Late last Friday night, less than 20 hours after arriving in Chicago on a midnight flight from New York and about six hours after being shut out by Jake Arrieta and the Cubs' bullpen, Andrew McCutchen took to Twitter to express himself.At the time, the Pirates had lost 15 of
Late last Friday night, less than 20 hours after arriving in Chicago on a midnight flight from New York and about six hours after being shut out by Jake Arrieta and the Cubs' bullpen, Andrew McCutchen took to Twitter to express himself.
At the time, the Pirates had lost 15 of their past 20 games and had fallen 13 games out of first place in the National League Central.
McCutchen is stuck in the mud as a hitter, producing a career-low .243 batting average and .734 OPS with the midway point of the season fast approaching. I asked him the day after he posted that tweet how he developed his positive outlook.
"In this game, you have to deal with failure,'' McCutchen said. "As an offensive player, if you succeed 30 percent of the time, you are a real good player. If you can do that over your career, you're a Hall of Fame player. You have to learn how to deal with that 70 percent of the time you fail. When you fail, you have to be a good teammate, you have to appreciate your coaches and everybody around you. You have to deal with it. That's why I said what I said.''
McCutchen won the NL Most Valuable Player Award in 2013 and could have won again in '14. He's been an All-Star in five consecutive seasons. But his age-29 season has been a constant battle with himself and opposing pitchers. His team has lost 17 of its past 22, falling to three games under .500 and 15 games behind the first-place Cubs.
Suddenly, the guy who has carried the Pirates is being carried by his teammates, particularly by the two younger outfielders who flank him. Starling Marte, the 27-year-old left fielder, and Gregory Polanco, the 24-year-old right fielder, have been the biggest reasons that the Bucs' lineup has continued to percolate with McCutchen underperforming.
Despite McCutchen producing like a replacement-level player, Pittsburgh is averaging 4.6 runs per game, up from 4.3 last season, when it won 98 games. The Pirates have gone flat in June, however, scoring only 3.7 runs per game.
Manager Clint Hurdle points to the "maturation'' of Marte and Polanco -- along with contributions from Jung Ho Kang, Sean Rodriguez and newcomers John Jaso and David Freese -- for the Pirates remaining in the top third of the NL in scoring.
"We have multiple reasons why we've been able to [produce runs],'' said Hurdle, the Pirates' sixth-year manager. "I think overall, this is the most consistent, productive offense we've had since I've been here.''
Those are remarkable words given how far McCutchen has dropped below his normal levels. His slash line is .243/.322/.412 with 10 home runs and 28 RBIs, totals that give him 162-game projections of 23 home runs and 66 RBIs.
Metrics show McCutchen is swinging at an unusual number of pitches outside the strike zone and has the highest swing-and-miss percentage of his career, along with the highest percentage of soft contact. His home run off the Mets' Addison Reed last Thursday was only his second home run in a stretch of 122 at-bats. It came during a 3-for-4 night that was encouraging to his manager.
"He continues to work hard, continues to look at today is the day he's going to get it turned around,'' Hurdle said on Friday morning at Wrigley. "That very well could have started [last night]. We'll see.''
Then came another disappointing weekend.
The Pirates were swept and McCutchen went 3-for-11 with two infield singles and one opposite-field single. He struck out four times -- including all three times he faced the Cubs' Kyle Hendricks on Sunday night -- and walked twice.
He'll take his struggles back to Pittsburgh, where he'll face Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Clayton Kershaw during an eight-game homestand against the Giants and Dodgers.
"Those are real numbers,'' Hurdle said about McCutchen's alarming metrics. "It's not just people talking. … I do think one thing all hitters are going through right now is the evolution of velocity. There's more velocity in the game that it's never been. Scientifically, it's proven. When a guy throws 95, you have to guess a little bit, and there are a whole bunch of guys in this league who throw 95. Then you can add spin. You can add a changeup to it. That's why, for me, the swing-and-miss numbers are continuing to rise throughout our industry. His are just way abnormally high for him.''
Maybe McCutchen was just due to have a run like this.
"It goes back to this is just a hard league to play in,'' Hurdle said. "You don't go up when you do well here. He's done well for six years, seven years. You don't go up. You usually find a leveling-off spot, you have to struggle and you have to find a way to get back. That's what he's going through right now -- finding a way to punch back.''
Meanwhile, Marte, who just missed a 20/20 season by one home run last season, is hitting .337 with a career-high .886 OPS. Polanco is hitting .291 with an .888 OPS.
Marte, who grades out as the top defensive left fielder in the Majors, has a 3.3 WAR. Polanco is at 1.9. McCutchen, 0.2.
Polanco's growth in his second full season has been a positive for the Pirates.
"He's a tremendous player,'' McCutchen said. "He's special to watch because he brings so much to the game. He's swinging the bat well, and you see how he's built, those long legs. He's all over the place in right field.''
McCutchen has played a role in the success of the outfielders who flank him. He says Polanco has drawn from the high standard around him.
"His ability to go out in that right-field area and look to his right and see a pretty good player, then look over to left [field] and see a pretty good player,'' Hurdle said. "The three of them working together, where they happen to be individually at that time, I think that's a motivating factor as well. I think Marte and Polanco look to McCutchen as an older-brother figure. They want to do well for him. They've watched him do well. He's carried the torch.''
Polanco cost the Pirates a game at Wrigley Field last season when he slipped on wet grass and let a ball fall in. He lost a ball in the sun Friday afternoon, and McCutchen couldn't get there in time to save him from giving up a cheap hit.
McCutchen said on Saturday that misplay was as much on him as Polanco, maybe more.
"Those things happen [at Wrigley],'' McCutchen said. "As much as I've played here, I've got to anticipate that he might need help. It's on me to know where the sun was and that he could have trouble.''
Hurdle smiled hearing that reaction.
"That's his all-around awareness of the game,'' he said about McCutchen. "It's part of the game. Now he's put that in his back pocket for the day games we play the rest of the season. Who knows when it'll make a difference.''
Baby steps? Maybe, but moving in the right direction.
Like McCutchen said, if you hunt for the good, you will find it.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.