The Second-Place Pirates

As part of my first anniversary blog spruce-up, I added categories, which you can see to the right of the screen. If you want to filter out just All-Star game content or only posts related to the Hall of Fame, you can now do so by clicking on a category. I’ve also added a category for each major league team. Here are the teams about which most of my first 100 posts discussed:

1) Phillies, 23
Nearly a quarter of my posts have given significant ink to the Phillies or a Phillies player. I see four reasons for this:
-the Phillies made the NLCS last season, and I wrote a lot about postseason predictions and results
-the Phillies employ Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, and I write a lot about postseason awards
-the Phillies signed Cliff Lee in the offseason, which both accentuated my infatuation with Cliff Lee and made them my preseason pick to win the World Series
-my first loyal reader, Nick, is a Phillies fan and posts about the Phillies were the only way I could get anyone to comment on my early work

2) Angels, 21
This is due almost entirely to the early season success of Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, who dominated my daily MVP feature in April and inspired the Weaver Watch series (another installment of which should come soon).

3) Yankees, 19
Routinely among the best teams in baseball, always the most polarizing, and the team about which I obsess more than any other (always remaining partial, of course)

4) Rangers, 17
They made the World Series, which necessitated a lot of posts, and they employed Cliff Lee for a few months.

5) Red Sox, 14
My favorite team, but I never intended for this to be a Red Sox blog. There are plenty of them, and you don’t want to hear me complaining about this year’s injury bug or the at-bats they keep giving to JD Drew and Darnell McDonald every day, so I try to keep Sox content at a reasonable level.

And at the other end, I’ve only written about the Astros, Nationals, and Brewers once each. The Astros employ the most underrated player in baseball, the Nationals employ the greatest active catcher, and the Brewers employ two of the five pitchers I deemed most likely to win this year’s NL Cy Young Award.

But there’s one team I haven’t written about at all, except in my preseason predictions, where I talked about every team. I didn’t expect much from Pittsburgh before the season started, but as it turns out, the Pirates are probably the best story in baseball this summer, as they sit 45-41, alone in second place in the NL Central after last night’s win.

I could write about whether the Pirates have staying power, but that may turn out depressing. There are three vastly superior teams in the NL Central, at least two of which haven’t fulfilled their potential in the first half.

I could write about how they got where they are, with surprisingly effective starting pitching from Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton, and Kevin Correia, dominant relief from Joel Hanrahan, solid hitting from Garrett Jones and Chris Snyder, and excellent defense from Jones and Ronny Cedeno.

But there really only one compelling Pirates story this year, and it’s the story of Andrew McCutchen.

McCutchen is 24, made his debut as a highly-touted prospect in the Pirates organization in 2006, and had success at every level, compiling a weighted on base average over .330 everywhere he played. In 2009, the Pirates made McCutchen their everyday centerfielder, and in almost 500 plate appearances, he hit .286/.365/.471 and stole 22 bases, creating 25% more runs than the average player. In 2010, he was equally impressive with the bat, but in a larger sample. Again, he created 25% more runs than average, but this time he did it in 653 plate appearances, collecting 163 hits and 70 walks, stealing 33 bases, and hitting 16 home runs. Fangraphs rates McCutchen’s fielding as weak in ’09 and worse in ’10, but he ran the bases well enough in ’10 to accumulate 3.7 WAR, .2 better than his rookie campaign.

McCutchen was by far the Pirates’ most valuable player in 2010, and after turning 24 in October (known in Pittsburgh as “the offseason”), it should come as no surprise that he would make a leap in 2011. It’s been a leap of Carl Lewis proportions, enough to impress everyone except the various parties responsible for selecting All-Stars. In 2011, McCutchen has hit a magical .291/.390/.494, good for a .392 wOBA. He’s hit 12 homers in 84 games and swpied 15 bags in 20 attempts. His defense has been spectacular, saving 8.3 runs above average, and he trails only Jose Reyes in fWAR. I believe that the MVP should go to the best player in the league, regardless of his team’s success, but if we’re leaving out players on noncontending teams, as many voters do, McCutchen should be the frontrunner for NL MVP.

Read that last sentence again. In case you missed it earlier, McCutchen plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

What I like best about McCutchen is his completeness. Sure, we talk all the time about five-tool athletes who can hit for average and power, run, throw, and field. McCutchen certainly fits in this group, but it’s a sixth tool that makes him special. Watching the Pirates play the Red Sox last week, it was immediately apparent that this Pirates team feeds off McCutchen’s energy. He’s a young, dreadlocked, fast, and smooth athlete capable of running down balls in gaps and scoring from first on practically any ball that hits the fence. But if you look at this year’s numbers again, his game is built largely around patience. He’s walked 47 times and been hit by five pitches in 371 plate appearances this season. His 12.7% walk rate ranks sixth in the National League, higher than any player in the East or West division. Among NL outfielders, his on base percentage trails only Matt Kemp, Lance Berkman, and Ryan Braun, three feared sluggers who all happen to be defensive liabilities. It’s a rare player who combines all the tools of a great athlete with a keen batting eye and patience that belies his age.

It may be a few years before the Pirates are regularly playing on ESPN on Sunday nights and maybe even gracing our TV screens in October. By the time that happens, the general public should know what anyone who’s paying attention already knows: that Andrew McCutchen might be the best player in the National League.

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