Cutch thriving in CF, No. 2 hole in Bucs lineup

Former MVP's start to 2016 earns Hurdle's praise

Cutch thriving in CF, No. 2 hole in Bucs lineup

PITTSBURGH -- Forty games into the season, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle likes what he's seen from Andrew McCutchen as a No. 2 hitter. He's been even more impressed by McCutchen's defense.

"I don't think he has ever played a better defensive center field since he's been here," Hurdle said, "which is really encouraging, because he's playing both sides of the ball. It's not letting one leak into the other."

Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for McCutchen and other #ASGWorthy players

McCutchen is hitting .248/.339/.466 with eight home runs after Thursday night's 8-2 win over the Braves -- solid numbers for most, but not matching his MVP-caliber track record. Even after a slow start last season, McCutchen hit .292/.401/.488 with 23 homers and 96 RBIs.

McCutchen's impressive grab

One glaring issue: Entering Thursday night, McCutchen was swinging and missing at a 13.5 percent rate, well above his career average of 8.8 percent. McCutchen struggled last April, due in part to a left knee injury, but he hit .312/.424/.525 after May 6.

"I think it goes back to hitters working on their swing and timing," Hurdle said. "We haven't seen an extended hot period yet. We will."

That streak likely will take place with McCutchen batting second. He moved up a spot this season, primarily to put him in better run-producing situations. That part of the plan has played out, even if McCutchen hasn't delivered in all of them.

Last season, McCutchen came to the plate 158 times with two outs and nobody on base. This season, that number is down to 23, putting him on pace for 96.

"It's silly, the difference in those opportunities," Hurdle said. "So 40 games in, I think it's definitely put us in a place where what we were hoping to see, we've definitely seen."

That applies to McCutchen's defense, as well. The Pirates moved in their outfielders this year, aiming to put them in position to make more plays with a shallower alignment.

Defensive statistics can be unreliable in a small sample, but one of them -- the Total Zone metric -- backs up Hurdle's assessment. McCutchen already has been worth seven runs above average, according to Total Zone, putting him on pace for the best defensive season of his career.

Hanson learning
With Starling Marte on the paternity list, Alen Hanson knew his time with the Pirates would be brief, but the Pirates hoped he would learn from his initial exposure to life in the Majors.

"We had some meaningful conversations -- one upon his arrival, one just 15-20 minutes ago" when Hanson was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis on Thursday afternoon, Hurdle said. "I really encouraged him to take this short experience and use it as a force-multiplier moving forward. Who wouldn't want to get back here? Now what do you need to do to get back here?"

• Boscan eyes debut in fourth stint with Bucs

Quote of the day
Marte rejoined the team Thursday after missing three games following the birth of his daughter, Tiana. Any chance the new father might be a little more tired than usual after a few nights with a newborn?

"It all depends on the husband buy-in," Hurdle quipped.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.