Monday, April 03, 2017

Pirates need Cutch to be clutch

By Kevin Gorman
April 2, 2017
Image result for andrew mccutchen 2017
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
A year ago, Andrew McCutchen entered the season amid talk about being a Pirate for life.
What seems like a lifetime later, McCutchen on Monday begins what could be his last season with the Pirates.
After enduring a winter when he was the subject of trade talks and forced into a position switch, McCutchen promised a “monster year, whether it's in Pittsburgh or somewhere else.”
The Pirates are counting on it, considering they opted to keep him.
So now that Cutch is back with the Bucs, the question is: Which one will we see?
Will it be the clutch Cutch, a five-time All-Star and 2013 National League MVP who helped the Pirates end their 20-year losing streak and led them to three consecutive wild-card berths?
Or will it be the Cutch that was a crutch last season, when he struggled in shallow center and at the plate with a career-worst .256 average?
We'll find out at Fenway Park, where the Pirates open the 2017 regular season against the Boston Red Sox.
The Pirates moved McCutchen to right field, against his wishes, after a career spent in center. And they returned him to the No. 3 spot in the batting order, his clear preference, after his struggles while batting second last season.
Statistics suggest the 30-year-old McCutchen is in the midst of a sharp decline that contrasts with a steadily rising salary. Where McCutchen made $4.5 million during his MVP season, he will make $14 million this summer and has a club option for $14.5 million in 2018.
That's still a bargain by baseball standards but not for the cash-conscious Bucs, whose payroll ranks in the bottom third of MLB. The chances of the Pirates making the playoffs — and McCutchen staying with them past the trade deadline — depends upon how he performs this spring.
For as much as I've criticized the Pirates for attempting to trade McCutchen — calling it a betrayal to the face of the franchise and their fans — the metrics make it clear that he regressed. Where his hitting numbers are down across the board, his strikeouts are rapidly rising. Where analytics suggested he should bat second, reality proved it wrong.
If his history is any indication, McCutchen is a notoriously slow starter. His career batting average for March and April is .255 with a .766 OPS. Last season, he started hot and was hitting .318 on April 10 but saw it slip to .226 by the end of the month.
In fact, McCutchen's average slipped from .296 to .258 in one game that seemed to encapsulate everything that went wrong for him last season.
At the Detroit Tigers on April 12, McCutchen went 0-for-4: He reached on an infield error in his first at-bat but was caught stealing at second; flew out to center in the third, advancing Jordy Mercer to third base; and struck out swinging in the sixth and eighth innings.
It was just one game, but McCutchen's batting average never rose higher than .263 the rest of the season. Despite the Pirates dismissing the difference in batting second as something that happened only in the first inning, McCutchen hit second in three of four plate appearances.
Whatever the reason, he was never the same. While McCutchen finished with a team-best 24 home runs and was second with 79 RBIs, the drop of the rest of his numbers suggested a startling decline. The Pirates almost panicked, listening to trade offers.
All of it makes you wonder whether McCutchen will remain in his role as a team leader, a catalyst who comes through in the clutch. He openly second-guessed the move to right field, even though two-time Gold Glove winner Starling Marte has superior speed and arm strength, by suggesting that communication could be an issue.
And just as the Dream Outfield comes of age, the Pirates have McCutchen, Marte and Gregory Polanco playing new positions this season after a spring training that was interrupted by the trio playing in the World Baseball Classic.
Where Polanco was the breakout star of the WBC, hitting .611 for the Dominican Republic, McCutchen batted only .238 (5 for 21) for the USA.
But the promising sign was not only how he adjusted to playing right field, using his speed to cut off fly balls in the gap, but how Cutch hit in the clutch: delivering an RBI double against the Dominicans, an RBI single against Japan in the semifinals and two RBI singles against Puerto Rico in the championship game.
That's the Cutch we've come to expect. That's the Cutch the Pirates need, for however long he's a Pirate.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.comor via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

No comments: