MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

McCutchen embraces move to No. 2 in order

Pirates slugger had second-most at-bats in NL last year with two outs and bases empty

McCutchen embraces move to No. 2 in order

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Nothing that happens down here is necessarily binding, so Clint Hurdle's decision to bat Andrew McCutchen second on St. Patrick's Day might ultimately prove to be as much a novelty as the green jerseys the Pirates donned.

But in explaining to his signature star the move -- one that felt like far more than some quick spring fling -- Hurdle relayed the statistic that McCutchen had the second-most at-bats in the league last season with two outs and nobody on base. Though McCutchen had a sense that he came up in such a situation more than the average No. 3 hitter, he still found the stat to be "eye-opening."

"I didn't know it was that high," McCutchen said before the Pirates' 7-2 loss Thursday to the Yankees at McKechnie Field, "but I guess it kind of makes sense -- me hitting how I've hit the last couple years, and I still can't get 100 RBI."

Well, naturally, McCutchen's first at-bat since 2011 as anything other than a No. 3 or 4 hitter saw him step to the plate not with two outs and nobody on but with one out and nobody on.

Much better.

And McCutchen did what he has done with great frequency in recent days, yanking Masahiro Tanaka's offering out to left for his third homer in four games. The power burst, which includes a monster shot on a Kevin Gausman breaking ball Wednesday, is a sure sign that last year's left knee woes are not troubling Cutch in the slightest and that he should be able to avoid the slow start that plagued him in 2015, when, he admitted, knee soreness forced him to "compensate."

Batting second is a different sort of compensation.

The application of advanced math has compelled multiple clubs to experiment with their stud hitter in the two-hole in recent years, so the Pirates aren't reinventing the wheel. But the move, minor though it might appear, does have a lot of merit. If the Bucs do move forward in the season proper with McCutchen batting second, they will fundamentally be taking better advantage of his strengths as an elite hitter who doesn't chase, doesn't give away at-bats and gets on base at least 40 percent of the time. Over the past five MLB seasons, the No. 2 spot in the lineup has come to the plate 17 more times per season, on average, than the No. 3 spot.

Ultimately, who doesn't want to see more Andrew McCutchen plate appearances?

"I told Andrew the challenge for me is for 47 years, the baddest dude in the game hits third," Hurdle said. "I've got to rearrange my thinking on it and what's best for our team. How do we maximize our run production?"

This entire conversation only underscores the theme of Cutch's career. The Pirates' budget forces them to do more with less, to extract maximum value out of the talent at hand and, fundamentally, to take chances.

That's why John Jaso, for instance, is not just their new first baseman despite his grand total of five innings at the position at the big league level, but also, if the past two days of lineups are to be believed, their leadoff hitter. The Pirates' fiscal restraint made Neil Walker and a rotation improvement an either/or equation, and it prompted them to cut the cord with Pedro Alvarez. No matter what you think of any of these players, the bottom line is that the Bucs have had to use creativity to piece together a lineup around a prime player in his peak years.

"It's not the norm, you know?" McCutchen said with a smile. "It's not something that most people are used to. As far as us not getting the big hitter or the big arm off the free-agent market, it's never happened. So I don't understand how some people could get upset when it's never happened. I don't mean that in the sense of, like, we're bad. Because we're not. We're really good, and we work with what we have. But it just goes to show you, you don't need to get the biggest name off the market. You need somebody who can come in and deliver. That's what I've gotten used to accepting."

Coming up in this kind of culture has compelled McCutchen not just to be a good soldier but, arguably, a more complete player.

"I've had protection," he said, "but it's not like there's an Albert Pujols or a Miguel Cabrera or a Prince Fielder behind me. I think it's made me a better hitter because I see more pitches."

What Cutch has seen, if the data from Baseball Info Solutions is to be believed, is fewer offerings inside the strike zone. Though his rate of 43.8 percent of pitches inside the zone last season was a 1 percent rise from the year before, it was still below his career norm (46.3), below the league norm (45.3) and a far cry from his first full season in 2010, when roughly half the pitches he saw were strikes.

The concept of lineup protection is a murky one, but the fact of the matter is that, since 2011 (when McCutchen basically became a full-timer in the three-hole), Pirates cleanup hitters have posted the fourth-lowest OPS (.737) in baseball.

So there have undoubtedly been significant stretches in McCutchen career when he has had to adjust his approach to the extra care opposing pitchers have had the luxury of taking against him. And this has helped hone the game's more discerning eyes. Last year, the average chase rate (swings at pitches outside the strike zone) was 31.3. For Cutch, it was 24.2.

"My eyes are there," McCutchen said. "If we were ever to get a big bat behind us or one of these guys were to take off and have a tremendous year hitting behind me, then I'll really become a good hitter, because then they've got to throw to me. Until that time comes, I'm going to remain the same and keep doing what I'm doing."

It remains to be seen how much a change in batting order positions would affect the opposing pitchers' approach to McCutchen.

What doesn't remain to be seen is what this guy can do with two healthy legs. McCutchen has shown that in the past, and he's showing that in these exhibition efforts. A year ago at this time, it was plainly obvious that he was compromised by a knee condition that was never given a public diagnosis but certainly contributed to the .188 average and .292 slugging percentage that Cutch was carrying through the first week of May.

"It hurt," he said. "That's the best I can tell you. It hurt. It just wasn't normal. It just wasn't right."

Batting your stud second? Some would say that isn't normal. But the Bucs haven't achieved huge win totals on small payrolls by embracing the conventional. And McCutchen enters 2016 willing to embrace their latest experiment.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.