On the Pirates: Andrew McCutchen ... MVP?
The three syllables ricocheted off the steel trusses and limestone walls of PNC Park, echoing over Andrew McCutchen's head.
He dug his compact, muscular form into the batter's box and prepared to unleash the strength of a power hitter coiled within the body of a sprinter, the skills that are helping him produce one of the best seasons by any player in the National League.
"M-V-P! M-V-P!" shouted the 21,041 fans at PNC Park Monday night, and McCutchen, who went 4 for 5, who scored three runs, who raised his batting average to .354, didn't disappoint.
McCutchen, the Pirates' All-Star center fielder, is not only having the best season of his career but has elevated his performance to the top of the league. The facts of the case: The 25-year-old McCutchen's .356 average tied the San Francisco Giants' Melky Cabrera for the league lead entering the Pirates' weekend series against the Giants. His .410 on-base percentage ranked fourth in the NL and his 1.014 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) tied him for third. He had 16 home runs and 14 stolen bases.
For McCutchen to have a shot at the award inspiring the fans' chants, he will have to overtake the Cincinnati Reds' Joey Votto, the clubhouse leader, who leads the league in on-base percentage, doubles and walks. McCutchen must also battle the New York Mets' David Wright, the Philadelphia Phillies' Carlos Ruiz and the Colorado Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez, who represent the cream of the NL crop.
Those who rose through the organization with McCutchen had the opportunity to witness his potential. Recent additions to the roster who used to watch from the opposite dugout and now observe him on a daily basis are impressed with how he plays.
"He's the true five-tool player," said Chris Resop, who joined the Pirates in late 2010. "It's fun to watch. Every at bat is, 'What's he going to do now?' Nothing surprises you anymore."
McCutchen, who has a legitimate shot at 30 home runs and 30 steals, gives the Pirates a combination of power and speed they have not had much of in recent seasons. Some Pirates have had decent power-speed seasons -- Nate McLouth in 2008, Kevin Young and Al Martin in 1999 -- but no one had a 30-30 season since Barry Bonds in 1992. Bonds won the MVP that year, the most recent Pirate to do so.
McCutchen kept the Pirates' offense afloat during the early portion of the season, buoying the dead weight of the rest of the lineup. The Pirates scored 147 runs in April and May; McCutchen scored or drove in 53 of them.
"Without him we wouldn't be where we're at right now," said Clint Barmes, another recent addition who watched McCutchen from the opposite dugout in previous years. "He carried our offense up until this point."
Barmes saw what McCutchen could do years ago, when Barmes played for the Rockies.
"One instance, when [the Pirates] came to Colorado, there was a series where he basically single-handedly beat us in two of three games -- and had the third day off," Barmes said. "He ran down balls in Colorado that guys were just like, 'Are you kidding me?' "
Barmes was referring to July 27-28, 2010, when McCutchen stormed into Coors Field and went 4 for 8 with two doubles in two wins. He finished that season hitting .286 for the second consecutive year. He climbed the ranks in 2011, hitting .291 in the first half and making his first All-Star team, but a .216 second half dropped his average to .259.
"To see the first half of last season, where this is somewhat reminiscent, then you saw the player in the second half," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Tried to take the whole club, put it on his back. Average bottomed out, he became very one-dimensional to left field, the pull side of the field.
"Look what he's doing now. He's opened both gaps up. Hitting with two strikes, hitting early, hitting with strength. It's been fun to watch."
A.J. Burnett saw what McCutchen could do before this season in spring training, shortly after he joined the Pirates in a trade. When the pitchers threw live batting practice to hitters standing in the retractable cage, most batters worked on their timing, taking half-swings and fouling balls off. Not McCutchen.
"I like to get feedback," Burnett said. "I go back, 'Thanks for standing in there.' He'd pay attention to every pitch I threw, whether he was in there or not. That's how he goes about himself, man, and it's rubbing off on a lot of people."
McCutchen's physical tools are what they are, but McCutchen's teammates speak more often of his mental approach: confidence, cockiness, tranquility, intensity, intelligence.
"Who cares how talented you are?" said McCutchen one morning, a day after going 2 for 5 with a home run against the Phillies. "There's a lot of talented people in this game who are capable of doing the same thing, but their mindset isn't there. You have to have that. That's a big part of your game. The majority of this game is mental."
McCutchen said he has always attempted to puzzle through things, both in baseball and in life.
"He really understands the game," said Casey McGehee, who joined the Pirates from the division rival Milwaukee Brewers during the winter in a trade. "He's a real student of the game. Some of the stuff he'll pick up from watching video, just observing the game, is pretty impressive."
The confidence strikes his teammates the most. Burnett sees it when McCutchen stands in the on-deck circle, but he exudes it at all times.
"It's the third day of spring. He's walking to the batting cage like this confident young kid with nothing but belief in himself and what he's doing," Burnett said. "Just walking out, he'd look over and nod and keep walking. I'm like, 'Look at this guy.' "
Equally important: He harnesses it.
"I think he's got that air about him that every superstar I've been around has," McGehee said. "When it's time to perform, when it's game time, he's got that little different walk, little different personality. What you see on the field and what you see in [the clubhouse] is two completely different people. He can turn on and off the superstar."
McCutchen projects confidence with his mannerisms. He walks slowly but with purpose. His facial expression stays mostly blank. No spiked helmets, no thrown bats, no pouting. He almost never argues with the umpires, and if he does, it's because he's right: In a June game in Cincinnati, he had words with first-base umpire Bill Welke after Reds starter Johnny Cueto picked him off first base using what appeared to be a balk.
The combination of the performance and the attitude with which he goes about it has earned him the respect of the clubhouse and a leadership role on the team.
"With the amount of time he has in the big leagues, he carries himself very well," Barmes, 33, said. "Everyone in here respects him like he's got a lot more time.
"Guys look up to him. That's a pretty big compliment for the time he does have in the big leagues at this point."
Barmes compared him to the Rockies' Gonzalez, another young player whose production never declined during his breakout season in 2010. Burnett compared him to the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, a former teammate on the Florida Marlins: "There's two kids out there playing Little League," Burnett said, "but when it's their time to come up, they're men amongst boys."
The Pirates' organization respects McCutchen and his abilities enough to commit $51.5 million to him during the next six years. In addition to the Steelers, who signed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to an eight-year, $102 million contract in 2008, and the Penguins, who signed center Sidney Crosby to a 12-year, $104.4 million contract at the end of June, the Pirates have their star attraction locked up for a while.
"You're getting to see a young man grow up right in front of your eyes in a city that's very deserving of having that kind of player," Hurdle said. "The commitment he's made to our organization is significant. The commitment we've made to him is significant. The passion that he goes out and plays with, the reverence for the game and his teammates, is special. You talk about a win-win opportunity to watch a young man grow up and take this game wherever he's going to take it, we're all fortunate to be along for the ride."
Now, between McCutchen's season and the Pirates' success -- they were 46-36 and in first place in the NL Central entering the weekend -- the rest of the baseball world is getting a taste. Sports Illustrated featured McCutchen in a recent issue, and MLB commercials display him telling the world he will take away center field. On Tuesday, fans across the country can see him take the field for the All-Star game in Kansas City with the best of the best -- where his production this season has placed him.
As the volume of the chants increased Monday night, McCutchen singled, his fourth hit of the game. He may have flashed a smile back toward the dugout, as he is wont to do at times. But more than the numbers, more than the blinding speed or the power, what sticks with his teammates is the character -- the man who works hard, stays humble and supports the 24 men in the dugout with him.
"He smiles for other guys more than anything," Burnett said. "That's what I like."
First Published July 8, 2012 12:00 am