago.”
Hurdle and McCutchen agreed advanced metrics have a place in today’s game, but there’s always more to consider. McCutchen quoted clubhouse manager Scott Bonnett, who told him, “Numbers are great for the game, but some things numbers can’t judge. You can’t put numbers on your heart.”
Hurdle compared analytics to “tears with no emotion” — make sure you understand the emotion behind them. That part Hurdle calls “human analytics,” and he trusts himself to read that.
“If I just become a number-cruncher, I need to get out,” Hurdle said. “There are times when you look in a man’s eyes, and it’s not a number. It’s a look, it’s an edge, it’s a hunger.”
Sometimes it’s a healthy knee.
McCutchen won’t reveal the official diagnosis of the injury that hobbled him last year — “it hurt,” he said, “that’s all I can tell you” — but described it as “constant, consistent” soreness. He wasn’t able to do much lower-body weight training during the season, so he doubled down this winter.
His home runs this spring all were pulled hard to left, a sign he can plant well on the front leg and turn on the ball. Before hitting No. 3 off Tanaka, he said, “I feel pretty strong, as you can see.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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