Senior Baseball Columnist

Nothing's wrong with slumping McCutchen, except expectations of MVP candidate


Despite his hitting rut, Andrew McCutchen still owns the NL's best batting average. (Getty Images)  
Despite his hitting rut, Andrew McCutchen still owns the NL's best batting average. (Getty Images)  

Andrew McCutchen hears you. He knows you want to know what's wrong.

As if there seriously is something wrong. Sure, the outs have been coming with greater frequency this month than they have all season. But what did you expect?

"From the fan base and from the people who follow the game," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says, "sometimes they confuse the human beings with the machine."

Even given his recent dip, McCutchen is having a spectacular season and is the leading candidate to win the NL MVP award. No, it's not anywhere near a slam dunk. San Francisco's Buster Posey is closing fast, the Cardinals' Carlos Beltran and the Brewers' Ryan Braun will have a say before it's over, and who knows what else lurks around the next corner.

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But as the best player in the NL races into the season's home stretch, his team is wheezing (10 losses in 14 games) and it's clear that for the first time since May, McCutchen isn't even going to be named as NL Player of the Month.

After a June and July in which he hit .370 and then a sick .446 with a combined 14 homers and 41 RBI, resulting in consecutive Player of the Month honors, he's at .253 with two homers and 10 RBI in 21 games in August.

"That's the way it goes," McCutchen says, smiling. "Look at what Albert Pujols did. For 10 straight years, he was unbelievable. Then for the past two years, he started slow but ended up good.

"With those slow starts, everybody wanted to know, 'What's wrong with Pujols?' Now the guy's hitting, what, .290 [.283, actually], with 90 RBI [86] and 20-some homers [28] three-quarters of the way through the season?

"That's not bad. It's not the Pujols you're used to seeing. But people get a little selfish, I guess, with the dominant players.

"From where I was the last few months, now it's like the world is ending."

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Andrew McCutchen that the laws of mathematics and statistical probability and other boring, wonky formulas can't explain. Mostly, it gets back to what Hurdle says, the idea of man vs. machine.

Even given his expected post-July cool-down, McCutchen continues to lead the NL in batting average (.349), runs scored (87), hits (159, tied with the Giants' Melky Cabrera) and on-base percentage (.414). He ranks third in the majors in total bases (264) behind the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera (281) and Braun (268).

"It's still not bad," McCutchen says. "But it gets back to where I want to get to where people are saying, 'That's the McCutchen I know.'"

That guy, Hurdle and the Pirates believe, is different from even the McCutchen of last season. Then, he was incredible for the season's first three months as the Pirates emerged as national darlings before both faded badly during the second half. As the Pirates plummeted to a 19th consecutive losing season, McCutchen post-All-Star break last year batted only .216 with only nine homers and 35 RBI.

Trying to become a one-man wrecking crew, McCutchen unwittingly changed his own game instead.

"Last year, the first half he was a good hitter with power," Hurdle says. "The second half, based on our team kind of falling aside offensively, he tried to become a power hitter."

Both Hurdle and McCutchen think he learned from those mistakes and will produce much more now as August turns into September.

"What he's done all year, at this point and time, when we might wobble a little bit, does he fall back into what he did last year where he tries too hard, tries to do too much?" Hurdle says. "We're trying to keep that balance. Balance is the proper word for a lot of it."

After last season's nightmarish finish, McCutchen went home and changed his stance and tweaked his swing within the first month of the offseason. Then he enrolled in a sports training academy in Bradenton, Fla., to work on his first-step quickness. And he concentrated other work on defense, the result of which Hurdle says is that McCutchen's arm is stronger and more accurate than ever.

His skills in all aspects of the game -- hitting, defense, speed, catching, throwing -- are dominant. What will challenge both McCutchen and his Buccos in the season's final weeks is the mental strain. The Pirates trail both the Braves and Cardinals by half-a-game in the NL wild-card scramble.

Stepping into the batter's box in Pittsburgh with thousands of folks chanting "MVP! MVP!" will be totally different in September than in June, the difference between an alley fight to advance to October and a leisurely summer's afternoon picnic in the park.

"It feels good," McCutchen says of the MVP chants that have filled the air at PNC Park. "But you want it to be legit, not just them saying it in vain."

Plugging away in a city that hasn't hosted a playoff game in two decades, McCutchen in a Pittsburgh minute would take the playoffs over the MVP award.

"Definitely," he says. "But if we make the playoffs, I'll probably be the MVP. That's the way it works. The more team things you succeed in, the more individual things will be there, too.

"I'm trying to do better. I'm trying to do what I can."

Not since Barry Bonds in 1992 has a Pittsburgh Pirate been named as the NL MVP ... which, not coincidentally, is that last year the Pirates played in October.

"You know what?" Hurdle says. "I don't know what it feels like to walk onto that field and be chanted 'MVP!' That's gotta be a new feeling. He's never heard that before. Whether that adds to the bag you're carrying or not, we've had conversations about it.

"It's something he can't control. So we can't get involved in that part of it. We've just tried to joke about it and embrace it and say, 'Hey, you're earning your way.' That's part of what comes with earning your way.

"That's really been the mantra for all of us. We are intent on earning our way. There are going to be challenges and difficulties that come with that.

"Nothing's wrong with him."


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