Cook: McCutchen among best
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When he played for the Pirates and the San Francisco Giants, Barry Bonds was known as a player who could do whatever he wanted on a ball field. You needed average? Bonds won the batting title in 2002 and '04. A great catch in the outfield? Bonds could run down just about anything. A stolen base? Bonds swiped 52 bases in 1990 and, even at age 33 in '97, had 37 stolen bases. Power? You know how that worked out for Bonds.
After watching the Pirates beat the Detroit Tigers, 4-1, Saturday to move a season-best six games over .500, it was hard not to think in the same terms about Andrew McCutchen. You want average? McCutchen is hitting .345, fifth best in the National League. A great catch? McCutchen went a long way to routinely grab a fly ball at the left-center field wall hit by the Tigers' Jhonny Peralta with a runner on third and two outs in the seventh inning. A stolen base? McCutchen has been successful on nine of his past 10 stolen-base attempts and has 14 steals for the season. Power? McCutchen hit his 13th home run Saturday in the fourth, a three-run beauty that gave the Pirates a 3-0 lead.
Yes, McCutchen is a young player, only 25, in just his third full big-league season. But it's not too soon to suggest he has a real chance to be the Pirates' best player since Bonds.
"He's a superstar -- for me -- already," Tigers manager Jim Leyland was saying Saturday night.
Leyland managed Bonds with the Pirates from 1986-92. He seemed like the right guy to ask if there's any way McCutchen's name belongs in the same sentence with Bonds. Leyland wasn't interested in comparisons. He won't compare anyone to Bonds, whom he has called the best player of his lifetime. But he readily agreed there is nothing McCutchen can't do on a ball field.
"I don't know [McCutchen], but it seems to me like he has a more steady approach than Barry," Leyland said. "Barry would go a few games without a home run and think, 'I've got to hit some.' So he would change approach and hit some home runs, but his average would go from .320 to .280. I always told him, 'The home runs aren't going to come when you try to hit home runs. They'll come when you try to get hits. You'll square the ball enough that the home runs will come.'
"It looks to me as if [McCutchen's] presence and approach doesn't change. I never see him act differently, whether he hits a home run or strikes out. I don't see a lot of wasted emotion there. I think that's real good for a young player."
It's a great theory. There's also proof to back it up. McCutchen didn't hit his first home run this season until May 8, a span of 95 homerless at-bats. But he didn't panic, had the same presence at the plate and didn't change his approach. He kept getting hits and, as his teammates scuffled at the plate, kept the Pirates from falling into another deep, dark, miserable season. Eventually, McCutchen began to square up enough balls to get his home runs. Counting that first one against the Washington Nationals, he has 13 in 154 at-bats. That's one home run every 11.8 at-bats. If McCutchen maintains that pace and gets 572 at-bats as he did a year ago, he'll finish with 40 home runs.
"He's a star," Leyland said again for emphasis. "He's what I call a two-way player. He can beat you offensively and defensively. The more you have of those guys in the National League, the better your team is. He can hurt you in a lot of ways."
Saturday, it was with the home run on an 0-2 pitch. "[Starter Max Scherzer] tried to go away, but left it inside," Leyland said. "[McCutchen] is so quick. He's real quick inside." Friday night, McCutchen had three singles to help the Pirates beat the Tigers, 4-1. In his past seven games, he's 15 for 28, a .536 roll.
It's enough that a lot of baseball people are saying it will be a crying shame if McCutchen doesn't start in the All-Star Game. Among National League center fielders, he's first in batting average, home runs and RBIs (45). That's a Triple Crown of sorts right there. That's beyond impressive even considering that the Los Angeles Dodgers' Matt Kemp has played in just two games since May 13 because of a bad hamstring.
But McCutchen was 10th among outfielders in the most recent fan voting released by Major League Baseball. It's hard to imagine him climbing into the top three because -- let's be honest -- he plays for the Pirates. The only thing a lot of less-than-savvy fans know about the franchise is that it loses year after year.
"The more success the Pirates have, the more attention he'll get," Leyland said of McCutchen.
And if McCutchen keeps going and the Pirates keep hanging in the National League Central Division race?
"Absolutely, he would be a strong MVP candidate," Leyland said.
It seems appropriate to point out one more factoid about Bonds as it relates to McCutchen:
Bonds didn't win his first MVP award until 1990, his fourth full season in the big leagues.
McCutchen has a chance to do it quicker.
First Published June 24, 2012 12:00 am