Is Pirates' McCutchen a five-tool talent?
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Any baseball scout evaluating a position player, from sandlots to the big-city lights, has asked the same fundamental set of questions for more than a century: Can he throw the ball, catch the ball, hit for average, hit for power and run the bases?
The five tools.
Players possessing the potential to have all those tools are rare. And those who go on to have a career of sustained excellence in all areas ... well, they tend to be the stuff of folklore, from Willie Mays to Ken Griffey Jr. In the current game, a five-tool discussion might be limited to Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki.
And maybe, someday, Andrew McCutchen.
"That's what I was drafted as, so yeah, I believe that's what I am," the Pirates' 24-year-old center fielder was saying the other day. "I can bring all the tools to the table."
Game: Pirates vs. Brewers, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
TV, radio: Root Sports, WPGB-FM 104.7.
Pitching: RHP Kevin Correia (2-0, 1.29 ERA) vs. RHP Shaun Marcum (1-1, 4.22 ERA).
Key matchup: The Pirates' lineup against an unfamiliar starter. Marcum pitched for five seasons with Toronto before joining the Brewers this season and has not faced many current Pirates.
Of note: The Pirates went 5-13 against the Brewers in 2010.
Few would doubt that McCutchen has the Pirates' best physical attributes -- "He's got all the baseball genetics," as infielder Steve Pearce said -- to be a five-tool player.
But sustained excellence?
Might as well start with the tool most likely to defeat the argument.
McCutchen has decent arm strength, with the potential for above-average strength. But he has been too strong at times, launching throws above cutoff men, even to the backstop.
Statistically, McCutchen threw out only two runners at home last season but had eight assists, third best at his position. But assist totals can be misleading, as was evident when weak-armed Jason Bay would pile up assists for the Pirates only because teams ran on him at every chance.
To the trained eye, McCutchen's throwing has much room for improvement.
"The strength is there," bench coach Jeff Banister said. "But that can get better at the major-league level. Young guys have a tendency to try not to use the arm too much. When they aren't sure if they have a play, they'll just hit the cutoff man."
When McCutchen first arrived in Pittsburgh, his throws often looked like he was trying the shot put -- high arcs out of the hand -- though his coaches have mostly eliminated that. He also has become smarter with choosing the right play.
"His instincts have gotten better, and his release is a lot better," Banister said. "Factor that in with the arm strength and, yeah, he can be five tool in my eyes. Now, only time will tell if his arm continues to get stronger and more accurate."
McCutchen always has been a bit defensive about his arm.
"It's getting better," he said. "The accuracy has to be there, I suppose. It's just a matter of getting the ball down and being on target. But it's not like I have a poopy arm or something. The strength is there."
Good luck gauging this one.
The casual fan might see defense that ranges from good to spectacular. McCutchen's teammates, too, will laud him as their best glove.
But the numbers paint a striking contrast: His ultimate zone rating, a formula used by several teams including the Pirates, was minus-14.4 in 2010, second worst among center fielders in the majors. The Bill James Handbook, which annually produces the Fielding Bible awards, determined that McCutchen had the second-worst range and had cost the Pirates 10 runs in the field, the second-worst total.
What in the name of Brant Brown does all that mean?
Well, for one, the Pirates do feel that McCutchen can get better reads off the swing and the bat. To that end, manager Clint Hurdle and Banister have had him watching daily video to study hitters' tendencies.
For another, as even the most devout subscribers to baseball statistics will concede, defensive metrics remain the most challenging to make accurate. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, among those subscribers, pointed out that such metrics do not account, for example, for "how hard a ball is hit and where the fielder is positioned."
Both apply in McCutchen's case.
The 2010 Pirates had the franchise's worst pitching in a half-century, worst of any team in the majors. As a result, a high ratio of hits were smoked. McCutchen made 373 putouts, eighth-most in the majors at his position, and many of his games looked like the 14-inning marathon Friday night, when he covered enough ground to run across Rhode Island.
McCutchen's positioning likely was a bigger variable: The previous coaching staff had him mostly playing shallow to try to take away some of those hits, and that might not have been the shrewdest strategy in light of how hard the hits were being struck. Plenty sailed over McCutchen's head.
Now, under Hurdle, McCutchen is at medium depth.
"There are two kinds of center fielders," Hurdle said. "There's the guy who plays shallow and cuts down everything short and also goes back. That's a cornerback mentality. Then, there's the free safety, who plays a little deeper and just roams. That guy reads swings, reads the ball and goes and gets it. Andrew falls into the latter category. I think he's much better served at average depth, just playing with his heart and his gut."
The legs and glove surely are there.
"He's got the God-given speed," Banister said. "And watch the effort. There are a lot of center fielders good at catching balls, but not all of them will lay out to make a catch like Cutch."
McCutchen is off to a .257 start, but his history points to that ending up 30 points higher: He is a career .286 hitter in two seasons in the majors, .287 in the minors. He also has had solid on-base percentages -- .365 in the majors, .362 in the minors -- and sound strikeout-to-walk ratios since the Pirates made him their first-round draft pick in 2005.
That begins with what hitting coach Gregg Richie calls "early recognition of the ball," and it is followed through with a compact, swift swing.
To explain the latter, Ritchie drew an imaginary rectangle from his shoulders to the ground.
"Andrew never leaves that area, and that's how he uses his whole body," Ritchie said. "The core is always functioning together, so he's always keeping good posture. He controls the bottom of the body, and that allows the hands to function the way they have to."
The swing starts with "great backside leverage," Ritchie said, comparing it to a boxer bracing on his back foot to deliver a punch.
The bat then takes off.
"He's got tremendous bat speed, and he's got barrel all through the strike zone. Those aspects give him full coverage of the zone, and pop to all parts of the field. The hands, the head and the eyes are all in what we call dynamic balance."
In less technical terms ...
"He's got the quickest hands of any player that I've seen," second baseman Neil Walker said. "You'll see times where it looks like he's fooled, and he'll still hit a laser beam to the gap. Some guys need to have a rhythm to their swing. He can just wait and see the ball, see the ball, see the ball ... then react to it."
This one might bear closest monitoring this summer, as Hurdle has McCutchen in the No. 3 hole in hopes of more home runs, more RBIs. He had 12 home runs in his four-month rookie season, 16 last year.
"It doesn't change my approach, my swing, anything," McCutchen said. "I'm still going to try to drive balls to gaps, get on base and make things happen."
He is not big -- 5 feet 10, 180 pounds -- and does not have the classic power stroke with a mostly level swing, but pure bat speed can breed power. On April 4 in St. Louis, for example, he homered off Kyle Lohse's elevated fastball by tomahawking a high fly that carried well out to left.
"Because the barrel is in the zone with the compact swing, he'll make hard contact," Ritchie said.
Pearce, who rose through the system with a power pedigree, sees different power with McCutchen.
"It's not all home runs," Pearce said. "He's a little guy who can swing the heck out of the bat. And the speed makes that even more dangerous. We used to tell him in the minors to fake a bunt in his first at-bat, draw in the third baseman, then smack it past him. There's no way they could react, with how hard he hits the ball."
McCutchen was a sprinter until his freshman year at Fort Meade High School in Florida, running the 100 meters in an exemplary 10.6 seconds. He does not recall being formally timed since then, but he is acknowledged to be one of the fastest men in baseball. The speed is, to go back to the scouting vernacular, his only unquestioned "plus-plus" tool, and the grade gets no better.
But what will he do with it?
McCutchen was on a mad dash of steals to open 2010, but he wound up with just 33 on 43 tries. The steal total ranked fifth in the National League, but the caught-stealings ranked sixth. Most conspicuous, there were long stretches late in the summer where he appeared anchored to first base. At the time, he blamed pitchers using the slide-step, which is the elimination of a high leg kick to get the ball to the plate quicker.
The new coaching staff made a spring priority of getting McCutchen running again, but he still has no steals -- and just one attempt -- so far this season.
"He's learning," first-base coach and baserunning instructor Luis Silverio said. "He's studying pitchers' moves on video, and he's more confident on base. He has a little bigger lead, and he's getting back to first easier because he's picking up little things from the pitcher. That's all part of it."
"He gets great jumps, and he accelerates quickly. There's not much there that you can teach."
McCutchen's most scintillating display might be his sprint from first to third. He makes the turn at second so seamlessly that he appears to bend the infield at his whim.
"He does it perfectly, right down to touching second base on the inside corner," Silverio said. "It's not just about explosive speed. It's about knowing how to use it."
Whether or not McCutchen is the total package clearly remains to be seen. But there are plenty of believers.
This past offseason, a panel on MLB Network concluded that McCutchen is the best center fielder in baseball, mostly because of his offense. Sports Illustrated predicted McCutchen would be baseball's breakout player for 2011. ESPN's Jayson Stark put McCutchen on his "All-Underrated Team." Ken Rosenthal, a reporter for Fox Sports, concurred with MLB Network that McCutchen is the best center fielder and wrote, "People don't realize how good a player this kid is becoming and already is."
Those in the game are speaking no less effusively.
"I think he's a star," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said last week before a game against the Pirates. "I can see him hitting first, I can see him hitting third. I think he has the kind of ability just like our Colby Rasmus, and you can hit him anywhere."
"When he plays the game, you don't know whether the Pirates are winning or losing," Colorado manager Jim Tracy, formerly of the Pirates, said over the weekend. "You just know that Andrew McCutchen's out there, this is how he plays, and this is how he's going to continue to play for nine innings. You love that type of player."
McCutchen acknowledges having heard some of the offseason praise.
"That's fine because I'm doing something for people to think that," he said. "Most people look at numbers to judge this or that, but I think there are people who also see what I can do, who believe in what I can do. I know I believe it. I've always been a confident person."
Confident enough to see himself as the game's best at his position?
"Oh, absolutely. My confidence is through the roof. And I'm going to keep it there, whether I'm hitting .400 or .200. I'm going to walk out on the field feeling that way. It keeps me looking forward, thinking big."
First Published April 12, 2011 12:00 am