PITTSBURGH -- Two months into the season, Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen knew his swing didn't feel quite right, and his numbers didn't look right, either. He'd quietly been a tick off since Spring Training. He was swinging and missing too often. He was getting jammed too much, and his right thumb was absorbing the brunt of the impact.
"As a hitter, you know it," McCutchen said. "You try not to let that get in your head. I could tell that something was a little weird, a little off."
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McCutchen's swollen thumb eventually forced him out of the Bucs' game in Miami on June 2. So began an unusual chain of events that could help turn around McCutchen's disappointing season.
McCutchen is hitting .241/.321/.408 with nine homers and 68 strikeouts in 60 games. His whiff (12.5 percent) and strikeout (24.8 percent) rates are both career highs. McCutchen feels good at the plate, although he and manager Clint Hurdle believe he's been subject to more questionable ball-strike calls than most. Those calls have put him in fewer hitters' counts and made him expand his strike zone.
But could McCutchen's uncharacteristic struggles be related to something as simple as the way he was gripping the bat?
"I would hate to attribute most of it to that, but at the same time, I've been doing it all year," McCutchen said. "It's just something I haven't noticed. I'm sure it has a lot to do with it. I can't say it's fully everything that's going on. It's getting back to basics, getting my body where it needs to be, comfortable and relaxed and then going from there."
After McCutchen's swollen thumb flared up in Miami, someone -- he declined to specify further than "other eyes" -- was watching video of his at-bats to figure out why, all of a sudden, it looked like someone stuck a golf ball between his right thumb and forefinger.
"I've come to figure out I was gripping the bat a little too tight," McCutchen said. "When things aren't going the way you want them to go, sometimes you can get a little tense. Come to figure out, that's what was happening, that's why my thumb was catching the majority of the beating. I just need to relax my top [right] hand a little more, stay away from that jamming over and over again."
Sitting in front of his locker last week, McCutchen pulled a bat from his locker to demonstrate. He grabbed the handle with his right hand, using the vise grip he'd been employing, and his swollen thumb bulged.
"Someone saw that was the way I was gripping it ... as opposed to lining it up, relaxed," McCutchen said, shifting his hand to show the difference. "It's something that I didn't see, personally. It probably had a lot to do with how I've been doing. It really didn't help the cause. But now it's something that I continue getting back to being comfortable, relaxed."
The grip revelation improved McCutchen's thumb. The swelling is down considerably, and he said it no longer affects his hitting. It didn't instantly turn around McCutchen's season, as he is hitting .167 with one extra-base hit and 15 strikeouts in nine games since that series in Miami.
But finding what felt off? That was a relief. It wasn't McCutchen's legs, which held him back last season but feel great now. It wasn't his hand-eye coordination or his spot in the batting order. Most importantly, it wasn't in his head.
"It's definitely been a unique year, to say the least. I'm just learning from it," McCutchen said. "I look at it as a plus, because when things are going good, it's going to be hard for it to slow down. Battling with it now, but once I get out of it and get going, it's going to be hard to stop it."