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Will teams start pitching around red-hot Cutch?

MLB.com

ST. LOUIS -- Andrew McCutchen may soon find himself in a familiar situation, but in an unfamiliar spot.

McCutchen entered Friday's 4-3 series-opening win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium slashing .393/.486/.742 since taking two days off in Atlanta just less than a month ago, fixing his swing and being moved down to the sixth spot in the order. During that stretch, he hit eight homers, driven in 23 runs in 25 games, with 16 walks and 17 strikeouts.

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ST. LOUIS -- Andrew McCutchen may soon find himself in a familiar situation, but in an unfamiliar spot.

McCutchen entered Friday's 4-3 series-opening win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium slashing .393/.486/.742 since taking two days off in Atlanta just less than a month ago, fixing his swing and being moved down to the sixth spot in the order. During that stretch, he hit eight homers, driven in 23 runs in 25 games, with 16 walks and 17 strikeouts.

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On Wednesday and Thursday, he walked in half of his plate appearances, as the Brewers pitched carefully to the red-hot McCutchen. According to Statcast™, 27 of the 41 pitches he saw those two days were out of the strike zone.

If McCutchen stays hot, and especially if he stays in the six hole, will teams continue to pitch around him?

"To say teams are pitching around him, I'd say no. Are they picking spots where maybe they are? Possibly," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Look at the numbers. Look at the at-bats. We'll see how it plays out moving forward."

Hurdle indicated teams haven't been altogether avoiding McCutchen, pointing to the slugger's run production as evidence. The numbers back up Hurdle's assertion; according to Statcast™, McCutchen has seen a nearly identical percentage of pitches in the strike zone since dropping down the order (47.73 percent) compared to when he hit third (47.52 percent).

The difference is McCutchen's discipline and command of the zone. Since May 26, McCutchen has posted a 15 percent walk rate -- better than he has ever posted in a full season -- and a 15.9 percent strikeout rate. Before that, he walked in 8.9 percent of his plate appearances and struck out in 18.4 percent of them.

McCutchen is also not getting beat the same way he was earlier this season. In his first 46 games, McCutchen hit .143 (5-for-35) with a .229 slugging percentage on fastballs on the inner third of the zone or further inside. In the past 25 games, he batted .357 (5-for-14) with a 1.071 slugging percentage on fastballs in the same location.

Overall, he's slugging .691 on fastballs over the past four weeks compared to .390 before May 26.

There have been times in his career that teams have actively avoided McCutchen. The most recent case was in September 2015 following Jung Ho Kang's season-ending injury. Without a true threat behind him, McCutchen walked in 18 of his final 71 plate appearances.

One thing may be working in favor of McCutchen, who entered Friday leading the Pirates in OPS, home runs and RBIs: The bottom of the order is also producing. The Pirates' seventh (.746) and eighth (.759) hitters have posted a higher OPS than their cleanup hitters (.744) this season.

Much of that success can be attributed to shortstop Jordy Mercer, who batted seventh behind McCutchen on Friday. If not for McCutchen, Mercer would be the team's hottest hitter after a similarly slow start. Mercer entered Friday slashing .376/.409/.615 over his past 28 games.

"My approach hasn't changed. Nothing's really changed. I'm still seeing the ball as well as I was," Mercer said recently. "I feel like now it's just going to the left or right of them where they can't catch it. I'm sure there's some other things involved. I'm sure I'm hitting the ball harder than I was more consistently. But for me, I haven't changed anything. Just been riding it and staying consistent."

More Draft signings
The Pirates signed six players from the 2017 MLB Draft on Friday: right-handers Shea Murray (18th round), Eddie Muhl (25th) and Drew Fischer (35th), lefty Mason Ward (34th), infielder Kyle Watson (37th) and outfielder Ryan Peurifoy (38th).

Murray will begin his professional career with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates, and the other five were assigned to Rookie-level Bristol. Pittsburgh has signed 31 of its 42 Draft picks.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew McCutchen