Andrew McCutchen was good. He was widely regarded as such during his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He won an MVP award in 2013. He also picked up four silver sluggers to complement five All-Star appearances and one Gold Glove. But how good was he really?
When McCutchen made his debut in 2009, it quickly became clear that he was an excellent candidate for face of the franchise. He finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting that season after putting up a slash line of .286/.365/.471. That includes a 121 OPS+ while coming into his own defensively in centerfield. He was 22.
He appeared to be able to hit for average, showed signs of power, was fast, and showed great defensive promise. Over the Pirates’ years of futility, there were several candidates who fans thought might be the next face of the organization.
Freddy Sanchez seemed like a good option, but he was traded to San Francisco during an All-Star year. Within two full seasons, he was out of Major League Baseball.
Then there was Nate McLouth. He was an All-Star in 2008 before being moved to Atlanta. After that, he struggled to find the same success he had in Pittsburgh.
Then there were all the pitchers of the 2000s, which I overviewed here.
But none of them were like McCutchen. None of them were legitimate five-tool player contenders. Cutch was.
The Fort Meade native continued to impact the game during his second season, his first full season, posting nearly identical numbers from the previous year. After that, he was an All-Star for five consecutive seasons, and right in the middle of that time was when he won MVP.
Here’s the thing, it could be argued that his 2013 MVP season wasn’t even his most productive year. In 2012, he totaled the most hits he has in his career, with 194. That number led the National League.
But it was his 2014 season that really stood out. Firstly, it was the only year in which he led the league in several categories. His .952 OPS and 166 OPS+ were the highest of his career and were best in the NL. His .410 on-base percentage led all of baseball.
He didn’t hit as many home runs as he did in 2012 (31), nor did he drive in as many runs as 2012 or 2015 (96), but he made up for it in other ways. By maintaining such a high on-base percentage while hitting with respectable power, McCutchen was able to be one of the most productive players in all of baseball – a great second act to his MVP season.
If you go by WAR (Wins Above Replacement), then the ’13 campaign was, in fact, his best season. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a WAR fanatic. It is the comprehensive statistic which I go to in order to quickly determine a player’s value. It isn’t perfect – no stat is – but it’s a great metric to understand a player in a fairly complete way.
So, you might be wondering why I’m devaluing McCutchen’s 2013 campaign if that happens to be the year when he had his highest WAR total – and it’s not particularly close. He racked up 7.4 wins that year, as opposed to 6.9 in 2012 and 6.4 in 2014.
The reason for that is because I also highly value stats like OPS+ and OBP. Today’s game is no longer like “Moneyball.” Front offices aren’t scouring the market for players who walk a lot – at least not players who only walk a lot. But there’s always going to be inherent value regarding getting on base. After all, the more a player is on base, the higher the probability the player is going to score.
Also, with McCutchen’s 166 OPS+, he was 66 percent better than the average player, as opposed to 157 the year prior. As for OBP, he bested everybody, which is saying something. If you look back at the players who led either their league or all of baseball over the last couple decades, there are some of the titans of baseball on the list: Barry Bonds, Miguel Cabrera, and Joey Votto, to name a few.
Over the course of his career, McCutchen has been a top 10 WAR player in three different seasons. His 44.8 WAR is currently good for tenth among active position players and 18th among all players. His career OBP is tenth among active players, 11th in runs created, and 16th in total bases.
In 2018, Beyond the Box Score gave McCutchen a 41 percent chance to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Those aren’t tremendous odds, but he could theoretically do some work towards ascending to the pinnacle of the baseball world.
Many of you probably agree. Some of you may be disappointed. If it’s any consolation, that same article gives Votto a 48.8 percent chance to make the Hall of Fame, but on his podcast, PosCast, Joe Posnanski of The Athletic thinks the Reds’ first baseman might be a top 100 player of all-time. So perhaps McCutchen’s chances are a bit better than 41 percent, just as Votto’s percentage is perhaps better than nearly 49 percent.
McCutchen might be the best player the Pirates have seen since the days of Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, or Bonds. That’s perhaps high enough praise on its own. But McCutchen’s intrinsic value to the organization can’t be overstated.
He was the propellant that catalyzed the Pirates into relevancy. Granted, many believe those years were squandered, but that can’t be considered his fault. McCutchen is now the player that fans look back on reminiscently at how baseball once was in Pittsburgh, and what might happen again in the future. Some fans even wish the front office would bring him back, if only for old time’s sake.
Fans are now left searching for the next McCutchen. There is some hope on the horizon, but it’s too soon to tell whether or not the future can live up to the past. Guys like Ke’Bryan Hayes, and perhaps Mitch Keller, are looked at as the next iteration of Pirate talent.
But for people like me, who was 13 when McCutchen debuted, there may never be another Pirate to live up to the image he created and the emotions he elicits. That’s probably true for many in my position, if for no other reason than pre-adulthood nostalgia. But I suspect he’s the favorite of many Pirates’ fans, except for maybe those who experienced and remember teams prior to the 20-year collapse.
To conclude, statistically McCutchen was good – really good. But his value comes not only from his statistical production, his value comes from what he meant to the organization, to the fans, and to the city of Pittsburgh.