As a Pittsburgh child of the 1990s, one of the first things I was socialized into believing about the Pirates was that Barry Bonds was a "choker." The story went that he'd cemented his legacy not by becoming a National League MVP and leading the franchise out of the doldrums of the 80s but by failing to throw out Sid Bream in October of 1992.
Of course, the terabytes of data now available at our fingertips tells us that Bonds was worth nine wins above replacement that season, and those nine games just happen to be the exact margin by which the Pirates won the NL East over Montreal. Without his contributions in the significant sample size of a full season, there's a good chance the Bucs never would have made it to the NLCS for him to break their hearts in one play. Regardless, 20 years on, the prevailing image of Bonds' years in Pittsburgh remains the Braves dog-piling at home plate in Atlanta.
Today, Andrew McCutchen's profiles a lot like a young Barry Bonds. He's an outfielder with a lethal blend of power and speed. He's annually an MVP candidate and is the face of a franchise trying to pull itself out of a generation of losing. And after failing to convert on multiple opportunities to bring the winning run home last night in St. Louis, his prowess in the clutch is being questioned despite contributing more to the team's fortunes than any player since Bonds.
You’ve got to finish the job.
Don’t wait for other guys to pitch in. They won’t. The Pirates have precious little offense. Cutch needs to come through all the time. That’s reality.
Perhaps Cutch isn’t a winner. We’ll see. He’s still got 44 games to prove it.
Last night, he proved otherwise.
McCutchen has so far been worth 6.4 WAR, or the difference between a two game lead and four game deficit in the NL Central Race. Objectively and over a significant sample size, he's proven he's not only a winner, but the biggest winner among position players in the NL.
But Madden doesn't want to hear it.
Stats, stats& more stats. Cutch had four chances to win the game, &came up empty. Choke on yer stats. I know what we all saw.— Mark Madden (@MarkMaddenX) August 14, 2013
The trouble for McCutchen and Bonds before him is that we're visual creatures. We remember moments with a lot more reverence than lines on a spreadsheet. That's why Bill Mazeroski is in the Hall of Fame despite a lifetime OPS of .667. That's why Steve Blass is embraced as the vicar of the '71 title team despite forgetting how to throw a baseball in 1973. That's why Max Talbot was allowed to produce a series of insufferable car commercials.
Fair or not, if McCutchen wants to be remembered among the team's all-time greats, he needs to produce in the moments that might not be statistically relevant but linger in a city's collective memory for decades. Unfortunately for him, objective heroes build teams, but subjective heroes?
They build statues.