Andrew McCutchen became the first Pittsburgh Pirates player to be named National League MVP since Barry Bonds. Let this sink in a little bit. For all the highs the Pirates had this season this might seem like a little bit of a backburner item but McCutchen was absolutely outstanding in 2013 and is more than deserving of the award. Couldn’t have gone to a better player and from what I know (which some might contend isn’t much) couldn’t have gone to a better person.
We actually could be talking about back-to-back MVPs for McCutchen but with the horrific slide the Pirates, and he, took in 2012 he only got second runner-up and while his first half of 2012 was other-worldly his second half was pretty bad. Not this year.
McCutchen had a pretty decent first half in 2013 with a .302/.376/.471 line with 10 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 26 doubles but in the second half he went off to the tune of .339/.441/.561 with 11 home runs in 102 less plate appearances. He was the main reason the Pirates made the playoffs and while some people won’t even consider him the MVP of the team I think it would be foolish to still think that.
MVP is hard to vote on. I know there was some significant push for Paul Goldschmidt and to be honest he was probably the only other position player who challenged him for the award. I know Goldschmidt played for a non-playoff team and that coupled with the feel good story of the Pirates probably gave McCutchen an edge but Goldschmidt hit for a .302/.382/.533 line with 36 bombs and was worth 6.3 wins (fWAR). I think Clayton Kershaw has a good argument but voters are going to side with the fact that pitchers have their own award and will probably be ridiculously hard for them to win the overall MVP but Kershaw was that good. This isn’t going to be a debate but it’s not like (in my mind) that McCutchen ran away with this, he had some competition and he was better than it even if the Pirates over story lifted him on it.
What might be the best part about this whole season for McCutchen is the adjustments he made. Last year his overall line (.327/.400/.553) was better than his line in 2013 (.317/.404/.508) but it was the way he got to his line this year. I talked about how he came on strong in the second half after a pretty good first half but it was much more than that. Last season McCutchen struck out a career-high 19.6% of his plate appearances and walked 10.4% of them. This season he cut his strikeout rate to 15.0% and his walk rate went up by over a percent at 11.6%.
Moreover we know that line drives are turned into outs less often than fly balls and those are turned into outs less often than ground balls. McCutchen’s line drive rate in 2012 was a career-high 21.9% and this season he crushed that with a line drive rate of 24,5%. His ground ball rate went down to 40.7% after he was up at almost 44% last season and his fly ball rate stated the same. He was striking out less, hitting the ball on the ground less, and hitting more line drives. The lines in 2012 and 2013 are similar but they are WAY different. The evolution of McCutchen and it is a good one.
This award isn’t about just offense though, it’s about defense and base running. I have not been a huge supporter of McCutchen in centerfield because he hasn’t been that good through his career defensively. He doesn’t take great routes and largely relies on his speed and athleticism to make up for bad reads. He doesn’t throw the ball to the correct base enough and overall he gets overrated on his defense because of his bat. This year was different. I am not sure if he went in to make in a conscious effort to improve his defensive game but it worked. McCutchen finished sixth in the entire league in defensive runs saved (7) and it is only the second time in his career when where he has been a positive defensive runs saved player. Defense is really tough to qualify but his UZR/150 was at 8.4 after being a -8.6 last season and crushing his previous career-high of 3.1. I think McCutchen passed the eye test and his defense was noticeably better with fewer throwing gaffes and generally strong centerfield play.
The common theme is that if a player is fast he should steal a lot of bases. Right or wrong that is the way a lot of people think but that isn’t right. McCutchen has never been a great base runner and the ability to steal a lot of bases is something he’s never been able to do. He did have 33 steals in 2010 but struggled in 2012 stealing only 20-of-32 bases. This season he stole 27-of-37 (73%), which is right around league average but much better for McCutchen. McCutchen also had a very good UBR (ultimate base running) mark of 4.2 which you can [read about here] but is FanGraph’s way of qualifying players that take extra bases. He was a 4.8 base runner in 2012 and 4.2 in 2013 which qualifies him as a “great” base runner which doesn’t include stolen bases or caught stealing.
It would be foolish to think that the Pirates season didn’t have a hand in this. The team made the playoffs for the first time since 1992 and had their first winning season since that same time. It has been a long time coming. The Pirates have been an awful team for some time but with McCutchen, and others, it took a turn. In 2010 the Pirates were 57-105 and in 2013 they were 94-68. Over three seasons the Pirates improved 37 wins. McCutchen was a big reason for that this year but he was just a portion of it. Right or wrong that might have been the tipping point between some good candidates. It still counts though. What a season. What a player.