Monday, July 07, 2014

Who's better than Cutch?

Sunday, July 6, 2014, 10:00 p.m.

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen watches his RBI triple during the eighth inning against the Phillies Sunday, July 6, 2014, at PNC Park.

Andrew McCutchen stepped to the plate for the first time Sunday and faced a pitcher who knew his every hole and who looked ravenously hungry. A.J. Burnett, all fired up for his return to PNC Park with the Phillies, had just whiffed Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison on seven pitches — those guys don't strike out much — then zipped ahead of Cutch with a two-strike count.
Cutch swatted a single through the hole at short to spark a two-run rally.
Of course he did.
In the eighth inning, with the Pirates up precariously by a run, Harrison led off by reaching on a two-base error. Justin De Fratus, the Phillies' reliever, had been dominant for a month. He was fresh off a 17-appearance scoreless streak. He'd recorded 49 of his 109 outs by way of the K.
Cutch launched an RBI triple off the center-field fence.
Of course he did.
And that's pretty much the take anymore, isn't it?
This extraordinary athlete does so much, so often, with such passion and precision, that it can become ordinary, that the day-to-day details like those above get overlooked.
Even the bigger picture.
With those two critical hits in the 6-2 smackdown of the Phillies, Cutch is batting .324, third-best in the National League, with 13 home runs, 54 RBIs and 13 steals in as many tries. And that only begins to tell it: His .424 on-base percentage, fueled by even greater patience this year with opponents now determined to duck him, ranks second in all of baseball. His .971 on-base plus slugging percentage, perhaps the most complete offensive metric, ranks fifth.
Those numbers are staggering. They're unlike any seen in these parts since Skinny Barry Bonds, unlike all but a handful of performers in the franchise's 128 years.
On top of all that, on Sunday night, he was announced as the top vote-getter among the league's outfielders for the All-Star Game and will be part of the starting lineup July 15 in Minneapolis, bucking a system that's geared — like all else in the sport — toward the bigger markets.
It's amazing. Really.
So let me put this another way that might stand out a bit more than all that drama-free daily excellence: Andrew McCutchen could be the best player in baseball.
Don't believe it?
Just ask him.
“Eh, I don't know,” he replied when I broached that concept after the game. “I know what I'm capable of doing, and I just go out and do it. Whoever makes decisions like that, that's up to them.”
OK, so don't ask him. Just look at the competition.
Troy Tulowitzki, the Rockies' do-it-all shortstop, leads the majors with a 1.046 OPS. Wonderful. Except that he's also got insane splits between how he performs in mile-high Denver and everywhere else, notably a .441 average at home vs. .265 on the road. Sorry, but that an automatic DQ.
Mike Trout, the Angels' center fielder, is the only player one reasonably could rate higher. His 1.005 OPS, right behind Tulowitzki, is buoyed by 20 home runs. His .308 average and .402 OBP trail Cutch's, but power does and should count.
Truth be told, most observers probably would choose Trout.
But everyone?
I thought Neal Huntington might balk when I broached this with him Sunday, but that didn't happen.
“Andrew absolutely belongs in the argument for best player in the game when you factor in everything he can do,” the GM said. “He can beat you in the batter's box because he can hit a ball in the seats. He can hit it in the gap. He can move a runner. He can draw a walk. He can beat you on the bases. He can beat you defensively because he can run a ball down with the best of them, and his throwing has gotten a lot better. He can beat you in the clubhouse because he's going to show up every day, and he's a model for all our players. He plays through pain, plays through struggles, all to help his team win.”
Huntington took a playful deep breath there and grinned.
“So yeah, he absolutely belongs in the argument.”
Sure does. And that shouldn't be taken for granted in our little corner of the world any more than when Sidney Crosby, Ben Roethlisberger, Evgeni Malkin and Troy Polamalu have had their names in the same arguments. Contrary to our fantastic fortune in having had all these athletes — and many others — grace the local sports scene, it really is precious.
And not to compare these gentlemen, but the one claim Cutch always will have over everyone in Pittsburgh sports is carrying a team out of a 20-year losing streak.
He takes immense pride in being part of that.
“I really do,” he said. “There were some dog days here, but we got some pieces in places, and things are good now.”
How good?
“It's feeling better than last year, honestly. Because we know what we're capable of doing, and we just go out there and do it. I don't feel like we're hot, you know? We're just getting the job done. The pitchers are keeping us in the game, and the offense is scoring some runs. We're not on fire. We're just winning.”
Of course they are.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic. Add Dejan Kovacevic to your Google+ circles.

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