Sep 25, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) hits a two run single in the eighth inning of their game against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A year ago, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle predicted Andrew McCutchen's National League MVP Award because the center fielder was "the baddest dude in the league," someone you didn't want to mess with in a dark alley or on a well-lit diamond.
Well, in 2014 McCutchen was "worse." His statistical production was eerily identical -- albeit in 11 fewer games and 35 fewer at-bats, due to his first career stint on the disabled list. But his entitlement to a second straight MVP Award derives from the strictest definition of "valuable," which McCutchen certainly was in his return from the DL.
McCutchen incurred a rib fracture from an all-out swing in Arizona the day after having been drilled in the spine by a Randall Delgado fastball. The Pirates put a minimizing spin on the injury by specifying it as "an avulsion fracture," which involves cartilage and not bone, but a rib is a rib. McCutchen returned from the injury after the minimum 15 DL days -- to the amazement and inspiration of his teammates, who at the time were scuffling. The Bucs were 5-9 during McCutchen's absence and were 64-61 when he returned -- then went 24-13 the rest of the way.
That's the "when" of McCutchen's return. Here's the "how:" After an 0-for-8 in his first two tentative comeback games, he hit .344 to the wire, with an on-base percentage of .430 and an OPS of 1.024.
That is how you lead a team into October nirvana. That is how you earn an MVP Award.
The award recognizes a body of work, but for a more focused glimpse of McCutchen's value to the Pirates, consider how he brought them into the All-Star break.
Reposing in fourth place and anxious to enter the break on a high, the Bucs were in Cincinnati. They blew an early four-run lead during the Reds' five-run sixth, and still trailed, 5-4, entering the ninth -- three outs from a crushing defeat that would have dropped them within two games of .500.
McCutchen led off the ninth with a home run, deep into Great American Ball Park's left-field stands.
The game proceeded ominously. The Pirates walked a tightrope, making the Reds strand five runners in the ninth and 10th innings while doing nothing themselves. Every batter since McCutchen's tying shot had been retired. It felt like a dead team walking.
"Just keep the game going long enough to get McCutchen up again," someone said in the press box.
With two outs in the 11th, McCutchen lost a ball even deeper into the left-field stands. The Bucs won, 6-5, and floated into the break -- and came out of it with eight wins in their first 11 games.
McCutchen's 2013 NL MVP Award was regarded as unique confirmation of his spiritual leadership, as he won it despite a modest total of 84 RBIs while five NL hitters on playoff teams drove in 100-plus.
McCutchen stands even taller in the 2014 MVP field. While he encored with 83 RBIs, the only playoff player in triple figures in a down season for offense was the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez, and we know he's not in the picture because he is not a finalist.
Gonzalez got lost in the shadow of teammate Clayton Kershaw, the two-time NL Cy Young Award-winning left-hander who is a finalist. The third finalist is Giancarlo Stanton.
We are thus presented with an intriguing MVP election that, his other virtues aside, leads to McCutchen's second coronation, also by the process of elimination.
Historically, MVP campaigns have always had two subplots:
• Pitchers do not deserve them. Forty-six years after Bob Gibson became the last NL pitcher chosen as the MVP, that rules out Kershaw.
• Players on losing teams don't rate, either. That takes care of Stanton, whose Marlins went 77-85.
McCutchen held up flawlessly in his job and in his role. If those two truisms also hold up, he'll have to make room in the new home he is building for a second NL MVP Award.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.