Andrew McCutchen a 'throwback' NL MVP
As we emerge from an era dominated by sluggers, Andrew McCutchen is quite the fitting Most Valuable Player.
Specifically, McCutchen this season with the bat hit .317/.404/.508 with 21 homers and 38 doubles. With the spikes, he stole 27 bases, legged out five triples and led all NL qualifiers in percentage of extra bases taken (i.e., advancing two bases on a single or three bases on a double). With the glove, he ranked fifth among NL center fielders in Total Zone Runs and fourth in Ultimate Zone Rating (and those numbers square with the eye test and general reputation). In other words, McCutchen did it all.
In a very real sense, that distinguishes McCutchen from almost every recent NL MVP. Think about what McCutchen is: He's a top-shelf hitter, an excellent base-runner and a plus fielder at a premium up-the-middle position. The last NL MVP to meet those three criteria? The Phillies' Jimmy Rollins back in 2007 (and Rollins's OPS+ of 119 that season -- versus a 158 for McCutchen in 2013 -- stretches the definition of "top-shelf hitter). Prior to that you must go back to Barry Larkin in 1995 (no, Jeff Kent in 2000 doesn't qualify, on account of his merely decent base-running and sub-par fielding).
After Larkin came a long run of one- and two-dimensional sluggers, which was largely in keeping with the power-driven, high-run-scoring era. It wasn't just the fairer sex who dug the long-ball; it was also voters and the architects of teams who prioritized it. This, though, is a different era, and McCutchen is a fitting representative for it.
The recent emphasis on defensive shifts and otherwise doing everything one can to turn batted balls into outs -- like sacrificing offense on occasion in order to back a groundball starting pitcher with a strong infield alignment -- show how seriously teams take fielding these days. As for base-running, even clubs that don't steal much still like guys who can stay out of double plays and motor around the bags when the batter behind them drops a hit in. Tying it all together is that fact that such speed often translates into defensive excellence, especially in the outfield, where McCutchen roams so effectively.
After all, NL teams in 2013 averaged 4.00 runs per game, which is lowest mark since 1992. I'm not going to wander into the thicket of rank speculation that attributes such changes to the sunset of the "steroid era" (we don't know how PED use affects the game on the field, and let's not forget that pitchers likely indulged roughly as much as hitters did). Mostly, I'm content to see it as another one of those tidal shifts that's been a part of the game since time immemorial.
Yet Thursday's results aren't the same as, say, granting MVP laurels to Maury Wills, who in 1962 had 104 steals but an OPS+ of just 99. McCutchen, as noted, is a thoroughly complete player. The burners of "second deadball era" like Wills were in some ways as limited as the sluggers of late 1990s and early aughts (though much, much less valuable in raw terms). McCutchen in 2013, again, did all of it and did it all well. That's in keeping with the blended and balanced era we're in now, in which all phases of the game seem to have reached an aesthetically pleasing equilibrium.
In that regard, McCutchen is not only a worthy MVP choice, but he's also a representative one.
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