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MLB Notebook: McCutchen in elite company

NL MVP's past two seasons put him in category with Cobb, Speaker, DiMaggio, Mantle

Playing in his age-26 season in 1913, Tigers center fielder Ty Cobb batted .390 with a .467 on-base percentage and a .535 slugging percentage, giving himself -- with loads of room to spare -- .300/.400/.500 campaigns in both his age-25 and age-26 seasons.

The next center fielder to do this was Tris Speaker in 1913-14. It wouldn't happen again for a center fielder until 1940-41, when Joe DiMaggio accomplished the feat, and then the next achiever in this frame was DiMaggio's successor, Mickey Mantle, in 1957-58.

And then the line went cold, with no other center fielder joining that quartet in the next five decades. These four -- a set of individuals all universally acclaimed and regarded to be among the five or six greatest center fielders in the game's history -- now have someone else to look after, a player who is continually refining his game, expanding in the baseball consciousness and etching lines that draw applause while being exactly in line with what we have come to expect: the 2013 National League MVP, Andrew McCutchen.

After going .327/.400/.553 and leading the league in hits and times on base in 2012 (his age-25 season), McCutchen's encore performance in '13 showed declines in batting and slugging -- dropping to .317 and .508, respectively -- while witnessing a small upgrade in on-base percentage to .404. And if the more advanced stats reinforced similar constructs (his batting runs declined from 49 to 44, while his OPS+ in '13 was a 158 after a 162 in '12), the tones of the two seasons were significantly different.

In 2012, McCutchen used a brilliant first half to draft toward his final-number heights, entering the All-Star break with NL leads in batting (.362) and slugging (.625) and a third-place slot in on-base percentage (.414). Buoyed by such excellence, his Pirates were one of the more intriguing and surprising stories of that first half, holding a one-game lead in the NL Central. But as McCutchen slowed in the second half (posting a .289/.385/.475 line), his ballclub staggered and won just 40% of its games to plummet out of contention.

When the calendar flipped, the script did as well, and McCutchen finished the first half in '13 with an .847 OPS that was the 15th best in the NL (among players with at least 350 plate appearances). Then, as his Pirates won 55% of their second-half games, held course and reached the postseason for the first time since 1992, McCutchen was about as good as anyone in baseball.

Among the 99 Major League players with at least 250 plate appearances after the All-Star break, McCutchen tied for second in batting (.339), was second in on-base percentage (.441) and was second in slugging (.561), with his 1.001 OPS the third best, behind marks from Jayson Werth and Mike Trout. It was a nice narrative to offer to those deciding on the league MVP, and it helped give McCutchen that second straight .300/.400/.500 season.

It's not like .300/.400/.500 seasons -- for players of any age -- are being produced in every corner of MLB's game room these days, either. In 2012, McCutchen was one of only three players to finish the year having reached all three heights, joining Giants catcher Buster Posey and Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder. A total of three was the fewest in any season since 1992, and gave McCutchen a sparsely populated mountain from which to proclaim his excellence. This past season, the three-time All-Star was one of four players to get there, joining fellow NL'er Paul Goldschmidt and two superstars in the American League: the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera and the Angels' Trout. Alphabetizing the entire list over these past two seasons identifies one particularly notable fact -- that McCutchen is the only name to appear twice.

In baseball history, 23 players have posted .300/.400/.500 lines in both their age-25 and age-26 seasons, with McCutchen one of three active players to do it, joining Albert Pujols (in 2005-06) and Joey Votto (in 2009-10). Those two joined the club while manning first base, a claim shared by five others: Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Johnny Mize, Hal Trosky and Frank Thomas.

Center sluggers
Only 23 players have posted .300/.400/.500 lines in both their age-25 and age-26 seasons -- just four were center fielders.
Player Years Combined Slash OPS+
Ty Cobb 1912-13 .401/.461/.563 198
Tris Speaker 1913-14 .350/.431/.517 179
Joe DiMaggio 1940-41 .355/.433/.635 179
Mickey Mantle 1957-58 .333/.477/.626 204
Andrew McCutchen 2012-13 .322/.402/.531 160

Only two other infielders -- second baseman Rogers Hornsby and shortstop Nomar Garciaparra -- are on the list of 23, with all of the other representatives having done this batting work while holding down primary positions in the outfield.

Corner outfielders make up nine other delegates: Ed Delahanty (LF), Mike Smith (LF), Jesse Burkett (LF), Babe Ruth (LF/RF), Kiki Cuyler (LF/RF), Paul Waner (RF), Mel Ott (RF), Frank Robinson (RF) and Bobby Abreu (RF).

Finally, there are the other four -- in addition to McCutchen -- in center. The combined lines for those five -- including two guys who won an MVP in their age-26 season (DiMaggio and McCutchen) are produced in the table.

Before Joe DiMaggio recorded the first plate appearance of his 1940 regular season, his career line featured a .341 batting average, a .397 on-base percentage and a .622 slugging percentage: numbers that seem (and are) special; no player other than DiMaggio (with a minimum of 2,000 plate appearances) has posted a slash line with those aggregate numbers (or better ones) in his age-21 through age-24 seasons.

And then in '40 and again in '41, he improved upon them. In '40, with his Yankees missing out on the pennant for the first time since DiMaggio joined the club, the perennial All-Star captured his second straight batting title, led the AL in OPS+ and posted a .352/.425/.626 line: a slash that would be exceeded in every respect in '41. Buoyed by that rather famous hit streak of 56 games, DiMaggio captured his second MVP in 1941 after authoring a .357/.440/.643 line. And if assembling the floor at .300/.400/.500 allowed McCutchen to join an exclusive community of players, raising the bar to just below where DiMaggio sits really limits membership.

From 1871-2013, these are the qualifying players to post a .350/.420/.620 line in both their age-25 and age-26 seasons -- Ruth, Hornsby and DiMaggio.

Three of a kind
From 1871-2013, only three qualifying players posted a .350/.420/.620 line in both their age-25 and age-26 seasons.
Player Years Age-25 Season Age-26 Season
Babe Ruth 1920-21 .376/.532/.847 .378/.512/.846
Rogers Hornsby 1921-22 .397/.458/.639 .401/.459/.722
Joe DiMaggio 1940-41 .352/.425/.626 .357/.440/.643

One of the most enjoyable elements of looking back on individual accomplishments within the past season resides in the opportunities to go casting. In this case, one starts with McCutchen and a pair of superb -- if not immediately jaw-dropping -- seasons. And from there, the myriad explorations can veer into any numbers of pockets and reveal any sorts of names. And before long, a century of baseball is uncovered and reviewed, and connections are found and developed.

In those ties, the forgotten (Smith) and the immediately recognizable (Cobb, DiMaggio, et al.) players stand alongside one another, adding layers of narrative. McCutchen may not have had the most eye-catching age-25 and age-26 seasons ever produced, but aligning his slash lines with his age does elevate him to a ritzy floor. It's fairly easy to look superficially at the MVP, at the prominence on a playoff team and say wow, but there is so much more to unearth and enjoy.

Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew McCutchen