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Jason Mackey: Why this isn't a 'going away party' for Andrew McCutchen -- and may never be

Jason Mackey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Baseball

PITTSBURGH — This isn't some sort of swan song for Andrew McCutchen.

Perhaps that should be obvious. It certainly comes across that way in his numbers, which have been outstanding since shifting to the leadoff spot on April 22. But until late Monday night, it hasn't been official.

"In my mind, this isn't my last year," McCutchen was telling me after the Pittsburgh Pirates' 4-1 victory over the Reds at PNC Park. "As long as my body holds up and I'm not embarrassing myself out there, I wanna keep going."

This was actually a discussion between McCutchen and the Pirates this past offseason. He wanted multiple years. They were a little more skeptical with his age (37) and the fact that he was coming back from a season-ending Achilles injury — which I can understand — and they ultimately settled on one (for another $5 million).

But what McCutchen has done thus far creates an interesting question to ponder for next season: What will the Pirates do?

Now, obviously nobody needs to have that answer in mid-June. There's plenty of season left. But there have been rumblings the Pirates wouldn't mind using the designated hitter spot more as a continual rotation as opposed to allocating those reps to one guy.

I get that. I'm also in zero hurry to move on from this version of McCutchen, who leads the team in home runs with 10, a stat that's among the craziest associated with this team at the moment.

"He's still doing it," Bryan Reynolds said. "Still got that bat speed and everything."

It's also more than bat speed, a category in which McCutchen ranks in the 66th percentile MLB-wide.

Much of McCutchen's success at this age has been pitch recognition, knowing the zone. His chase rate (97th percentile) remains elite, the same for how frequently he walks (78th). That takes us to something Michael McKenry was telling me about when I bumped into him pregame Monday.

"His ability to hit the right pitch has been incredible," McKenry said. "That skill has gotten enhanced, but his adaptability mixed with the power ... they talk about Mike Tyson and [Evander] Holyfield, guys who have boxed late in their careers. The speed may go, but the power does not. It's the last thing to fade."

McKenry knows McCutchen as well as anyone and has pored over his good buddy's mechanics. We'll get there. However, there's a psychological element McKenry thinks has led to Cutch thriving in the twilight of his career as much as anything:

Comfort.

The desire to be in Pittsburgh and also embracing his current role as sort of a clubhouse dad. The injury and the natural tendency to reflect a little more. And understanding what tools you have that can help the team.

"You're seeing this side of him that you should've seen years ago," McKenry said.

You're also not seeing all of it. McCutchen, whose early-season slump was certainly wild, has an expected slugging percentage in the 90th percentile. When McKenry watches from the SportsNet Pittsburgh studios, he sees movement patterns that are still occasionally inconsistent.

"I think [McCutchen's production] can go up," McKenry said. "I honestly do."

That would be something, as McCutchen has already been functioning as one of the best leadoff men in baseball this season.

Now MLB's active leader in games played since overtaking Joey Votto, McCutchen has produced a .279 average in 41 games out of that spot. Only former batting champion Luis Arraez (.340) have been better in the NL. McCutchen is tied for fifth throughout baseball in that category.

 

When it comes to OPS, a more representative metric because it encapsulates McCutchen's on-base and power tools, he's fourth in MLB. Only Kyle Schwarber (.866) has been better than Cutch (.837) in the NL.

Homer-wise, Schwarber (10) is the only NL leadoff hitter with more during that span. Baltimore's Gunnar Henderson, a surefire All-Star starter who has been building an MVP case, is the only such hitter with more.

"He's a former MVP who has won multiple Silver Sluggers," Rowdy Tellez said of McCutchen. "Those don't happen by accident."

They most certainly do not, which is why I was asking several folks Monday what has led to the product we're seeing. The list of answers started with how well McCutchen uses his lower half, deriving stability from that part of his swing.

Manager Derek Shelton built on that by bringing up the rest days afforded McCutchen, allowing him to stay fresh.

The third element involves McCutchen taking ownership of his own career and knowing when to push and when to pull back, ensuring he's ready when the game starts. Not only that, but McCutchen has perfected his between-at-bat routine native to being a DH.

"I'm in a position where I'm comfortable," McCutchen said.

Added Shelton: "You would not know Cutch is 37 by the way he prepares."

Coming off the Achilles injury, McCutchen said he felt "heavy" and "slow" early on. Training room work and early hitting work helped. McCutchen also poked fun at his own pregame routine, which no longer consists of a quick couple of stretches.

"I can't just show up, do a few things and think I can find [success]," McCutchen said. "It doesn't work like that anymore."

However it works, it needs to keep going.

The Pirates would be foolish to discard any player who has been productive in a much-needed spot, let alone your franchise's most popular player in decades and someone who unquestionably wants to remain here.

To their credit, owner Bob Nutting did tell me last season that McCutchen will remain a Pirate for as long as he wants. So this might be much ado about nothing. But it has been darn impressive.

"It's not his going away party," Tellez said. "He's going to keep playing until he makes the decision. I think that's a big thing in his mindset."

Sure enough, McCutchen confirmed those thoughts a little later in the evening.

"I don't know how I look at this season." McCutchen said. "Probably just continuing to not be satisfied with where I'm at. I know there's more in the tank.

"I've been picking it up, especially from the start of the season. I'm in a better spot. Hopefully I can keep it going and continue to keep improving."


(c)2024 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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