Sky is the limit for ever-improving McCutchen

Sky is the limit for ever-improving McCutchen

Sky is the limit for ever-improving McCutchen
PITTSBURGH -- A year ago, Andrew McCutchen tried to save the Pirates. That did not go too well, to the disappointment of a few thousand. Now he is being asked to save all of baseball, and there are millions in his rooting section.

The face, and billowing dreads, of the Bucs is swinging into the final two-week stretch of one of the finest seasons in the offensively-rich history of the storied franchise.

McCutchen returns home Tuesday with a batting average of .341, and those hoping that it will continue to rise range from the kid in the yellow "Z" shirt in PNC Park's upper deck to Bud Selig in his Park Avenue office.

A few generations after they searched for Joe DiMaggio, a nation's lonely eyes now turn to McCutchen -- and away from Melky Cabrera, who somewhere sits suspended with a .346 average. No one in the game wants to place a batting crown atop the head of a man whose average was protected by a failed drug test. So McCutchen was drafted for a mission.

"I don't really pay attention to that. I can't," McCutchen said. "It will all take care of itself if I just do what I need to do, and that is play hard every single day. That's all I can control."

Chasing a man whose average cannot go down?

"Doesn't bother me, really," McCutchen said. "I'm not worried about it."

McCutchen's manager, Clint Hurdle, put it more bluntly: "That's so not on him."

However this unsought mission turns out, McCutchen has burst through the ceiling into the superstar level. At 25, in only his third full Major League season, his overall performance has stirred the memories of such Pittsburgh legends as Arky Vaughn, Paul Waner and Roberto Clemente.

At a muscular-yet-slight 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, McCutchen is a willow in the forest of redwoods sluggers. The bat speed generated by strong wrists has already launched 28 home runs, tying the club record for center fielders set 13 years ago by Brian Giles (who had 39 homers that season, with 11 coming while he played other positions).

McCutchen perhaps is even more scintillating away from the stat sheet. If there is one thing that distinguishes baseball more than numbers, it is personality and style, and McCutchen has them in magnetic proportions. He is very soft-spoken but boldly confident, with a bright smile he will often flash on the field. Intelligence and focus are also parts of his intangibles package.

When McCutchen appears on Bruce Springsteen's "Land of Hope and Dreams" postseason video, streaking around the bases trailing those dreadlocks, your heart skips a beat.

And did we mention the defensive flash? Time and again, McCutchen has run down balls that seemed unreachable coming off the bat, living up to that preseason video teaser that he would "take away center field." He would appear to also be living up to his threat to also take away the National League Gold Glove Award of good buddy Matt Kemp, whose injuries would be a factor if the prize changed hands.

So there's the sizzle. But there is ample steak, too:

• McCutchen has comfortable league leads in both runs and hits, and the only times Pittsburgh players led the NL in both categories were in 1903 (Ginger Beaumont) and '34 (Waner).

• McCutchen's .369 average on July 28 was the Pirates' best 100-game mark since 1937, when Waner was at .375.

• McCutchen could finish with the best bat-plus-power package in franchise history. Most homers while hitting at least .340? Clemente, 23 twice. Highest average while posting at least 28 homers? Dave Parker, .334 in 1978.

• McCutchen has already banked the best first-half performance in modern club annals. No one before had gone into an All-Star break batting .350 with at least 15 homers, 50 RBIs, 10 steals and 100 hits. He was all over -- way over -- those numbers at .362, 18, 60, 14, 112,

Possibly the most impressive thing about such numbers? That they have followed the biggest number -- $51.5 million, on the six-year contract that McCutchen signed a month prior to Opening Day. It was a risk by the club in one very big, measurable way.

Taking on too much responsibility wrecked McCutchen's 2011 season. He had batted .291 in the first half, as the Bucs were mounting their surprising contention. In the second half, overreacting, and overswinging, to personally slow the spiral toward another 90-loss season, McCutchen batted .216, setting his final mark at .259.

"The good news," Hurdle told him at the end of that slide, "is you'll never hit .259 again."

But how would McCutchen now react to the responsibility of justifying the contract?

"That can take people one of two places," Hurdle said. "I've seen players crushed by trying to live up to something like that. Andrew's gone the other way. I think that's one of the reasons behind his season: It freed him up. 'Now I've just got to go out and play.'

"It's a very special time and place for him in the game. We're seeing a superstar grow up right in front of our eyes."

There is more growth to come. It was astonishing for a person with McCutchen's speed to be caught seven times in eight steal attempts in a 10-week stretch, from June 20 through Aug. 29. That has far less to do with foot speed than with leads and timing, and Hurdle predicted that McCutchen would "emphasize that in his offseason. It's one of the last pieces of the puzzle for Andrew."

So 2013 batteries are being given ample warning. McCutchen had dedicated last offseason to streamlining his batting approach -- lower hands holding the bat closer to the chest, stance slightly more open, less movement -- and see where that got him.

Specifically, McCutchen's midseason growth spurt was something to behold. At the peak of it, Hurdle, who in 1980 was a Royals teammate watching George Brett hit .390 for a whole season, said, "This might be the best I've ever seen."

In the heart of the season, McCutchen beat ferociously. June and July belonged to him, and he paid it forward to the team. McCutchen was the NL's Player of the Month in both months, batting .405 across them and erecting his NL MVP Award campaign platform. With McCutchen as their wings, the Pirates took flight, going 34-19 and into the nation's curious consciousness.

The team may have slid out of that consciousness. McCutchen is lodged in it. He is the Great "Right" Hope that a batting title can be earned in the batter's box, not the penalty box.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.