LEBO – Andrew McCutchen was born with five-tool baseball DNA. Time matured physical gifts. But physical gifts are never enough to become an MVP and the Pirates made a key observation when scouting McCutchen prior to taking him with the 11th overall pick in the historic 2005 draft class. It was a risky decision not only because he was a high school prospect but because he was facing less-than-elite competition as our own Dejan Kovacevic reports:
Brian Graham, the Pirates’ farm director at the time and now with the Orioles, once watched Cutch play an opponent that was starting mostly eighth-graders. So Graham had an idea: The Pirates would whisk Cutch to their complex in Bradenton for some private tests. Rajai Davis, a speedy outfield prospect who went on to major league duty, was invited to provide a man-on-man challenge.
“That day, watching Cutch hit and run right alongside Rajai, that was it for me,” Graham recalled Thursday from his Cranberry home. “All the tools were there. We all saw that. But the makeup, the drive to go compete with someone like Rajai … that sold me.”
It’s the combination of rare tools and rare drive and worth ethic that allowed McCutchen to be named NL MVP on Thursday, the first Pirate to win the award since Barry Bonds in 1992. It is through that rare work ethic that McCutchen arrived at the height of his five-tool powers which I wrote about in Sept. McCutchen keeps improving as a player in every area of his game ….
He’s improving as a hitter: his line-drive rate has improved four straight years to a career best 24.5 percent in 2013 – an elite number – and he cut his strikeout rate four percentage points in 2013. Those improvements are the product of a swing makeover after the 2011 season:
McCutchen always has had the eye-hand coordination to be a .300 hitter. He was trained to be an all-fields, any-location hitter. As a boy, his father placed a broomstick in his hand and tossed him fishing corks wrapped in athletic tape. The knuckling game of soft-toss, repeated thousands of times, was designed to improve his bat-to-ball ability.
But by 2011, McCutchen had become too pull conscious. He pressed. He hit .259.
“I knew I was a lot better than that,” McCutchen said.
As he watched the postseason from his Florida home, he picked up a bat and tried timing pitchers via his flat-screen television. He was restless. He studied video of the best hitters in the game: Cabrera. Ramirez. Molina. He saw those hitters employing the whole field. He made a slight adjustment, opening his stance to improve his balance and serve as a timing mechanism.
McCutchen improved his power: Yes, his home run totals were down from 2012, but he never hit the ball harder than he did in 2013. The average exit velocity on his home runs was 103.7 mph, a career best, as was his average home run distance: 404.5 feet, including the hardest hit ball of his career:
How does a 5-foot-10, 185-player generate such batspeed?
“Bat speed has to do with every part of your body,” McCutchen said. “You generate your power from your legs. That’s where it all comes from. When you go from your legs (to core muscles), it just coils up and fires. … It’s your quick-twitch muscles, all of that firing. You either have it, or you don’t.”
But the added strength was created, not given. Prior to the 2012 season, McCutchen intensified his workout program. He spent six weeks at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., undertaking core-strengthening drills. He hit three opposite-field home runs his first three full seasons. McCutchen has hit 22 opposite-field home runs the past two years.
McCutchen bettered his throwing: Throwing is the weakest area of his game and he still does not have an elite arm, but it’s improved, leading to a career-high in outfield assists in 2013.
After the 2012 season McCutchen returned to his offseason home in Florida with a singular focus: Eliminate his lone weakness. He called upon former teammate and Florida neighbor Steve Pearce for help in early-morning workouts. McCutchen threw and threw and threw.
“Long toss. Long toss every day. That’s it,” McCutchen said of his offseason throwing regimen.
McCutchen’s defense has improved: While he didn’t win his second Gold Glove, McCutchen’s Fielding Runs Saved Above Average, UZR and Ranges Runs Above Averages were all career highs.
McCutchen worked to improve his baserunning: While he didn’t post a career-best in steals, McCutchen was much better at going from first to third this year and ranked as one of the best in the majors at taking an extra base on basehits.
“Last year, I think there was a little bit of a glitch for him trying to find his way on the bases,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s back to being aggressive. His leads, his first-step movement, have improved.”
Overall, McCutchen’s tools combined with his work ethic have allowed his Wins Above Replacement to improve every year to an NL-best 8.2 in 2013.
The best news for Pirates fans?
The Pirates have McCutchen under control for the next five years (including the 2018 option) at $59.6 million. That’s incredible value for the team for an incredible player.